It’s not often that you get to hear the premieres of four substantial sets of art songs in a short period of time. Over consecutive evenings, Chamber Music Adelaide presented new compositions for voice by Anne Cawrse, Glyn Lehmann, Jodie O’Regan and the team of Nathan May and Julian Ferraretto.

Chamber Music Adelaide is an umbrella organisation that facilitates and promotes performances by several Adelaide and interstate chamber ensembles. In these innovative concerts, CMA produced these newly commissioned works in the Adelaide Town Hall, a larger venue than the typically intimate spaces in which its member ensembles perform.

The 10 May concert, Stars, Atoms, and Strange Songs, featured Glyn Lehmann’s As The Universe Expands and Anne Cawrse’s She Who Knows Strange Songs. To introduce them, the concert opened with Opera Australia bass Pelham Andrews and pianist Penelope Cashman’s exquisite rendition of three songs by Samuel Barber that dwell poignantly on human relations: Rain has fallen, Solitary Hotel and Sure on this shining night.

Andrews and Cashman then gave us three delightful songs by Ned Rorem: To a Young Girl, Early in the morning and Ferry me across the water. These early twentieth century songs set the scene musically and emotionally for what was to follow.

Penelope Cashman and Pelham Andrews. Photo © Jason Mildwaters

In As The Universe Expands, in which he sets his own meditative poetry to music, Glyn Lehmann considers the nature of human life in the context of the evolution of the universe.

In seven verses, As The Universe Expands describes how atoms aggregate to become form, which then grows into human life that becomes active and ultimately returns to a primal atomic state. Verse VII Still, becoming, reads:

With a breath

A final breath

A silent heart

Still, becoming

Atoms scattering

Atoms gathering

As the universe expands

 In contemplating the passing of his mother, Lehmann was influenced by the writings of novelists Kurt Vonnegut and Alan Lightman, physicist Richard Feynman and cosmologist Carl Sagan.

For the performance of As The Universe Expands, Andrews and Cashman were joined by oboist Celia Craig — the oboe swirls around Andrews’s magnificent voice, and the writing for piano suggests dancing atomic particles.

The second half of the 10 May concert opens with Anne Cawrse’s Komak (2016), her setting of a prayer from the Baháʼí faith, which is flavoured with the musical traditions of Persia. Mezzo soprano Cheryl Pickering’s performance is hypnotic, and her voice fills the Town Hall.

Helen Ayers, Cheryl Pickering and Thomas Marlin Photo © Jason Mildwaters

Komak provides a compelling introduction to Cawrse’s new work, She Who Knows Strange Songs, in which she sets texts by four female poets that dwell on aspects of womanhood: Denise Levertov’s (1923 – 1997) In Mind that identifies contradictory female stereotypes; Sappho’s (c.610 – 570 BCE) Fragment 105(a), a metaphor for a beautiful young woman who is yet to be “plucked” like a freshly ripened apple by a suitable suitor; Amy Lowell’s (1874 – 1925) Opal, which characterises the starkly contradictory nature of love and sexual desire; and Prophecy by Amy Wylie (1885 – 1928) in which she ruminates on her own passing.

Elinor Wylie’s Prophecy includes the following lines:

I shall lie folded like a saint,

Lapped in a scented linen sheet,

On a bedstead striped with bright-blue paint,

Narrow and cold and neat

The texts were selected by Pickering in consultation with Cawrse and the work is intended to be included in a larger production being developed by Pickering while also standing independently. As noted in the program, the chosen texts address “the tension between social expectations and individual choice”. Pickering’s performance is magnificent, making clear her emotional investment in these poems, and Cawrse’s writing to support the texts is superb.

The first concert concluded with Lili Boulanger’s Nocturne (1911) performed by violinist Helen Ayers and pianist Michael Ierace, and Miriam Hyde’s Fantasy Trio in b minor, Op 10 (1933), performed wonderfully by CMA member ensemble, the Tarrawatta Trio of Craig, Ierace and cellist Thomas Marlin. Boulanger (1893 – 1918) died tragically young and Hyde was a towering figure in Australian music, and their pioneering achievements resonate with the sentiments in Pickering and Cawrse’s music.

The 11 May concert, entitled Carrying the Song, opens with six of Benjamin Britten’s Selections from Moore’s Irish Melodies, featuring soprano Desiree Frahn (State Opera South Australia) accompanied by Penelope Cashman. Frahn’s performance is magnificent and her voice is especially affecting in The Last Rose of Summer.

These Irish-themed songs sensitise us for Adelaide composer Jodie O’Regan’s new work Cana Cludhmor. Fictional Irish poet Cana Cludhmor and husband Macuel appear in a fifteenth century Irish manuscript that tells how Ireland’s first harp was invented — a curved tree branch strung to resemble a whalebone whose sinews vibrate in the wind.

Cana Cludhmor is a delightfully theatrical work in which Desiree Frahn sings operatically but engagingly addresses the audience directly in the manner of a traditional bard, and she periodically strikes a cymbal for emphasis. Pianist Cashman occasionally uses mallets and guitar plectrums on the piano strings to suggest the ocean, a whale, and a harp. Desiree Frahn is a magnetic performer in this demanding but captivating piece, and O’Regan’s Cana Cludhmor proves to be the highlight of these CMA concerts.

The concert’s second half opens with two Baroque gems: J.S. Bach’s Die Kunst der Fugue, Contrapunctus 1 – 3 BWV 1080, and Antonio Vivaldi’s Concerto Grosso in D minor, Rv 565 Op. 3 No. 11, wonderfully performed by CMA member ensemble, the Adelaide Baroque String Quartet, using historically informed instruments to create a gracious, velvety sound.

The programming of these Baroque works with their contrapuntal passages introduces musically the new composition Wangkarda, written collaboratively by Nathan May and jazz violinist Julian Ferraretto. Arabana, Yawuru and Marridjabin man Nathan May (guitar and voice) joins the Adelaide Baroque String Quartet for this performance.

Wangkarda (“singing” in Arabana) combines two of May’s compositions that tell stories of his Country, its history and reconciliation. While drawing on the Baroque sound of the quartet and the country music style of acoustic guitar and voice, the composition creates a unique and seductive form that is accessible yet complex and musically involving.

These thoughtfully programmed CMA concerts introduce four sets of innovative art songs that work well enough in the Town Hall, although a smaller venue might better suit their intimate character. While the texts of Cawrse’s and Lehmann’s works were printed in the program booklet, O’Regan’s and May’s texts were not, and their inclusion might have been appreciated by the enthusiastic audience.

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