Katie Noonan tries hard not to be an angel. With her chestnut hair bleached and shorn, her buckled boots and her ockerish banter with the audience and musicians, she woos us with ordinariness. But, as soon as the first notes are struck and she opens her mouth to sing, we know we are in the presence of the divine.
On this seven-day tour of Australia, she has joined forces with the formidable Brodsky Quartet, a British outfit which has been in existence since 1972. The evening is a celebration of Australian poetry and musical composition, starting with ten specially commissioned works inspired by the work of the late Australian poet Judith Wright. The tour is named With Love & Fury, a reference to the words in which Wright signed off her letters!
Poetry has often been the inspiration for Noonan’s work. In 2011, with her trio Elixir, she recorded Australian Thomas Shapcott’s poems, enlisting players from the Australian Chamber Orchestra. This time it is Wright’s poetry that has been set to music, by ten Australian composers, including Paul Grabowsky, Carl Vine and Richard Tognetti and Noonan herself. All capture the sunlight and shadow of Wright’s poetry, its joy and despair, with Noonan’s voice swooping and soaring within a web of finely balanced delicate string parts. Noonan’s musical version of ‘The Surfer’ strikes a different note, less ethereal, more muscular and joyous, a mood echoed later during the encores, in a luscious song to her husband.
In contrast, the poem ‘Metho Drinker’ brings the first half of the concert to a harrowing close. At Noonan‘s request the lights are dimmed and Jacqueline Thomas swaps her cello for another more suited to the darker tones and the chilling vocals, as the quartet reaches a claustrophobic intensity reminiscent of Macbeth or Lear, culminating in the faintest of eerie pianississimos.
The mood lifts for the second half, which the Brodsky Quartet opens with some of their favourite Australian pieces by Peter Sculthorpe, Andrew Ford and Robert Davidson. Their energy is remarkable, but their sensitivity to each other’s playing and to Noonan’s voice is phenomenal. The dedication of forty-four years’ playing is evident. Two of the original members – Thomas (cello) and Ian Belton (violin) – are still plying their bows. Paul Cassidy (viola) joined in 1982, and Daniel Rowland (violin) completes the quartet.
It was time for two of Noonan’s favourites, Elvis Costello and Bjork. Briefly we were in party mood. But, as in the first half, Noonan chose a quiet number to leave the audience under a spell: ‘Fragile’, by Sting. The quartet has worked with Sting and Noonan has sung it many times, but tonight was special, heartbreaking and inspirational. She dedicated it, with a few well-chosen words of tribute, to David Page, music director of Bangarra Dance Theatre, who died earlier in the day.
Katie Noonan and Brodsky Quartet
With Love & Fury
Venue: Melbourne Recital Centre Cnr Southbank Boulevard & Sturt Street, Southbank VIC
Dates: Friday 29 April 2016
Sat 30 April: Canberra International Music Festival, Canberra
Sunday 1 May: Her Majesty’s Theatre, Adelaide
Mon 2 May: City Recital Hall, Sydney
Wed 4 May: Albany Entertainment Centre
Thurs 5 May: Perth Concert Hall