Sublime | Katie Noonan & Australian Chamber OrchestraKatie Noonan has been described as a ‘rare talent with a voice of extraordinary beauty and versatility’ whose ‘strong, clear voice’ projects ‘effortlessly out into the audience’; and whilst I find these words to be somewhat over the top, it was nevertheless interesting to see her perform with the Australian Chamber Orchestra last Sunday. The programme entitled ‘Sublime’ encompassed five centuries of English song and included works from Henry Purcell to Radiohead.

Miss Noonan began the performance with a John Tavener song ‘He wishes for the cloths of heaven’ and immediately displayed her clear light soprano voice. Her diction was unfortunately not very clear which made it difficult to understand the words of the song and she appeared quite ill at ease. I also had the impression that she didn’t feel at home with this repertoire and rather than flying with the music was tiptoeing around it.

She next sang ‘Se pieta di me non senti’, a glorious aria from Handel’s ‘Julius Caesar’ which was originally composed as a da capo aria (main theme, middle section, repeat of the main theme with ornamentation). She sang it however in a shortened version and performed the first section only which was a pity as I would have liked to hear her ornamentation. As with the Tavener song she sang with a microphone - definitely not standard practice in this repertoire - and drew attention to less than perfect Italian and a lightweight voice.

Gustav Holst’s ‘I sing of a maiden’ and the two Benjamin Britten songs from ‘Les Illuminations’ saw Miss Noonan warm into the performance and appear a little more relaxed. She followed this with Dido’s lament from ‘Dido and Aeneas’ and sang with much feeling despite a continued sense of her not really being relaxed.

The orchestra played two pieces without voice and the highlight of this first half was definitely Elgar’s ‘Introduction and Allegro’. It’s always a pleasure to hear the Australian Chamber Orchestra and a surprise that such a full sound can come from this relatively small group of players. The well balanced playing and obvious joy of the musicians was a positive and energetic ending for the first half and much appreciated by the audience.

The second half commenced with Ralph Vaughan Williams ‘Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus’, an emotionally charged piece whose theme will be known to many listeners through its appearance in Australian hymnals as ‘I hear the voice of Jesus say’. The orchestra once again played with a beautiful warm tone and Richard Tognetti’s violin playing evoked clear images of the English countryside.

Following this piece Miss Noonan reappeared on stage in a slinky black dress and perilously high heel shoes. With the change of outfit came a change of persona and vocal quality and I’m happy to say she seemed much more relaxed now.

She sang a selection of songs including numbers by Paul McCartney, Nick Drake, Sting, David Bowie and Radiohead and her voice now floated effortlessly over the orchestra. She was also more at ease physically and appeared more in touch with her fellow musicians.

The orchestra had a great deal of fun with the contemporary repertoire and employed some curious techniques. In Radiohead’s ‘How to disappear completely’ the violinists plucked their strings as a guitarist would and also bounced bows off strings rather than using standard bowing technique; this produced an interesting tonal quality and was also very amusing to watch.

The definite highlight of the afternoon’s performance was the encore of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Alleluia’ in a stunning arrangement where the violins played pizzicato once again and the singer’s voice fully captured the spirit of the song. This was one of those moments when the audience was so entranced you could hear a pin drop.

‘Sublime’ was an interesting and enjoyable concert and Katie Noonan is a lovely performer. I feel however that she shone much more in the contemporary music and whilst the ‘classical’ repertoire was not bad, it didn’t allow her the freedom to be the unique performer that she is. Interesting would have been to hear Katie singing the ‘classical’ music in her own particular style, improvisation and all – perhaps next time?

Katie Noonan and the Australian Chamber Orchestra

City Recital Hall Angel Place, Sydney
Saturday 15 March 8pm, Tuesday 18 March 8pm & Wednesday 19 March 7pm
Bookings 02 8256 2222

Sydney Opera House Concert Hall
Sunday 16 March 2.30pm
Bookings 02 9250 7777

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