Andrea Katz shares why she and her fellow Songmakers are giving voice to the canon’s rarities.

There is something uniquely immediate about art song, an intimacy that springs from witnessing a singer and pianist working together so closely. Emotion, so vital to this art form, becomes deeply entwined with our shared qualities, encouraging a listener to draw parallels between their own experience and that which is unfolding in front of them. The great composers of song – Schubert, Brahms, Schumann, Vaughn-Williams – were instinctively drawn to poetry that would give their melodies direction, using the music to amplify a character’s torment, or help them revel in joy. 

Basing their work firmly within this European tradition of art song, Andrea Katz and the other performers that make up Songmakers Australia – Merlyn Quaife, Sally-Anne Russell, Andrew Goodwin and Nicholas Dinopoulos – bring this canon of works, so fondly performed across Europe, to the stages of Australia. A particular specialty is rarely performed cycles, offering audiences the chance to discover a trove of musical treasures, whether in Melbourne or regional New South Wales.

Songmakers is blessed, of course, by the outstanding proficiency with which each member performs, but beyond that, there is a touching vulnerability exposed by this repertoire that frequently offers a moment of candid, emotional honesty. It’s here, in this frank, expressive rapport that audiences can find the greatest rewards. 

Songmakers is, as its name suggests, in the business of making songs, and each collective breath brings alive something brand new, regardless of how well acquainted you may be with, for example, the lieder of Schubert. The first time I attended a Songmakers rehearsal with the sole purpose of watching the way the members interact, I was struck by the intuition that each performer had for one another. In a lean or a subtle glance, a whole unspoken world of communication is divulged. The sincerity of this interaction comes from a place of close friendship; rehearsals occasionally stop – erupting in laughs at a missed entrance or a cracked voice. Because there is such an incredible level of ease between each member, having worked together for five years, they are all aware of each other’s quirks and personalities. On a technical level, this allows them to use their breath as an indicator to take more time, or move through a phrase with more gusto, but it also creates a nurturing atmosphere of collaboration that yields a superb quality of music-making.

Having worked with Graham Johnson, a leading British expert in the art song tradition, Katz has found herself leading an Australian art song revolution. She not only champions lesser-known cycles, bringing unheard composers to Australia, but she is also encouraging a future for the form, by leading masterclasses and workshops with young singers and pianists, and by commissioning new works for the group to expand the canon. Each member of Songmakers is counted as a leading teacher and according to Katz, the passing on of knowledge is of the utmost importance to the quintet. Keeping art song alive in Australia was her “mandate”, from mentor and artistic patron Johnson, and one that she takes extraordinarily seriously. 

Sometimes I went back to my lodgings after 10 hours nonstop, light headed on wine and ideas.

In her time in London, Katz often spent entire days with Johnson – talking about art and music, and listening to records before they would even touch the piano. She laughs about this experience, explaining that she learnt more without playing than she ever thought possible. “Working with Graham was an extraordinary life experience, way beyond music,” she recalls. “We talked for hours about everything but the song we were playing and sometimes I went back to my lodgings after 10 hours nonstop, light headed on wine and ideas!”

This time was invaluable in developing an understanding of art music and cementing the idea that that to be able to perform romantic music, one must have experienced “art and literature and life”. Johnson, an award-winning and highly sought-after repetiteur, was instrumental in helping inspire Songmakers Australia’s formation, with the name being an homage to his highly-regarded British ensemble, The Songmakers’ Almanac. His philosophy, to explore neglected areas of piano-accompanied vocal music is of paramount importance to Katz, who is passionate about bringing songs that aren’t often heard to Australia.

For Katz, art song is a genre that is very much alive: “People have a slight misconception of art song and lieder as stilted musical forms. If you go back in time to 1840, when Schumann was writing his great song cycles, they were not very different from modern pop albums by Crowded House, Bob Dylan or The Beatles. The aesthetics are different of course, but human feelings are the same and a great song transcends the barriers of time, style and language.” The first performance by Songmakers Australia at the Melbourne Recital Centre five years ago, was made up of gypsy music – a nod to Katz’s interest in exploring the rarely heard. When consulting Johnson about her inaugural programme, Katz recalls her mentor being blown away by the idea. “He had done a concert of gypsy music 25 years before, so he was full of ideas and information,” she tells me. Since that first performance in 2011, Songmakers Australia has presented a yearly subscription series at the MRC, where they have been part of the Local Heroes series since their foundation.

They return to this venue again this year to celebrate their 5-year anniversary. Songmakers Australia will present Songs to a Distant Beloved, featuring a performance of Beethoven’s An die fern Geliebte, on the date of the bicentenary of its composition. The cycle is of major importance to Songmakers, as it is informally considered as one of the first examples of a song cycle by a significant composer. It explores the communicative, emotional power that the form has become known for – especially in its exploration of love, loss and immortality.  

Songmakers Australia present Songs to a Distant Beloved as part of their 5th anniversary season, at the Melbourne Recital Centre, Melbourne, April 13.