Review / Louise Page’s magnificent farewell from ‘Flowers’

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Soprano Louise Page in her final public performance “Lost Jewels”. Photo by Peter Hislop

CANBERRA soprano Louise Page gave her swan-song performance for  “Flowers of War” in a concert highlighting the personal and cultural toll of international conflict.

Lovers of music and art filled James Fairfax Theatre to witness “The Lost Jewels”, a celebration of painters and composers lost to the Great War. Musical director Christopher Latham dedicated this opening performance to Canberra’s own Barbara Blackman, poet and champion of the arts, currently in hospital.

Marking the anniversary of the end of World War I, this program is a statement of support for the European Union’s diplomatic role in the world. It features works by artists fallen in war or killed by the Spanish flu, transmitted to millions across the world by the movement of 100,000 allied troops. The combined human toll of war and illness from this period is unthinkable – around 40 million from war, 80-100 million from flu. The impact on culture was also significant – there are thousands of examples. Klimt’s late portraits were destroyed by retreating SS forces in the next war, the death of Lili Boulanger set back the recognition of women composers by a hundred years.

Beneath projected works by fallen painters, Page was joined by Sculthorpe String Quartet, Luminescence Chamber Singers and acclaimed pianist Edward Neeman, recently returned from studies in the US.

Monograph 16 “Funeral March”, an austere work by Australian pianist, Olympic rower and soldier Frederick Septimus Kelly, opened the concert and highlighted Neeman’s pianistic abilities. A child prodigy, Neeman has blossomed into an artist of the calibre of Sitsky or Woodward. His command of tonal colour also shaped Botho Sigwart zu Eulenberg’s “Erwachen des Waldes”. Subtle timbral shifts perfectly matched the soft colours of Pavel Krastev’s portraits. Over birdlike strings, Page’s voice rose agile and rich, expressive – full of humanity. It made you afraid for the people in those portraits. It made them real.

A great deal of thought obviously went into the pairing of paintings and music – particularly around the equivalence of timbre and colour, and music’s ability to bring extra emotional dimensions to images. Egon Schiele’s portraits, lit by Albéric Magnard’s quintet “Chant funèbre”, became more vulnerable. Their faces gaunt, bodies exposed – sinew and muscle, skin. They are families, babies, lovers. Tremolando strings shatter into kaleidoscopic tones. Over secco piano, the internal movement of voices become impressionistic clouds of moths or flowers. This quintet by Magnard introduced the early 20th century language that dominated this concert – expanded functionality, octatonicism and parallelism.

Neeman’s solo performances brought light into a program of fairly heavy repertoire. To fields of Schiele’s flowers, gerberas, blossoms and daisies, he brought Debussy’s soft dramaturgy and rubato. António Fragoso’s Nocturne manifested with cinematic timing and an extraordinary lightness of touch. Gustav Klimt’s landscapes gave us chickens on a path, hedges, gardens of sunlight and flowers. And you knew that those places are lost now – bombed or abandoned, the children that played there, forgotten. In public gardens and parks, August Macke’s figures turn their heads away from us.

André Devaere’s “Grave et poignant” for piano cascades in sotto voce chords, impossibly quiet, almost without sound. They fall like petals, melody emerging from simple pedal notes. Hymn-like sonorities still to final chords, and a portrait of a girl stares across the theatre with luminous eyes.

The spell is broken with an excerpt from Erwin Schulhoff’s “Grotesken” Op 21. Lurching waltzes of the dead are set against Umberto Boccioni’s careful geometry. Neeman’s playing was meticulously accurate. Grace notes and staccato cadential figures were bracketed by crisp silence. The anger and sadness of conflict are encapsulated in this work. On the back wall, Wilhelm Morgner’s figures vanish into energy and light, colour, a sundrenched land.

The virtuosity of the piano quintet was impressive, but it was Page’s extraordinary voice that captured the audience’s heart.

As senza vibrato strings opened Rudi Stephan’s “Ich will dir singen ein Hohlied”, and a menagerie of Franz Marc’s animals exploded across the wall, Page’s top notes found wings, her soft portamenti evoking Maria Callas. There were moments in this performance where you could really believe that all war’s horrors could be overcome by art. Before Klimt’s bare-breasted Egyptians, his silk-draped Austrian ladies, Page rendered Enrique Granados s “Goyescas” Arias with the agility of a Flamenco singer. Shimmering violins evoked bird calls in a Spanish park.

Lili Boulanger’s “Vielle Prière Bouddhique” (Old Buddhist Prayer), ended this concert like a single sacred mountain rising above the plains. Everything before it was eclipsed. Transcendent portraits by Klimt, of expectant mothers and babies, flashed across the screen and Boulanger brought us pedals and drones from Eastern temples. Ancient chant merged seamlessly with Impressionistic language, and beyond – a pre-echo of the second Viennese school that would forever change the face of music.

Page was joined by the aptly named Luminescence Chamber Singers for the last major work she will perform in public. It was a bold statement, Page and Boulanger exiting the stage arm in arm. It asks us what a post-Boulanger musical world might have looked like, had she lived to old age. How many women, vanished in time, would now be counted in the musical canon?

Boulanger’s steady presence lent strength to Page’s already commendable performance – she was magnificent. Her voice rose like a cantor above the chorus, then disappeared into a counterpoint so elegantly constructed that its complexity vanishes. A dramatic finale, full of hope and light, concluded with a prayer–

In the East and in the West

In the North and in the South,

Let all those beings, which exist–

Without enemies, without obstacles,

Overcoming their grief

And attaining happiness,

Be able to move freely,

Each in the path destined for them.

(Vielle Prière Bouddhique)

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