Left – Katie Noonan. Cover – Katie Noonan and Brodsky Quartet. Photos – Darren Thomas
‘With Love and Fury’ is the gesture with which the late esteemed Australian poet Judith Wright singed her letters. It has become the title of an edited monograph of her correspondence and most recently also the theme of a collaborative project between Australian songstress Katie Noonan and the prolific British string ensemble Brodsky Quartet. Funded by the Australian Arts Council, the project has produced a song cycle ‘With Love and Fury’ on poems by Judith Wright, currently on tour in Australia and later in the UK. It was recently released on the Kin Music Australia label.
The song cycle consists of ten poems set to music by Australian music icons Elena Kats-Chernin, David Hirschfelder, Paul Dean, Andrew Ford, Iain Grandage, Paul Grabowsky, Carl Vine, John Rogers, Richard Tognetti and Katie herself. The musical settings enhance the turmoil of conflict and destruction that bursts out of Wright’s words. The song cycle is dark and intense. The narrative alludes to a profound concern for the environment and our relationship with the land and its people – issues that Judith Wright felt strongly about during her life as a conservationist and an Aboriginal rights activist. That environmentalism is close to Katie’s heart is palpable. She casually referred to it at the beginning of the performance and entrusted persuasion to the power of music.
Each song stands out as natural synergy between word and tone and showcases the vanguard of Australian music composition today. Australian landscape and soundscape are articulated within the intimate textures of the amplified string quartet and propelled by the soaring phrases of Katie’s smooth soprano. The song cycle genre is re-formulated on the basis of a curatorial approach rather than relying on the creativity of one composer and allows for a collective voice.
The vocal writing honours Katie’s musical idiom and versatility. It is particularly difficult. It sits within a very high tessitura and exploits the extremes of Noonan’s impressive vocal range, for instance in No. 6 Night after Bushfire by Iain Grandage, as well as her ability to cross styles as in No. 9 Failure of Communication by John Rodgers. She deliberates this challenge with a sense of freedom and delivers honestly an internalised musical narrative which is bereft of superficial visual theatricality.
In this program, the newly commissioned song cycle is complemented by a second half which begins with a selection of known Australian compositions for string quartet or quintet by Peter Sculthorpe, Andrew Ford and Robert Davidson where the Brodsky Quartet demonstrate an energetic intimacy with this music. Fresh arrangements of songs by Elvis Costello, Bjork and Sting come at the end of the program.
Dazzling renditions of two songs by Bjork, Hyperballad and Possibly Maybe, bring the concert to a climax. Katie invites the audience to participate in the last song of the set, Sting’s Fragile. We all sing along ‘On and on the rain will say how fragile we are’ in a moment of magic. The environmental message has sunk in. Katie proceeds to delight in two encores – a cross-over between jazz standards and J.S. Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 with cellist Jacqueline Thomas and a string quartet arrangement of her hit My Song for You.
I leave satisfied and exhilarated and so does the well-informed crowd of prominent local musicians, music students, critics, arts managers, curators, educationists, scholars and connoisseurs. Buzzing they are emptying Her Majesty’s which was bursting at the seams just a moment ago knowing that they have witnessed an important milestone in the history of Australian music.
Adelaide Festival Centre presents
With Love and Fury
Katie Noonan & Brodsky Quartet
Venue: Her Majesty’s Theatre, Adelaide
Date: 1 May 2016
Bookings: 131 246 | bass.net.au
Written by Daniela Kaleva, University of South Australia