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Birds | 2021 Adelaide Festival

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The concert Birds was part of a series of nine chamber music concerts held at the wonderful Ukaria centre near Mount Barker in the Adelaide hills. Chamber Landscapes has been a feature of the Adelaide Festival for several years, and it is not hard to see why. The 200 seats of the purpose-built, wooden-faced hall look out through huge glass windows at the back of the stage to the view of the gardens and vineyards of the Adelaide Hills, and the place must be one of the finest chamber music halls in the country.

This concert fell into two halves. The first was devoted to the poetry of Judith Wright, the second to Luciano Berio’s Folk Songs, and the halves were separated by five piano duets by Percy Grainger, played with great panache and abandon by Stephanie McCallum and Jacob Abela.

Berio’s Folk Songs are for the most part not arrangements of folk-songs, but folk songs with extraordinary commentaries by the ensemble of instruments. This ensemble is similar to that which Schoenberg employs for Pierrot Lunaire with percussion and harp instead of piano, but that’s where the similarity ends. Berio’s scoring is everything Schoenberg’s is not – lucid, transparent to the point of gossamer, breathtakingly economical, and with an ear for sonority that leaves the audience ravished. In this set of nineteen songs, in nine different languages or dialects (it was written for Berio’s partner, the multi-lingual Cathy Berberian) the soprano Jessica Aszodi was in her element, and the variety of tone she produced for this set was accompanied by an ease of simply being on the stage which gave us the impression that this sort of music was her bread and butter. Cathy Berberian’s phenomenal voice had three registers, one above and one below that of normal sopranos. Aszodi negotiated this music written very specifically for that voice with aplomb, and charmed everyone in the audience in the process.

Each time I encounter Judith Wright’s work my appreciation of her deepens. John Gaden read Bird, an intense poem contrasting the bird’s freedom to the poet’s being in thrall to other people. Then Jessica Aszodi sang two vocal works set to her poetry by Margaret Sutherland.

The first was The World and the Child. Sutherland set this for voice and string trio, perhaps feeling that the piece was too long to retain attention with only a piano for accompaniment. Her setting was deeply respectful of the poetry, but I found that the music has, paradoxically, neither enough repetition nor enough contrast to generate the kind of formal strength that needs to underlie any large-scale work. The string texture was very uniform – only at the very end, in the beautiful postlude, did we even hear a pizzicato. The cycle that followed, entitled simply Six Songs, contained, however, great variety between the songs; the energy of Winter Kestrel, and the haunting light of The Old Prison, remain with me now.

In the songs by Margaret Sutherland, Aszodi did not seem nearly as at home as in the Berio folk songs. The long high notes that Sutherland likes stood out from the texture, as did the occasional chest voice passages, rather than feeling like part of the whole. The Berio pieces showed that she most certainly is capable of this kind of integration within the variety of things one can do with a voice, so I felt that perhaps she hadn’t got inside Sutherland’s work. In addition, I missed the feeling that Aszodi knew what it was like to write these poems, and I would have preferred to have this series of songs sung by someone steeped in the Australian landscape, such as Deborah Cheetham for example.

And that made me reflect. As the audience walks into the concert hall at Ukaria, we pass walls lined with Indigenous painting. In the previous four years I have been there at the Adelaide festival there has been strong indigenous participation, including Cheetham herself both as singer and composer. And although Kim Williams, in the voluminous notes that he wrote for the weekend’s program, is careful to pay his respects to the music that this country has been producing for tens of thousands of years, and to refer to the Australian music in this weekend’s program as Australian art music, I did feel the empty space, a sort of terra nullius of sound, that was not occupied by any reference, in the concerts themselves, to Indigenous culture. At a time when most cultural endeavours around the country are attempting more inclusiveness of Indigenous culture, this struck me as incongruous, even given that the intention the weekend was to link white Australian composers with their European heritage.

As we looked through the glass behind the stage at Ukaria, we wondered – just what has this land produced?

 

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