Music, News, Performing arts, Reviews

Singing the message

Review: Perth Symphony Orchestra, ‘Girls Night Out’ ⋅
Astor Theatre, May 30 ⋅
Review by Rosalind Appleby ⋅

The Perth Symphony Orchestra is a diverse orchestra with repertoire that ranges from Mozart to George Michael. On Thursday night they added Madonna to the list for Girl’s Night Out, a concert featuring songs written by some of the greatest power women in history. Chief conductor Jessica Gethin leapt onto the podium and introduced the all-woman line up with exuberance: orchestra, singers, arrangers – even the lighting and stage crew – were all women.

The evening was about celebrating and elevating women and as Perth’s favourite soul singer Odette Mercy (Ofa Fatu) belted out  Chaka Khan’s I’m Every Woman it was clear we were in good hands. With the help of pick-up mics and gutsy bowing the orchestra provided the rhythm section supplemented by percussion, keyboard, saxophone and drumkit. Mercy’s  luscious voice soared easily over the top.

A Samoan singer is backed by three vocalists and an orchestra
Odette Mercy grooves with the Perth Symphony Orchestra. Photo by Angelyne Wolfe.

It’s tough to cover some of the greatest singers of all time but PSO’s soloists were outstanding. Contemporary singer Sophie Foster channelled Aretha Franklin with a mix of power and vulnerability that was impossible to fault. Her cover of Whitney Houston’s I Wanna Dance with Somebody sparkled with vitality thanks to the tasty harmonies of backing singers Alana Fay, Chelsea Cullen and Mia Matthiesson – nothing beats three-part harmony sung by voices as sweet as these.

Lucy Peach, of ‘My Greatest Period Ever’ fame, arrived on stage to sing a sleek version of Madonna’s Material Girl. Minogue’s Can’t Get You Out of My Head drooped a little but Peach’s sultry growl was perfect for Winehouse’s Rehab, with tenor saxophone solos from Erin Royer adding extra grunt.

Blues-folk singer Rose Parker delivered a heart wrenching original number She Makes Her Future before rocking out to Piece of My Heart by Janis Joplin, ‘the biggest-ovaried singer in the history of music’. Tina Turner’s What’s Love Got to Do With It and the Divinyls’ I Touch Myself had the audience singing along. But it was the irresistible combination of all four singers belting out the Spice Girls’ Wannabe that finally got the (mostly female) crowd dancing.

Straddling classical and popular genres is not as easy as it looks; fortunately PSO commissioned arrangements which ensured neither the song nor the orchestra come out looking foolish. Stephanie Nicholl’s visceral arrangement of Beyonce’s Single Ladies (low strings have so much grunt) , Kathy Potter’s rumba version of Franklin’s Sisters are Doin’ it for Themselves, and Nicholl’s plaintive string quintet arrangement of Parton’s Jolene utilised the intimacy and power of the orchestra.

The irresistible combination of Parker, Mercy, Foster and Peach. Photo by Angelyne Wolf.

As the songs rolled by with their messages of endurance, politics, love and survival, there was a sense of warm solidarity in the room. Historical facts about the songwriters were projected on a screen (did you know Nina Simone studied piano at Juilliard School?) as PSO brought a spirit of celebration and inspiration to the #metoo conversation. Unfortunately the need to elevate women was illustrated by a male spectator who verbally abused another audience member, ironically missing the memo from Aretha: R.E.S.P.E.C.T.

But the music prevailed. My enduring memory will be of Odette Mercy stumbling over the lyrics in Adele’s Someone Like You as the act of singing took her on a journey down memory lane. The strings swelled beneath her achingly sweet melody line, and when she hesitated the audience took over. “It just shows the power of singing,” she explained afterwards. “Some things are cleverly hidden within and don’t come out unless you sing”.

Pictured top: Perth Symphony Orchestra bring a spirit of celebration and inspiration. Photo: Angelyne Wolf.

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