Review: SHE SPEAKS at Elder Hall, University Of Adelaide

A concert of music by women composers.

By: Jun. 20, 2021

Review: SHE SPEAKS at Elder Hall, University Of Adelaide Reviewed by Ewart Shaw, Saturday 19th June 2021.

She Speaks was a triumph. It was, quite simply, one of the most significant concerts ever in the Elder Hall, with the Adelaide Symphony on top form under Luke Dollman in a program of such stimulating variety that really warmed the heart on an Adelaide winter's evening.

Question. Does music have DNA? In this context, does it have chromosomes? As and Bs, etc., it has, but Xs and Ys? Composers do, of course, and every piece on the program was composed by an Australian woman.

Anne Cawrse, the curator of the event, remarked that this was only the second time a major Australian orchestra had programmed such a selection, and the only other occasion had been thirty years ago.

She speaks in music. The program opened with the Festival Flourish of Dulcie Holland. It turns out to have been written in 1965 but, for me, it sounded like an older work, from the time when fine composers wrote light music, and orchestras were delighted to play it. It is joyful and witty. I certainly encourage our civic orchestras to take it on. There's a performance by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra under David Measham, paired with the 1812 Overture, on that valuable tool for music education, Youtube. Track it down. You'll love it.

Mythic, by Elena Kats-Chernin, is an expansive and beautiful work, recorded by the Tasmanian Symphony orchestra under Ola Rudner. Natalie Williams's Chambers of the South, on first listening is an intriguing work, but unavailable as yet on Youtube, but there's a fine recording of the Gymnopedie Number One of Peggy Glanville Hicks, from the Sydney Symphony Orchestra under Myer Fredman, on the ABC label. Can someone please record and release Maria Grenfell's River Mountain Sky? She's based in Tasmania, and her evocation of that landscape is superb.

The works themselves are not lengthy, but can easily be fitted into the usual overture, concerto, symphony style of programming. They all display a great understanding of what the resources of a symphony orchestra can give to a composer's imagination.

Maybe now, a woman could be prompted to write a symphony, knowing that an orchestra exists that could play it to perfection. Do people write symphonies anymore? Do we have the concentration span to listen to a new one?

The major event on the program was a suite from Innocence, Anne Cawrse's opera, to a libretto by Adam Goodburn, based on the novel by Stephen Orr, Time's Long Ruin. The project began eight years ago, and was scuppered by the dramatic collapse of the management of State Opera, and a letter writing campaign from indignant suburbanites who felt that the story of the Beaumont children should not be sullied by a dramatic entertainment. That that particular Adelaide tragedy was only a distant influence on the tale didn't matter. Four singers: Desiree Frahn, soprano, Teresa La Rocca, mezzo, Adam Goodburn, tenor, and Joshua Rowe, baritone, played various characters in this half hour or so of music for the opera, arranged for this performance. Simply dressed, and moved by Andy Packer, they begin with a New Year's toast, but soon begin to meditate on time, and loss, and memory.

Frahn brings such pathos to her lament for the lost children and she and La Rocca join in a Hail Mary that is heartbreaking. The men comment on time and memory. The world changes and loss lingers. There're fine ensemble voices for them, because opera means you can hear four thoughts at once.

Teresa LaRocca, in her apron, was the archetypal Mediterranean mother and grandmother, an image she reinforced by handing chocolate to members of the orchestra, as she left the stage.

Cast and conductor were called back to great applause.

State Opera has been reviving neglected Australian music dramas and experimenting with new forms of staging. Well, here's a work that could be taken on.

The final work on the program was Jammed, by Holly Harrison. This really brought the orchestra a challenge of belting through a work referencing so many popular music styles with abandon. Amazing performance but, probably, not one for our civic orchestras. I've spent a morning recreating that concert from Youtube but, trust me, live is always better.

The concert was recorded by the ABC and will be broadcast on ABC Classic at 1 pm on Friday September 3.

The celebration began with a chamber music concert based around the Seraphim Trio: violinist, Helen Ayres, pianist, Anna Goldsworthy, and 'cellist, Tim Nankervis. Clara Wieck Schumann and Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel are well known as composers, relatively speaking, because of their relatives, one the sister of Felix and the other the wife of Robert. Cheryl Pickering, herself very active in the cause of women who write music, joined them for three Clara Schumann lieder and ended the concert with a piece by Anne Cawrse. There was a short violin and piano duo by Ruby Davy, the Elder Conservatorium's first Doctor of Music, possibly performed publicly for the first time and performed from the original manuscript in the Barr Smith Library.

The major work was the Piano trio in D minor, by Fanny Hensel. This is, by any measure, a great work. The first and last movements, marked Allegretto Molto Vivace and Allegro Moderato are superb, framing two more gentle movements, close kin, as Anna Goldsworthy said in introduction to the better known Songs Without Words, of Felix. Did Fanny, when younger, actually develop the style herself?

The first movement is so dramatic, and ends with a flourish of such passion, that the audience applauded it. Listening back to performances on Youtube, it's clear that the Seraphim Trio are world class in this repertoire. Sadly, the trio, a major step forward in Fanny's compositions, was written shortly before her death in 1847. It's a great question about what might have been had she lived. There's one hint of musical cross fertilisation. The rolling piano in the opening quotes Fingal's Cave, Felix's, Overture: The Hebrides.

One final point. I wasn't going to the final concert of the day; after all, pancake batter doesn't whisk itself. I had planned to have a quiet glass of wine in the foyer with a colleague who was going to that concert. A very officious uniformed security guard told me that there was another concert which, of course, I knew, and that if I wasn't going to it, I should leave the building. Why does the Elder Hall, or more likely the ASO, require security guards? The usual Front of House staff are entirely adequate to the task of keeping order, and they're really polite.

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