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25 September 2008

The Wicked Voice

Canberra // ACT // 29.08.2008

Miriam Miley-Read Image: Miriam Miley-Read  
© The Street Theatre

An initial feeling of apprehension at the Larry Sitsky/Geoffrey Lancaster production The Wicked Voice could barely be helped by the Canberran art-going public, who, like most of Australia, harbour an underlying scepticism of so-called 'ivory tower' music. This moniker has been frequently applied to the music of Sitsky (as well as the scholarship of Lancaster), and, when coupled with works by obscure Czech composers Georg Benda and Zdeněk Fibich, it is hardly surprising that words such as 'pretentious', 'arthouse', 'inaccessible' and 'elite' might come to mind before a note has even been performed. The highly dramatic way each piece was intended to be performed, meticulously choreographed by two well-known directors in the Canberra region, did little to ease the expectation of 'pretentious', and the academic undertones of examining the relationship between song and speech did little to encourage the show as one for the proletariat.

What resulted, however, was not an exercise in navel-gazing, but an energised performance of works that would have entertained anyone with ears and eyes. Indeed, the relationship between music and visuals was integral to the production, and – although it was perhaps overdone at times – ensured that every patron from the sold-out four-show season had plenty to talk about upon leaving the small but crowded theatre.

The success of The Wicked Voice is unsurprising considering the people behind it. Larry Sitsky is undoubtedly one of Australia's most distinguished and internationally recognised composers and pianists, who, at the age of 74, continues to churn out repertoire at an alarming pace. Sitsky was joined by his good friend, colleague, and one-time student Geoffrey Lancaster, who is a world authority in historical performance practice, with an enviable reputation around the globe. Sitsky has frequently been portrayed as the inaccessible elitist – in his youth he was the enfant terrible of contemporary Australian music, and in his old age he is depicted as the ultra-modernist professor. It is true that his long career in isolated Canberra within the confines of the ANU School of Music have done little to dispel this reputation, but anyone who knows either the man or the music seems to appreciate the musical sensitivity and sensibility that more accurately describes Sitsky's compositions and performance.

The world premiere of The Jade Harp – Sitsky's song cycle for mezzo-soprano and fortepiano – immediately reassured the audience of the sensitive and sensible Sitsky. Mezzo-soprano Angela Giblin alternated effortlessly between delicate and powerful as she weaved together texts by predominately Eastern poets Li-Po, Su-Shih, Kao-Shih, and Shih-Ching. Sitsky has the musical sensibility to achieve precise moods in his music, illustrated through the seven contrasting movements which allowed a dynamic interplay between Giblin's rendition and Lancaster's emotive performance on the fortepiano – neither force dominated the other. Sitsky aptly provided the perfect amount of aural 'space' to frame Giblin's words, which distinguished the work from other contemporary vocal works in which the audience is frequently bombarded with constant noise. I was refreshed by the tension and release that was created through such 'space', and impressed by the clarity of diction created through Sitsky's setting of the words and Giblin's interpretation.

The work was dramatised by director Caroline Stacey, who had Giblin barely keeping still, and at times virtually climbing the walls. Since Sitsky's music was not in any way overbearing, the overtly active movements did not become offensive, however they did feel a little ambitious. The stage was littered with music stands in different positions, and Giblin darted from stand to stand, sometimes using the sheet music as cues (the work was predominately sung from memory), and sometimes throwing the music into mid-air. This dramatic element was successful in raising questions such as 'What is music?', and 'What is music's relationship to speech?', and served as an interesting counterpoint to Giblin's and Lancaster's musical performance. However, the constant running around also raised the question of what this piece would be like without the extra-musical input – a question I can't answer. No doubt this was Stacey's intention. I would have liked to have seen The Jade Harp with slightly less dramatisation, and believe it would have been just as effective, perhaps more so, divorced from the movement.

More subtle was Dianna Nixon's dramatisation of two works by the relatively unknown composer Zdeněk Fibich, a Czech contemporary of Dvořák and Smetana. Christmas Eve (1875) and The Water Goblin (1883) were two examples of Fibich's melodramas, in which actors are given spoken cues to recite over the top of piano music. Both works required a degree of spontaneity between the performers, and this was achieved successfully. The piano part had a scriabinesque feel to it – on the cusp of modernity whilst still clinging to traditional harmonies, which suited Sitsky's playing to a tee. The Water Goblin, a folk fairy tale, featured three actors and one singer, all interpreting spoken words in different ways. The difference in approach between musician and actor was evident, with singer Miriam Miley-Read having less control over her spoken voice than the actors, but perhaps providing a more honest and convincing performance. Actress Clare Blumer stole the performance as the Maiden, exhibiting a highly controlled voice, using nasal tone, different shades of voice, and varying intonations to achieve an interesting counterpoint to the music. Nixon's dramatisation was minimal but highly effective – the four characters (maiden, water goblin, narrator, and mother), stood in a row facing the audience with a spotlight beamed on each from overhead. Each character came to life in his/her turn, addressing the audience in a theatrically convincing manner.

The Wicked Voice is a highly accessible program of new and newly discovered works performed by some of Australia's premier musicians. It is ironic that in the Australian community, reasonably indifferent to contemporary art music, programs such as The Wicked Voice get swept under the carpet by the musical establishment. The Wicked Voice is unusual for a performance of contemporary music, as it has a wide audience appeal, and was able to generate interest from a general populace who didn't require a course in the history of 20th century music to appreciate the program. Interestingly, this is diametrically opposed to the 'ivory tower' image. Despite the quality of The Wicked Voice, I did leave the hall slightly pessimistic about the chances of such a show ever leaving the borders of Canberra, a feeling the creators of the show have no doubt had during their long and distinguished careers in the nation's capital.

Subjects discussed by this article:

Michael Sollis is a composer, researcher, and educator based in Canberra. He is artistic director of The Griffyn Ensemble and ACT Branch Manager of Musica Viva Australia. His research is based on the relationship between speech and song, particularly in the Papua New Guinea highlands.


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