Swan Song- Schubertiade

Songmakers Australia, featuring artists from the Young Songmakers Development program

Concert 4 in Schubertiade Festival. Hawthorn Arts Centre, 6th October 2019.

By Stella Joseph-Jarecki

Over the course of an October weekend, Songmakers Australia presented a series of concerts as part of a festival dedicated to the music of Franz Schubert. I attended the fourth and final concert, Swan Song. The concert was so titled as it focused predominantly on music composed by Schubert during the final year of his life, including a song cycle of the same name. Tragically, Schubert died at the age of 31 after contracting syphilis. Schubert is a composer who is very close to my heart, as he was the first composer of classical vocal music who captured my imagination as a teenage voice student. His exquisitely melodic lieder were the first pieces of music which made me want to pursue classical singing more seriously. (A big thank you to my first serious singing teacher Angus Grant for introducing me to his work!)

Chamber group Songmakers Australia regularly hold concerts of art song and have presented a yearly subscription series at Melbourne Recital Centre since their foundation in 2011. Current core members of the group, led by pianist and repetiteur Andrea Katz, are Merlyn Quaife, Nicholas Dinopoulos, Christina Wilson and Brenton Spiteri, and their artistic patron is Graham Johnson. Over the course of the Schubertiade festival, these singers were also joined by emerging artists taking part in the Young Songmakers Development program: Emilia Bertoili, Alastair Cooper-Golec, Stephen Coutts and Hamish Gould. 

From left: Blake Cutler, Andrea Katz and Merlyn Quaife rehearse Der Hirt auf dem Fels at the Hawthorn Arts Centre. Image supplied.

The program of Swan Song was well-balanced, with repertoire including solo lieder, duets, a trio consisting of voice and clarinet accompanied by piano, and a quartet and sextet forming the finale. The vocal performances were universally strong, with the developing artists holding their own alongside the more seasoned performers. An absolute highlight was Der Hirt auf dem Fels (The Shepard on the Rock) which saw Merlin Quaife perform beside clarinettist Blake Cutler. There was lovely communication between the two performers, as they took turns carrying the dominant melodic line, and each had a chance to shine as a solo performers. As a vocal student and all-round singing nerd, listening to Merlyn Quaife was like witnessing a master at work. Her command of her bright and agile soprano voice was astounding. Her use of dynamics, ranging from a fierce fortissimo to a delicate pianissimo, was enormously exciting to witness. The Heine songs from the song cycle Schwanengesang (Swan song) were also dramatically and musically exciting, with Nick Dinopoulos showcasing an impressive depth to his bass-baritone voice.

There were no weak links in the line-up of performers. Mezzo soprano Christina Wilson displayed a rich caramel vocal tone during her solo lieder An die Musik. Baritone Stephen Coutts had a brief but meaningful appearance, lending a warm golden vocal quality to the pieces he was a part of. Soprano Emilia Bertoili and tenor Alastair Cooper-Golec both showcased a sophisticated level of musicality and agility in their phrasing. Unfortunately I did not get to hear counter-tenor Hamish Gould, as he was featured in the other concerts of the festival.

From left: guest pianist Alan Hicks rehearses with Christina Wilson for day 1 of the festival, Saturday 5th October. Image supplied.

During my time as a voice student at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, I was lucky enough to take part in Andrea Katz’s vocal ensemble subject for several semesters. It is lovely to see her put her impressive programming and musical interpretation skills to use in Melbourne, by mounting regular events with Songmakers Australia. It was telling to me that the quartet and sextet were very well balanced vocally, with a range of tone colour and dynamics emerging with the canny communication between the performers. I know first-hand how challenging it can be to achieve a good blend with a chamber group of classically trained vocalists, each with unique and powerful voices, (while still letting each soloist take their moment to shine), and Andrea’s great skill in guiding ensembles in this way was on full display.

If you want to experience the magic of music composed by Franz Schubert, Robert Schumann, and many of the other composers of art song, the concerts held by Songmakers Australia are a fantastic place to start.    

The repertoire of the concert is listed below:

Accompanied by Andrea Katz throughout

Die Taubenpost (Bass-baritone Nick Dinopoulos)

Licht und Liebe (Soprano Emilia Bertoili, tenor Alastair Cooper-Golec)

The Heine songs from song cycle Schwanengesang (Nick Dinopoulos and soprano Merlyn Quaife)

Der Hirt auf dem Felsen (Merlyn Quaife and clarinettist Blake Cutler)

And die Musik (Mezzo soprano Christina Wilson)

Des Tages Weihe (Baritone Stephen Coutts, Emilia Bertoili, Alastair Cooper-Golec, Christina Wilson)

Gebet (Young Songmakers, Christina Wilson, Merlyn Quaife, Nick Dinopoulos)

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