Calvin Bowman has garnered the extraordinary accolade of being the only living Australian composer to be exclusively featured on the revered Decca label. Veteran leftie and lover of the arts, Barry Jones launched Decca’s two-disc album of Bowman’s songs at the start of this concert which brought together the three talented singers who have recorded some fifty of the composer’s art songs. Such a genre seems decidedly out of place in these times, but Bowman, a self-confessed musical conservative, has cultivated the form for over two decades with considerable success.
While subscribing to an aesthetic of beauty and audience engagement similar to that of the great American song-smith Samuel Barber, this concert revealed that Bowman’s own musical sympathies for the most part tend to lie with English songwriters of the first half of the twentieth century. This is hardly surprising when the composer favours texts by Walter de la Mare and Hilaire Belloc. Such texts are fairly pictorial and suggestive of musical outcomes, and although Bowman’s settings often evoke the memory of the likes of Gurney, Warlock and Finzi, there are sufficient individual touches of texture, harmony and timbre to make them his own.
Bowman is also no mean accompanist and accompanied his fellow artists, soprano Sara Macliver, tenor Paul McMahon and baritone Christopher Richardson through a generous selection of his songs. Macliver was apt at capturing contrasting moods of de la Mare’s from his lunar reverie, Silver through to the raucous ride of witches in The Ride-by-Nights. McMahon’s classic tenor instrument is well suited to this music, and was particularly expressive in childlike settings of Robert Louis Stevenson. Richardson was also very impressive with his total command of varying material, bringing plenty of salt and vinegar to the Three Sea Songs with de la Mare texts, in which Bowman was joined by none other than Ian Munro for the piano duet accompaniments. Richardson also enjoyed the wry humour of de la Mare’s Seven Epitaphs and the earthiness of two Belloc settings (Eheu! Fugaces and the West Sussex Drinking Song), the last of which was a nod to composer Peter Warlock’s supposed excesses.
It is interesting to note that when Bowman sets texts from times and places some distance from twentieth-century England, his musical style expands in a remarkable way. His two settings of the Murraguldrie pastoral by distinguished Australian art historian Bernard Smith unlock a rather different musical language where the Australian landscape is tellingly and sympathetically brought to life. Macliver brings real empathy and presence to these songs, as she does to a group of five short songs with texts by Melbourne’s own Michael Leunig, which gives the album its title.
The first song, Tiny Boat is a superb miniature where music and text exist in perfect symbiosis. Leunig’s signature duck makes an innocent appearance before The Home for the Appalled recalls an interwar cabaret song. A humorous interlude (Sitting on the Fence) precedes Real and Right and True over which hovers the ghost of Elgar’s Nimrod. Bowman’s music mirrors Leunig’s wonderful mix of ironic wit and spirituality.
Bowman’s charming miniatures with their fine attention to textual and musical detail are a perfect antidote to world-weariness. If this concert is any indication, his album will be a great success.