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Witty concert with America at its heart

Pianist Roland Peelman and mezzo-soprano AJ America performing “America Sings!”. Photo: Peter Hislop

Music / Art Song Canberra “America Sings!”. At Wesley Music Centre, November 19. Reviewed by DANTE COSTA.

TO paraphrase Taylor Swift, “I had a marvellous time” reviewing Art Song Canberra’s “America Sings!”, featuring mezzo-soprano AJ America and pianist Roland Peelman at Wesley Music Centre on Sunday.

I’ll come back to Swift. Meanwhile, this concert explored the development of the American art song alongside the iconic cultural backdrop of the “American Century”. Ranging from its Germanic “Lied” origins to later influences of blues, hymn singing and pop-music, the pieces in this wittily curated program tell the stories of a prosperous America alongside critiques of American exceptionalism and how this has shaped the genre overtime.

They opened with “Beautiful Dreamer” and “Hard Times Come Again No More” by Stephen Foster, their pure, well-balanced sound immediately filling the hall. Peelman’s touch was gentle and delicate as America skilfully weaved in the melody. Swiftly moving on to Mahler’s “Three Rückert Lieder”, the music fluctuated between something that was rather nostalgic but then turned into something a bit panicked and bashful with “Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder”.

Fast forward to 1926, and to the work of a lesser-known female composer, Florence Price. The duo performed her “Songs to the Dark Virgin”. Price was the first African American composer to have her music played by an American Symphony orchestra however, until recently, was largely neglected after her death. This piece was performed elegantly and with great control.

Next were three pieces by Charles Ives, in which the duo displayed a full range of virtuosity and delightful lyricism. Notably, the third piece “Majority”. The text is written by the composer himself and presents eccentric atonal and dissonant material that is unique to Ives’ compositional style, especially considering that this was several years before the radical theories of the Second Viennese School.

Peelman embodied this eccentricity with tenacity, his piano highlighting the contrasts between the weighty cluster-chords and the more delicate intricate melodies. America tackled the challenging chromatic lines with conviction, which made for a most wonderful and engaging performance.

Returning from a short interval was “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” by Australian composer Peggy Glanville-Hicks who, inspired by the wonders of American modernity, set her music to the text of the poet Wallace Stevens. The duo performed this edgy piece with passion and great skill interweaving the contrasting moods with ease.

A brusquely comical “Fünf Elegie” by Hanns Eisler was then performed, which juxtaposes an elegy with ironic music and a rather obscene text. This was followed by a groovy blues influenced “Dirge for Two Veterans” and “Speak Low” by Jewish composer Kurt Weill.

Concluding the concert, “The Last Great American Dynasty” by Taylor Swift made a surprise appearance – even with Peelman featuring on vocals after jokingly muttering to the audience something to the extent that “yes, this is really happening”. Bravi.


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