Pictures of the ocean and beyond

6 March 2022

An eclectic program starring Emma Matthews takes listeners on a sea-themed journey, says Katherine Walpole, while also grounding us satisfyingly at home.

“Sea Pictures”, Festival of Perth ·
Hacket Hall, WA Museum Boola Bardip, 4 March 2022 ·
Review by Katherine Walpole ·

“Sea Pictures”, one of the final concerts in the Perth Festival, embraced the sea as its central theme, and also grounded us firmly at home. Creatively and intelligently curated by Festival Director Iain Grandage, the concert drew on old and new classical repertoire to showcase soprano Emma Matthews singing predominantly (and unusually) mezzo repertoire, alongside an exciting selection of local musicians.

More than simply music, the performance was also about theatre and community, all of us swimming together in Hackett Hall under the presence of the most majestic of all ocean dwellers, the great blue whale. 

It seemed unlikely that such an eclectic collection of both vast and intimate works could feel any sense of integration, yet unification was achieved in more ways than just the ocean theme.

An image from the Sea Pictures performance at Hacket Hall. Pictured a large whale skeleton hangs from the ceiling of a hall, dimly lit, and on a stage below a group of 4 musicians and a singer perform
Emma Matthews and ensemble perform beneath the blue whale skeleton at Hackett Hall. Photo: Corey James

The opening work, Sea Nocturne, is the final movement of George Crumb’s 1971 Vox Balanae (Voice of the Whale). It draws inspiration from whale song and was hauntingly performed by Andrew Nicholson (flute), Eve Silver (cello) and Anna Sleptsova (piano).

The musicians segued seamlessly to the folk song “Oh Waly Waly”, which we heard before we saw. The sound of Sally Boud’s viola, eliciting warmth and love, reached us from the back of the hall and we heard the unmistakeable voice of Matthews, singing as she walked through the audience, pausing her transit to meet the eyes and ears of her audience. The folk song utilised the Benjamin Britten arrangement tying it nicely with the next work, his “Embroidery aria” from Peter Grimes.

The Britten works were followed by a pair of pieces by Ross Edwards: “Water Spirit Song” a movement from Koto Dreaming (2003) for solo cello and (recorded) waterfall, and “Ocean Idyll”, from Edward’s sonata Nura (2004) for flute and piano. These recent compositions by an Australian composer connected us to the here and now; Whadjuk country in the twenty-first century.

The evening culminated in Elgar’s song cycle Sea Pictures, masterfully arranged by Iain Grandage. Elgar’s full orchestral score was impressively and colourfully brought to life by piano, flute, viola and cello, as if the four instrumentalists were themselves a full orchestra. Matthews was faultless in every aspect of musical and vocal technique, her performance sheer storytelling through music.

It’s been said many times that the silver lining of COVID-19 has been hearing Western Australian musicians sparkling in the spotlight. The “Sea Pictures” concert was yet another example of this pandemic gift. Matthews, a jewel in the crown of Australian opera, generously shared her heart and soul, transcending the whole of Hackett Hall and taking us to imaginary lands.

It was also exciting to hear West Australian Symphony Orchestra musicians in a soloistic capacity: Silver’s cello playing was a treat of sound and phrasing, full of finesse and style and Nicholson’s vast array of colours on flute skilfully matched the mood and text of each piece. Sleptsova took on a variety of pianistic roles, effortlessly morphing from quasi percussionist in the Crumb, to chamber musician in the Edwards and expanding with an orchestral density in the “Embroidery Aria”.

“Sea Pictures” was very much a celebration of home. Home because Hackett Hall and the whale (and the bison in the back cabinet) are favourites from childhood. Home because Matthews, Nicholson, Sleptsova, Boud and Silver are our local stars. Home because the music took us away and brought us back again. It was a journey to the middle of the Pacific Ocean (Crumb), to the North Sea and Albert Hall (Britten), the Iberian Peninsula, Japan & Mossman Gorge (Edwards) before returning to Whadjuk country, to our stella Perth musicians and our old friend, the whale.

Pictured top: Emma Matthews, a jewel in the crown of Australian opera, performs in a chamber music concert at Perth Festival. Photo: Corey James

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