Review of Swansongs with Lisa Harper-Brown
Reviewed by David Cusworth
on the 19th August 2014
Perth Town Hall
Twin celebrations of women at Perth Town Hall had to be more than coincidence.
Jana Vodesil-Baruffi’s portraits of WA women, and soprano Lisa Harper-Brown’s homage to women in song, both channelled the radiant presence of former Perth MP Diana Warnock, whose appearance on canvas and in the audience graced each event.
But the moment belonged to Harper-Brown, whose towering figure and voice filled an otherwise sparsely populated venue.
Repertoire ranged from the pioneering work of Margaret Sutherland and Peggy Glanville Hicks, to Francis Poulenc’s setting of lyrics by Louise de Vilmorin, to contemporary composers Katy Abbott and Sally Whitwell, with a sardonic send off by Leonard Bernstein.
Harper-Brown’s dynamic and tone control through all registers almost begged the question; are women in song exceptional, or simply mainstream?
Sutherland’s Woman’s Song, a mother’s lament, was poignantly meditative, ditto a musing on the dynamic of Twins. Both were very feminine, yet followed immediately by Bullocky, a hymn to a bygone blokey era of transport; “centuries of cattle bells rang with their sweet uneasy sound.”
“Sweet uneasy”, in fact, could describe Harper-Brown’s sound: sweet and beautifully pitched; but also edgy.
Katy Abbott’s The Domestic Sublime explored humdrum housework. Coat hangers inspired a muezzin call, garlic left “ripe sex on your fingers”, and a shadow beneath a clothesline brought on existential angst. Harper-Brown’s dynamics, from fortissimo to pianissimo in an instant, seemed to mimic life’s vicissitudes, by turns urgent and dreamy.
A change of dress from royal blue to chocolate at the break kept the audience guessing through Glanville Hicks’ Four Early Songs and the Poulenc, both romantically engaging, with a brief Voyage To Paris courtesy of Guillaume Apollinaire, France’s premier World War I poet.
Whitwell’s settings of WB Yeats and Christina Rossetti went a little deeper, the drama and colour of the voice lending depth to the passion and pathos of the words.
And for a send-off, Bernstein’s What a Movie! threw in a rueful glance at women’s common fate: “If I don’t get going this minute, there won’t be any dinner when Sam comes home.”