Plugging In: The Lieder Tradition in Australia

Plugging In: The Lieder Tradition in Australia

A lieder tradition, here? How can we hope to keep this alive when we are so remote? As Australians, our culture is an amalgam of many aspects. Physical distance does of course separate us from continental Europe, which has provided us with the bulk of our repertoire as recitalists for so long.

At Songmakers Australia we are absolutely committed to this art form, bringing it to audiences, and helping the next generation of performers to wrap around all that it entails.

Yesterday evening I sat on a panel alongside Merlyn Quaife AM (distinguished soprano & ensemble core member) and Richard Mills AM (composer & artistic director of Victorian Opera) chaired by Songmakers' artistic director Andrea Katz to audition prospective singers and pianists for our 2018 artist development program.

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The Plan. The Score. The Script.

It's a cool, crisp Saturday afternoon in Melbourne and I've just returned home after a morning at the Songmakers Studio. After a nice cup of tea, I'm sitting down to write this Winterreise blog and reflect on the morning's work with Andrea, and also do a bit of revision with my score.

I've had lots of enquiries about how rehearsals are going and, in more general terms, how one approaches such a large cycle. All-in-all, it's feeling really good, and actually in this circumstance, two thirds of the work is already done - Andrea and I already know each other very well, and we're also are very familiar with Schubert's musical language.

So our process of rehearsing for this cycle is actually a little bit different. We've mostly been ploughing through the cycle, devouring each song, and I anticipate we will get to the end at our next session on Thursday (we are are now about two-thirds of the way through). In actual fact, our discussions have mostly focussed on the gross narrative, which ties in well with this way of working.

When we started, we each had quite a different conception of who the protagonist is, but discover more and more clues each rehearsal that affirms our perspective on his background and circumstances. Initially I viewed this young man as pertaining to a lower social stratum, but there are plenty of indications that he's working within a household of some standing and has committed a sort of social faux-pas, which prompts his departure.

We also work very hard to maintain a continuity between the individual numbers of the cycle, but for this to ring true, one really needs to get inside this young man's head! I also think it's really important to recycle one's energy between movements, and find a way to transform one thought or feeling into the next. There are seldom moments when the action stops, even between movements, but there are a few points of repose (today, for instance, we found one after Irrlicht) where both the protagonist and the audience can catch their breath.

One of Andrea's main musical philosophies (one she has very much passed on to me) is that as performers, we must always work to realise the true intentions of the composer. If something doesn't feel right, it's normally because we've missed something that Schubert had in mind. Mostly these are overt indications, but sometimes there are codified elements too. Given we're so focussed on the score and on the text, in a way it feels as though there are fewer musical decisions to make over-all - it's really all there!

Andrea and I were actually commenting after rehearsal today that in all of this, we feel rather a lot like movie directors preparing for a film, which is probably a good way to summarise the whole process. She she even joked that we should develop a story board, which is a little unconventional for our art form, but I reckon it's an awesome idea. Let's see if we get around to it...

The Concurrent Career: On Teaching & Performing

We live in the era of the concurrent career. Many of us do it. Some out of love. Others out of necessity. The artistic landscape in Australia has certainly changed over the past few decades, and maintaining a full-time career in one artistic field is challenging at best.

Opera is the thing that got me hooked on this career and has kept me striving. Art Song has become a love, and a way to connect closely with people. Concerts are exciting and keep me busy, but passing it all on to the next generation is something that has become a passion.

Conducting the Dvořák  Stabat Mater  in concert at Monash University (2014).

Conducting the Dvořák Stabat Mater in concert at Monash University (2014).

My work at Monash University (since 2014), at the Australian Boys Choir (since 2007), and more recently at a number of Melbourne schools, has brought a continuity that is much more difficult to achieve as a singer. The industry seems to be shrinking and performance opportunities are limited, so practically speaking, it has made a lot of sense. But it's more than that.

Students are increasingly more at home in non-traditional learning environments, and crave one-on-one attention. Singing teachers can harness this, helping students grow as individuals and chart potential in areas they may not have even dreamed possible. Think about it: In whatever area we excel, we all had to start somewhere, and chances are it was one particular teacher that lit that spark. 

Notable teaching artists whose work I admire greatly include the likes of Mark Tucker (UK), Hanno Müller-Brachmann (Germany) and my own colleague & mentor Merlyn Quaife (Australia). I'm proud to be working as a coach, conductor, teacher and singer concurrently, but there are a number of pitfalls.

Soundcheck with the Australian Boys Choir (2015).

Soundcheck with the Australian Boys Choir (2015).

As teachers and coaches, we very much need to be working with the student that is actually in front of us. It is tempting to simply impart exercises taught to us as developing singers, but working to diagnose any vocal issues or impediments (and designing or adapting exercises to assist with this), helps students to get the most out of their sessions. A knowledge of the repertoire is paramount, but so is judicious selection of works depending on the current capabilities of the voice in question.

At Monash, we also know that our students are tremendously inspired by coaching with industry leaders on a weekly basis. Masterclasses too are great learning environments, but afford little by way of continuity and follow-up. There is a delicate balance here.

Coaching at the Songmakers Australia studio (2016).

Coaching at the Songmakers Australia studio (2016).

As far as balancing one's own performances with studio coaching, I certainly enjoy the variety, but a certain degree of care is required. Firstly, for the professional performer, vocal maintenance is of paramount importance. Ensuring the voice is well warmed-up before any teaching, and scheduling practice - especially when preparing new or difficult works for performance - is the way I take care of my voice and stay on top of my workload. 

I also resist demonstrating in lessons unless completely necessary, and often teach non-verbally. As well as saving voice, this forces the teacher to distill the essence of the message we wish to impart.

