Review / An electric tribute to music

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pianist Ella Luhtasaari and mezzo soprano AJ America. Photo by Peter Hislop
DRILL Hall Gallery’s Sunday concert, “Poems and Prayers”, was an ambitious and electric tribute to music from the early 20th century to the current day. Two local girls, mezzo soprano AJ America and pianist Ella Luhtasaari canvassed Art Song from the early Impressionism of Maurice Ravel through to contemporary Australian Brett Dean.

From the opening “Hermit Songs” of Samuel Barber, and throughout the whole program, America revealed a rich but unweighted mezzo tone. To the often highly complex tonal language, she brought near-perfect intonation and nuanced timbres such as a tasteful use of senza vibrato. 

Luhtasaari was a sure and sensitive chamber musician, never overpowering, always an equal voice. The venue is very resonant and, as a result, the piano sometimes lost clarity, especially in highly pedalled passages, but it was lovely to hear music by at least one living composer performed among contemporary artworks.

Alban Berg’s “Sieben Frühe Lieder”, an early cycle written while a student of Arnold Schönberg, featured the pointillistic textures of early Serialism. Luhtasaari’s deep understanding of the idiom was evident, particularly in the dramatic “Liebesode”. The piano also took centre stage in the only work of the program by a woman composer, Nadia Boulanger’s “Cantique”, a haunting setting of a poem by Maurice Maeterlinck.

One of the highlights of this concert was the performance of Brett Dean’s “Poems and Prayers”,  a song cycle on texts by Michael Leunig.

America was engaging and charming from the first song, “Literature”, which reminds us:

The pen is mightier than the sword

and mightier than the literary award

without the pen, we’d be unable

to leave those notes on the kitchen table

Nothing lovelier ever penned

with three small crosses at the end

Made for no one else to see,

the literature of you and me.

Dean employs the syntax of free atonality in an environment which often recalls the heavy weights of late modernism – Luciano Berio, Gerard Grisey. Two serene prayers, one spoken and one sung, sit either side of an angular piece of “sprechstimme” and rhythmic utterances– a kind of canon on the phrase “All men are bastards”. This is a highly virtuosic work for both performers. The piano part is relentless, moving from quasi cadential explosions, as in the opening of “Equality”, through to the suspenseful secco accompaniment of the final Prayer.

The second half of the concert dragged a little. For some reason or other, we moved backwards in time to Edvard Grieg briefly, and then to Erich Korngold’s unremarkable “Lieder after Shakespeare”.

But the final two works were lovely. The tonal quality of America’s voice was highlighted by the low tessitura of Gerard Finzi’s sorrowing “Fear No More the Heat O the Sun” and Luhtasaari gave an elegant and refined performance of the piano part.

Maurice Ravel’s “Deux Mélodies Hébraïques” ended the night on perhaps its most poignant note. America conjured the Synagogues of early 20th century Europe with her cantor-style in Ravel’s Aramaic “Kaddish”. Against a backdrop of sparse accompaniment, America gave a poetic voice, sure and confident, even across the entire range, and beautifully vibrato free.

Canberra is rapidly evolving into a real cultural capital and we should be proud to nurture fine young performers like America and Luhtasaari.

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