Andrea Keller’s uniquely powerful music makes for a stunning season opener.

Utzon Room, Sydney Opera House
7 March, 2015

Australia’s a capella masters, The Song Company, gave its first performance of 2015 at the Sydney Opera House’s intimate Utzon Room, with a performance almost exclusively devoted to the music of Andrea Keller, who also joined the ensemble for the performance as Guest Director.

Keller is an Australian composer with Czech heritage, currently based in Melbourne, and this cultural combination was reflected in her choice of text, setting both English and Czech. A master improviser, with a background in jazz composition, throughout the evening she had a few opportunities to perform partially-composed/partially-improvised piano works as well as connective phrases between some songs. Keller was not the only new addition to the Song Company’s familiar lineup. Along with the usual singers; Anna Fraser, Hannah Fraser, Richard Black and Mark Donnelly, audiences heard for the first time Andrew O’Connor and Michelle Ryan in a subscription series concert.

For me, the most impressive work in the program was One Am I & One by Andrea Keller with lyrics by Gian Slater. A poignant work which expressed powerful anguish in a style that was like a jazz-meets-contemporary-meets-music theatre amalgamation, this piece made use of an interesting harmonic palette. The tessitura in which the soprano (Anna Fraser) sang and the treatment of the piano/voice compositional relationship was masterfully handled. Anna Fraser’s timbre, feeling and the je ne sais quoi she brought to this performance left the audience covered in goose-bumps. Perhaps it was the context within the program immediately following a few jaunty Wesley-Smith numbers? It had originally been programmed as the final work, but Keller changed the order after they’d performed it a few times on the tour, and it was an excellent call.

As usual, the Song Company performed with flawless intonation, and Keller’s rich harmonic language was all the better to experience for it. This was evident from the very opening work, Angels & Rascals. The first Czech piece performed was Vzpomínka (Memory) and, being the lover of languages I am, I immediately fell in love with the use of this Eastern European dialect in chamber vocal context. The fricatives and plosives of the language allowed for percussive and nuanced compositional treatments that explored musical territory that English just isn’t able to reach.

The program mixed influences from folk-song with traditional melodies with more contemporary work, re-imagined through Keller’s creative prism. The absurd/surreal nursery rhymes had incredible translations, and they became an eclectic and often hilarious collection of vignettes. The program also showcased five Wesley-Smith songs: Lost Snail, Maggie & Vic, The Fighters Who Fell, Freddie the Fish, Who stopped the Rain? These were witty, effervescent and infused with a quirky playfulness, and the contrast of the Wesley-Smith style to Keller’s illuminated the relative musical idiosyncrasies in both: Keller’s works explored a more somber, reflective, emotional spectrum with a very rich harmonic aspect drawn from her jazz background, whilst these Wesley-Smith drew more directly from a barber-shop quartet aesthetic.

Sycek Neodletel from “On an Overgrown Path” by Leos Janacek, arranged by Keller was perhaps the only composition of the evening that I felt didn’t stand up to the rest. The original piano solo juxtaposes flighty, agitated motifs with more sparse reflective tones. In Keller’s arrangement, I felt that an early western-sacred vocal writing style was being emulated, and that it didn’t sit well with the rest of the work.

The program could have benefitted from some more substantial a capella works, allowing more opportunity for the audience to luxuriate in Keller’s rich harmonies and the Song Company’s flawless ensemble singing. The opportunity to hear such a large body of smaller works in one program of course has its advantages, however.

That said, this program, largely, was a unanimous success. Other highlights of the program for me were Moravo, Moravo – a Moravian Folksong arranged by Keller where Anna Fraser’s warm solo (with a particularly beautiful timbre in the lower register of the work) was supported by the rest of the company off-stage, like a distant echo. By this time in the program, the sun had been setting, transforming the Utzon room from a picturesque afternoon recital to an intimate evening concert. I doubt there could have been a more perfect backdrop for this work, which mourned the loss of war – a subject matter ensembles all over the country are exploring this year as we approach the centenary of the Gallipoli landings. Keller’s piano solo When Sometimes We Become What We Were Born For was a greatly moving, reflective work, its stark dissonances and pointillism implying the complexities of destiny and the many vectors of desire. 

The Song Company will give its final performance of this program on Tuesday 10 March at Melbourne Recital Centre. They will also be performing more Wesley-Smith in Kangaroo Valley on Saturday 6th June. Postcards from Prague will be aired on 2MBS.