Furthermore, becoming acquainted with Semi-Occluded Vocal Tract exercises ("straw phonation" among them) has both changed my voice and helped to rehabilitate it during periods of heavy rehearsal or teaching.

If not already familiar with SOVT exercises, students and teachers alike might do well to further investigate these elements of singing via the website www.voicescienceworks.org. Noted voice scientist Ingo Titze has also published an introduction to straw phonation here on YouTube.

Lastly, I will say that points of discussion or questions on this topic are most welcome! Feel free to comment on Facebook or on the blog below.

Lieder Partnerships

Working on the song repertoire is very much a team effort, and I'm so very fortunate to have the amazing Andrea Katz by my side for this Winterreise. In this entry, I want to share a little bit about our rehearsal process and talk about just what makes collaborative pianists so special. But firstly, a little background...

I first met Andrea as a first-year university student. She had recently arrived in town to take up the post of Acting Head of Voice at The Melbourne Conservatorium for six months. My voice teacher Merlyn Quaife (now also a tremendous colleague, fellow Songmaker, and currently also my boss at Monash University) was on leave, so all of my lessons that semester were to be with Andrea. On her first day, my eighteen year-old self promptly marched into her office to say hello, set up a lesson time, and make some suggestions about a few things she might like to undertake while in the role. Her experience as a pianist, chamber musician and vocal coach was extensive and had encompassed the globe, and here was me - the young upstart! After that first encounter, it's a wonder she put up with me in those lessons at all.

Since then (by some miracle), we've travelled all over the country together giving recitals and working on operas. In 2011 she founded Songmakers Australia, and I was stoked (if not a little surprised!) to be asked to join the ensemble as a core member. Some of my fondest memories include performances of the Schubert Schwanengesang in Canberra (something I shall return to blog about in the coming weeks), working on the The Rake's Progress together in Auckland, the first time we did our Piazzolla tango program at the Melbourne Recital Centre, a visit to Perth to observe rehearsals for the production of Elektra she was working on for the Perth International Arts Festival, our very first Sunday Live Broadcast on the ABC featuring Stephen Hough's Other Love Songs (actually the first time we were to collaborate with Andrew Goodwin, who would later become a core Songmaker), and countless road trips in my 1992 Ford Falcon (that Andrea christened "Berta" after the housekeeper in the Barber of Seville) to give concerts in the most beautiful Victorian towns.

As you would expect, our relationship has evolved over the years. It took me a little while to move on from being her student to being her colleague. Rehearsals in the early days were coachings ("Make sure this phrase travels through to here; Be sure to breathe in the tempo you want; Follow the left hand here; Which vowel is that?") but since starting Songmakers, our work together has morphed to become an equal partnership. We come to rehearsals each having done our own preparation and research and with our own ideas, and the process is one of finding common ground. It is extremely rare that we will have a completely different view of a piece, but in those circumstances we try it both ways before finding a compromise. She sometimes still coaches me, and if there's something she hears in rehearsal that doesn't sound right, she will always ask before tweaking it. She has encouraged me in this career no end, and by all of these things I know she respects me as a singer, musician and artist.

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The nature of the Lieder partnership is a special one. It is not a song recital without the singer, but the piano truly is of equal importance. The more time one spends in rehearsal with one's associate artist, the more closely one comes to understand their dispositions, musical priorities and quirks. Both parties bring their experiences and lay them at the service of the music. All of this takes time to develop, and is probably best done over several cups of tea! The best partnerships last a life time.

Really, Andrea does so much more than just "accompany". We are such terrific friends. Our performances are a melding of minds and our rehearsals, a sparring of ideas. I am continually amazed by what she can do. Many of my colleagues know that I like to take risks, never completely changing what has been rehearsed, but I like to play with things on the spur of the moment. If I'm slightly late with a consonant for expressive effect, Andrea will be there. If the mood takes me and the rallentando becomes grander, she will follow. If she senses I'm struggling to make a phrase, she will forge on. If I get lost, she will catch me - and all while providing such incisive musical commentary on the words!

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First Steps

Having been recently invited to give a performance of the Schubert Winterreise for the first time, the thought came to me after today's preliminary workshop on the piece to document the process, from the journey's first steps, to it's conclusion in September next year (with the performance announcement and bookings opening very soon!).

Our art song ensemble, Songmakers Australia, celebrated it's five-year anniversary this year (somewhat nerve-wracking in itself), and my passion for and dedication to this repertoire is no secret. In lots of ways, the Winterreise is the everest of the genre - 75 minutes of intimate vocal artistry of the highest order - so it would be somewhat of an under-statement to say that I'm daunted. That said, having studied and performed a lot of Schubert and Germanic repertoire in general, I've also been chipping away at the piece for several years now and the timing feels right.

After more than 10 years of working together, Andrea and I virtually share a brain, so there's no-one else I would rather be embarking upon this project with. She pretty much knows what I am going to do in a performance before I've even had time to think of it, and in a sense, the preparation for this recital is already done - we embarked on the Schubert Schwanengesang together more than three years ago in a slow and careful way, and that has laid an excellent foundation. (That was quite a process - something I shall blog about in due course.)

With the style, language and intense knowledge of the work behind us (Andrea has performed it before, and I have been studying it for a while), our first rehearsal today largely focussed on the tonal schema of the work. As a bass-baritone, it's not possible for me to perform the work in Schubert's original keys, but we always work towards preserving the tonal relationship between one song in a cycle and the next. Sometimes this is not possible (for either vocal or pianistic reasons), and a compromise has to be made and each performer will approach this aspect in different ways.