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Reviews/Music

Stepping into the light

9 March 2020

Rosalind Appleby finds the performances mixed in quality but the repertoire exquisite in a concert featuring women composers.

Review: Harmonia Australis, Out of His Shadow ·
St Mary’s Anglican Church South Perth, 8 March 2020 ·
Review by Rosalind Appleby ·

Harmonia Australis’ first concert as ensemble-in-residence at St Mary’s Anglican Church was on International Women’s Day and featured a program dedicated to women composers. The member-run orchestra and chorale was established in 2019, and has established a reputation for tackling big works (they toured Mozart’s Requiem in August last year). This time, however, chamber music was the focus.

A combination of string, vocal and wind soloists showcased music by women from the 19th century to present day, and while the performances were mixed in quality, the repertoire was exquisite.

Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel’s Two Pieces for Cello and Piano was the perfect opener. Her writing has the expressivity and sunniness of her more famous brother Felix, but with perhaps even greater clarity and economy. Josephine Fountain on cello and Gladys Chua on piano captured the sighing phrases and moodiness, despite some pitch issues.

Clara Schumann’s Three Romances for Violin and Piano had a considered elegance although more assertiveness was required from violinist Hannah Herriman to match the virtuosic piano writing (Clara Schumann rivalled Liszt as a touring piano prodigy and it showed in the rippling, tempestuous piano writing.)

The centrepiece of the concert was the world premiere of a new work by Adelaide composer Rachel Bruerville, reflecting Harmonia Australis’ commitment to redressing the gender imbalance in classical music.  

(L-R) Lucy Schneider, Bonnie de la Hunty and Jessica Taylor premiere Rachel Bruerville’s Strength for All. Photo by Jennifer Banks.

Soprano Jessica Taylor worked with Bruerville in the National Youth Choir of Australia and was keen to commission a work to perform with her colleagues Bonnie de la Hunty and Lucy Schneider. The result was Strength for All, quoting a poem by American poet Emma Lazarus which is inscribed at the foot of the Statue of Liberty.

The expansive acoustic at St Mary’s Church is well-suited to vocal works and the trio of unaccompanied sopranos resonated powerfully. The voices – Taylor’s resplendent, de la Hunty’s clarion and Schneider’s velveteen – were heard solo, in closely clustered harmony and occasionally blended in unison declamation. The text wasn’t clear (a program would’ve been helpful) but the song was haunting and the voices glorious.

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The sopranos also performed a selection of solo repertoire, accompanied by Caroline Badnall on piano. Lili Boulanger’s Clairières dans le ciel was a highlight amongst repertoire which included gems from Alma Mahler, Mendelssohn, Amy Beach, Schumann and Undine S. Moore. De la Hunty’s exquisitely controlled voice took on a dusky sweetness and the scenes in Boulanger’s songs wafted mistily over Badnall’s expressionistic piano chords.

After sitting in straight-backed pews for 90 minutes, an interval would’ve been a nice thought, however the final work was worth the wait. Amanda Harberg’s Suite for Wind Quintet brought a fresh sound world, beautifully performed by Brooke Prendergast, Kate Pitcher, Jodie Upton, Kate Newell and Megan Barbetti. The American contemporary composer has a facility for wind writing even if she gave little consideration to the performers’ need to breathe between phrases! The four movement work unfolded with a lilting melody in the oboe, frantic rhythmic energy in the second movement, a glorious hymn-like section and a virtuosic rush to the finish.

Each work on the program was introduced by the (all-female) performers with contagious enthusiasm. The depth of commitment from this player-managed ensemble was evident at every turn and bodes well for the future of Harmonia Australis, and for gender parity in classical music.

Read the QnA with Harmonia Australis members for more information on Perth’s newest ensemble.

Pictured top: Five wind players from Harmonia Australis perform Amanda Harberg’s Suite for Wind Quintet. Photo by Jennifer Banks.

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Author —
Rosalind Appleby

Rosalind Appleby is an arts journalist, author and speaker. She is co-editor of Seesaw Magazine, author of Women of Note, and has written for The West Australian, The Guardian, The Australian, Limelight magazine and Opera magazine. She loves the percussion instruments which can be found in the uber cool parks.

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