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Slow to start, Juliet’s ‘Letters’ arrive on time

Mezzo-soprano, Jacqueline Dark performing last night. Photo: Peter Hislop

Music / “The Juliet Letters”, The Phoenix Collective with Jacqueline Dark. At Wesley Music Centre, November 26.  Reviewed by GRAHAM McDONALD

THE idea behind “The Juliet Letters” was a newspaper report about a Veronese academic who supposedly answered letters written to Shakespeare’s character Juliet Capulet.

There are many unanswered questions about how and why this would happen, but it was the stimulation for English singer and songwriter Elvis Costello to work with the Brodsky Quartet to write a set of songs based on imaginary letters to loved ones that was originally performed and recorded by them in the early ’90s with a number of subsequent performances and theatrical productions by other musicians and singers.

For this performance the vocalist was mezzo-soprano Jacqueline Dark, who works variously in opera, musical theatre and cabaret.

This background suited the style of the work, though at times there was a little too much theatricality in her presentation.

The Phoenix Collective performs “The Juliet Letters”. Photo: Peter Hislop

The songs themselves are a mix. Some recall 19th century lieder, others could be from a Sondheim musical, a Berlin cabaret of the ’20s or Costello’s pop-song catalogue.

In some ways it sounds like it should not work as a suite, but it does, building in interest over the hour or so the 20 songs and short instrumentals take to perform.

The first 10 minutes or so was a little disjointed. The quartet did not quite gel, and it all seemed a bit stilted, but the fourth song, “I Almost Had a Weakness”, brought the performance together. This is a jaunty pop song built around a repeated riff from the strings and the performance lifted from there. The quartet was tighter, there was more eye contact going on, everyone seemed to relax a bit and they looked like they were enjoying themselves rather more.

The Phoenix Collective specialises in contemporary music that resists easy categorisation, while staying within the broad field of “art music”, which makes them always interesting to see and hear, with a mix of fine musicianship and an enquiring curiosity about musical styles and ways to present the music.

This was a memorable concert.

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