A delightful show full of surprises despite some inconsistencies.

Kew Courthouse

26 August, 2014

Like the pied piper, instrumentalists dressed in white led the audience into the auditorium at Kew Courthouse to signal the beginning of Evan Lawson’s Forest Collective production, The Garden. The Garden is a carefully constructed chamber opera dealing with the pitfalls of love, drawing together music of, among others, Schumann, Schubert, and Mozart, interspersed with Lawson’s own compositions. Leading the procession was young accordionist William Elm, whose playing and presence lent a cabaret-like sound to the ensemble. Unfortunately, although the accordion featured prominently at the beginning, Elm was seated at the back of the ensemble, and he received no further solo moments. As we took our seats, projections appeared on the wall behind the ensemble, depicting lively illustrations of the couple around which the work was based. This lovely and inventive touch was sadly only an intermittent feature of the evening.

The main program opened with Lawson’s imaginative arrangement of Schumann’s Im wunderschönen Monat Mai from Dichterliebe. Schumann’s music came alive in Lawson’s hand. The flute, played by Hank Clifton, danced with trills and flutter tongue, representing the singing birds described in Henrich Heine’s original poem, and the sharing of the melody among the instruments added unexpected lightheartedness. Clifton again shone in Ben Harrison’s Duet for Clarinet and Flute, during which Clifton and clarinetist Vilan Mai deftly wove their sounds together, calling and responding with echoes and new ideas. Harrison’s music is sprightly and fresh, performed on this occasion by two fine young musicians.

Baritone Michael Lampard shortly appeared, and began to rearrange furniture haphazardly piled on the stage next to the ensemble. At first it seemed all a little loud and clumsy, taking attention away from Lawson’s clever reworking of the Schumann, but in no time Lampard had assembled a nifty little stage set up, from where he began to sing. Lampard’s voice is a real treat: smooth, unaffected and easy tone, pure, while still quite full, and never sounding forced or pushed. Similarly, his stage presence was relaxed and grounded, necessary for The Garden, which tended to jump quickly from section to section.

Next, we were introduced to soprano Rosemary Ball, the object of Lampard’s affection. Ball’s presence is strong and commanding, and she possesses a voice to match. Her interpretation of ‘Er, der herrlichste von allen’ from Schumann’s Frauenliebe und leben, rather than full of the first blush of love, seemed anguished and at times laboured. We were soon to discover Ball’s character is betrothed to the wrong man: classic romantic comedy fodder.

Act II saw a complete change in mood, from jollity to drama, and our happy couple was no longer so enamored. Luckily for the audience, this meant some beautiful, heart-rending music; a highlight being May Lyon’s Storyteller for Solo Violin, performed by Katriona Tsyrlin. Tsyrlin emerged from side stage to a blacked-out auditorium, and tentatively stepped towards one of two music stands set out in front of her. She elicited a couple of quiet notes from her violin, gradually growing louder. As the music evolved, echoes of Part’s Fratres could be heard, alongside Bachian snippets and folk like sonorities. Tsyrlin slipped back in to her ensemble seat, and on with the rest of the show.

The finale, although not an obvious match with the rest of the program, was a triumph. Lawson’s arrangement of Coldplay’s Viva la Vida for soprano, baritone, and chamber ensemble was surprisingly effective, and certainly very rousing. Lampard carried his line well, and Ball’s luscious soprano soared above the ensemble. Could Coldplay frontman Chris Martin ever have conceived his music would be performed like this? Finally, the ensemble downed their instruments, and joined the two singers for a moving humming chorus.

While there were some inconsistencies in the program, The Garden was a delightful show, full of treats and surprises for the audience. Not only did Lawson prove himself as talented composer and arranger, his conducting was superb: rhythmic, precise, and expressive. His arms darted energetically, and his whole stance was like that of a dancer. The Garden is a fine accomplishment for Lawson and his Forest Collective, and an exciting addition to Melbourne’s vibrant classical music scene.

Michael Lampard, baritone
Rosemary Ball, soprano
Evan Lawson, conductor
Stephanie Osztreicher, director
Jasmin Bardel and Kat Phillimore, design
Kye Bartel, stage manager

Forest Collective ensemble:
Hank Clifton, flute
Vilan Mai, clarinet
William Elm, accordion
Katriona Tsyrlin, violin
Bridget Graham, viola
Rebecca Scully, double bass