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Reviews/Music

Tenderness and delight in Melville

13 September 2021

New classical-pop crossover series emerges out of COVID and has instant appeal, says Claire Coleman.

“Simone and Girlfunkle”, Tender Is The Night ·
City of Melville Main Hall, 12 September 2021 ·

“Strings!” says Bridget Turner of Perth folk-pop girl group Simone and Girlfunkle, “they bring out all the feels!” There’s no better way than this to summarise Leigh Gardiner’s classical-pop crossover series Tender Is the Night.

Like many inventions, Tender Is The Night was born out of necessity. Last year’s COVID lockdown prompted Gardiner to look for ways he could help support musician and composer mates whose livelihood was suddenly looking uncertain.

Working with compositional luminary Rebecca Erin Smith, Gardiner spread some love and some cash around, commissioning local composers to write arrangements for string quartet of songs by Perth-based popular musicians. The results were showcased post-lockdown at a number of low key, invite-only backyard concerts.

Tonight’s performance is technically the fifth in the successful series, and the first to be opened to the general public. Fittingly, Tanaya Harper was invited to reprise her set from the very first Tender Is the Night. She appears alongside Simone and Girlfunkle, both backed by The Tender Strings quartet: Emma Buss and Susannah Williams (violin), Alix Hamilton (viola), and Anna Sarcich (cello).

Bridget Turner, Sarah Tout and Heather Bex from Simone and Girlfunkle are backed by a string quartet. Photo: Graeme Meaker

Harper’s songs are thoughtful and introspective, and the string arrangements add welcome lushness to her stripped back vocal and electric guitar. Some of the arrangements are more functional, such as Joshua Chan’s take on “The Dark I Love” where the quartet predominantly provides harmonic support over which Harper’s voice can sail.

In others the strings get more action, such as Rebecca Erin Smith’s interpretation of “Graceless” which opens with just the quartet underneath Harper’s vocal, and later gives the strings structural and textural figures. Similarly, the juxtaposition of a smooth and poignant cello counter-melody beneath tense stutters of high strings in the instrumental break of Jared Yapp’s arrangement adds new poignance to “Slow Motion Break-Up”.

Simone and Girlfunkle’s fuller line-up and cheerful stage presence give a nice contrast to the stillness Harper’s delicate songs inspired. As Heather Bex, Bridget Turner and Sarah Tout took the stage, their delighted anticipation to hear the arrangements was infectious.

Simone and Girlfunkle’s signature tight harmonies were in full throated force in the set’s opener, “Blown Into The Wind”. Despite having never rehearsed together, the vocal trio and the string quartet effortlessly coordinated the rubato passages in “Belly Of Time”, perhaps with some subtle cues from Bex, who also added smatterings of clarinet in “Venus”.

Dan Grant’s electric guitar and Vaughan Davies’ bass added engaging depth in following songs. Elsewhere, Turner and Bex’s vocals were accompanied only by Sarcich on cello and Tout’s guitar. Tonight is a closing flourish for Tout, who will be departing after an eight year stint with the band.

“Will I?” (arr. Erin Gordon) and “Summer Rain” (arr. Tim Newhouse) were highlights of the set, both featuring thoughtful mirroring between voices and strings that fit so well it was hard to imagine the songs had ever been performed without a full string quartet.

Tender Is The Night is a concept that works, effortlessly appealing to listeners of both pop and classical persuasions. The event has a residency with the City of Melville over the next 12 months, so there are plenty more opportunities to pack a picnic and sample some of the delights on offer.

Pictured top: Bridget Turner, Sarah Tout and Heather Bex from Simone and Girlfunkle perform at “Tender is the Night”. Photo: Graeme Meaker

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Author —
Claire Coleman

Dr Claire Coleman is a pop musicologist, choral conductor and musician. She trained classically in piano, but wrote her doctorate on nostalgia in indie folk, and continues to lecture remotely in pop music studies in Berlin and London. Claire compares the high of bullying strangers into singing to doing hypothetical illicit drugs, so watch out or you might end up an unwitting participant in one of her choral adventures.

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