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Carol Flavell Neist

A talented presentation of Art Songs, ranging from French composers of the 19th and 20th centuries, through to contemporary works inspired by Craigslist.

Caitlin Cassidy, mezzo soprano. Photograph by Dorothy Gal Photography.

Over the last 12 months, patrons of SwanSongs have been treated to a history of the Art Song and its place in Western musical life, starting with German lieder and including a vast array of items of various temperaments. In this recital from Cassidy and Wickham we heard works by a variety of French composers from the 19th and 20th centuries, leading up to art songs from the cabaret repertoire.

Caitlin Cassidy is a true mezzo, not just a soprano with a slightly lower range. There is a certain timbre to the true mezzo which differs from both soprano and contralto voices, and Cassidy has it.

Her first offering was a selection of songs from the pen of Francis Poulenc (1899–1963). The six songs in this first bracket demonstrated Poulenc’s vast range of abilities in composition. Collectively titled Fiançailles pour rire, the songs demonstrated a range of dramatic emotions. This was not easy material: ‘Il vole’, for example, has a complicated, atonal quality that would terrify many singers, but Cassidy handled all the songs with what appeared to be ease – and faultless French pronunciation. It’s far easier to sing in Italian than any other European language, and each one has its special difficulties. English, with its many diphthongs, might be the hardest of all, but French is not far behind.

In fact, the entire first half was composed of French songs. From Poulenc we moved on to Georges Bizet (1838 – 1875). Apart from the ubiquitous (and very beautiful) Carmen, Bizet wrote many other, less famous works. One such offering, ‘Adieux de l’hôtesse arabe’, demonstrate a lovely clarity of tone, with the final descending series of trills beautifully and sensitively handled.

From Bizet to Berlioz – the latter’s highly emotional ‘Zaïre’ demonstrated all shades of fear from slightly anxious to downright terrified!

The first half concluded with Jacques Brel’s ‘Les Vieux’, which was definitely an art song, but one that veered toward cabaret. The shameless borrowing from ‘Greensleeves’ in the melody seemed surprising for a composition by a Frenchman, but I guess a good folksong tune is open to borrowing by anyone! It was a top speed number and I was quite out of breath by the time the artists finished, Thus ended the first half.

After the usual goodies and a nice cuppa, we returned to find that our singer had changed from a black lace dress to a green velvet one, and was all keyed up to give us a panoply of modern art songs from America, starting with Samuel Barber’s ‘A Green Lowland of Pianos’. Yes, the words were as strange as the title! Before she began, though, David Wickham gave us the short version of a lecture on 12-tone music.

Gabriel Kahane must have been eager to do a little composing one morning. Maybe he was short of material, as the three ensuing songs drew their lyrics entirely from the famous American classified advertisements website, Craigslist. If you want to buy something, sell something, find your long lost cousin or a new partner, Craigslist is the place to look! Let’s face it, 12-tone music will never get onto the Top 40, but it was interesting to listen first to Kahane, then William Bolcom’s cabaret songs, which intimated a leaning toward the blues. The final number, by John Corigliano, was simply titled ‘Dodecaphonia’. It says worlds about the talents of our musicians that everyone listened to these strangely constructed songs without complaint and the expressions on faces as the crowd departed suggested that they had all had a wonderful musical experience.

The talent and versatility of both performers, as well as their cheerful presentation of a huge range of songs, carried this performance on shimmering wings. More Swansongs, please!

5 stars out of 5

With David Wickham and Caitlin Cassidy
Perth Town Hall
Sunday, 6 August 2017

What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Carol Flavell Neist has written reviews and feature articles for The Australian, The West Australian, Dance Australia, Music Maker, ArtsWest and Scoop. She was reviews editor for the now defunct Specusphere magazine and, writing as Satima Flavell, has also published poetry and fantasy fiction.