A multi-faceted musical performer, Jason Barry-Smith’s accomplishments include those of operatic and musical theatre baritone, composer, arranger, musical director, chorus master, as well as creative director. This recital demonstrated his versatility in the aptly named A Life in Many Parts, including repertoire from film, Broadway musicals, Gilbert and Sullivan and 20th-century English folk music. Though presented by Opera Queensland, surprisingly there was no opera in the mix – a major component of this singer’s career. All the songs chosen originated from the English language, possibly a deciding factor in their choice.
Based on the theme of Shakespeare’s seven ages of man, Barry-Smith explored – with Luke Volker on piano – the detailed elements of Jacques’ speech from As You Like It, whilst adding an inspired eighth age, that of fatherhood. It was a cleverly constructed program scrutinising a man’s life from birth to death through relevant musical choices woven around Shakespeare’s remarkable text.
Choosing to open and close the program with Vaughan Williams’ Songs of Travel, he introduced the traveller’s journey in the jaunty Vagabond, closing with the melancholic I have trod the upward and the downward slope, a neat recapitulation of the cycle of life. Musically haunting, both were imbued with a mixture of hope and longing.
Employing beautiful phrasing and excellent diction, Barry-Smith showed us Infancy in the marvellous Dreamland, from the film of For the Boys. It was followed by a gleeful portrayal of childhood in two Schoolboy pieces offering views of both a meek and a naughty child.
For the Lover, Finzi’s arrangement of Shakespeare’s O, Mistress Mine from Twelfth Night was charmingly sung, though the mournful Vaughan Williams’ Silent Noon, similar in intent, was less successful.
The three sections of Soldier, Father and Justice proved to be highlights, each offering two contrasting songs. The swashbuckling Pirate King from Gilbert and Sullivan was well-paced with lively interaction with the pianist, beautifully balancing Butterworth’s The lads in their hundreds. Reflecting on those who do not return from war, the interpretation was poignant and mesmerising. Equally, the buoyant narrative of becoming a father in the glorious Soliloquy from Carousel, exceptionally well sung and delivered, was matched by the wistfulness of Stop, Time from the musical, Big!.
Justice was represented by a delicious, contemporary rendition of G&S’s immortal I’ve got a little list with reference to politicians, climate-deniers, bushfire arsonists and even a classic narcissist. Gilbert would have enjoyed this witty update as much as the Brisbane audience did. This judicial view was neatly balanced by Javert’s soliloquy, Stars, from Les Misérables. Demanding forceful, dramatic singing, Barry-Smith rose ably to the occasion giving us a powerful and strong delivery.
A comic interpretation of the Pantaloon, When you find you’re a broken down critter, was well–crafted, offering old-man mimicry with a high piping voice, leading to two final emotive Vaughan Williams songs as the end of life in Oblivion. In lighter mood, as an encore, Bucchino’s Grateful was a heartfelt, up-beat song on which to end the evening.
The program could certainly have benefited from some opera arias to round it out, while much more could have been made of production elements to enhance the staging visually. While being only too aware that we were in a socially-distanced rehearsal studio, with limited audience, the ambiance was nevertheless decidedly muted and cheerless. Fortunately, the performers did their best to create their own warmth and engagement but, when live performance is currently a treat to be savoured, a dull black stage and backdrop without atmospheric lighting, props or colour presented a dreary space. This was a pity as ultimately this was an enjoyable concert, combining thoughtful and meaningful music alongside comic and dramatic moments, with a good script. Moreover, it was adeptly presented with a polished, easy-going performance from Barry-Smith, accompanied with fervent relish and excellent technical skills by Volker.