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.


The Young Songmaker program launched in early 2017, and has been an extension of our yearly masterclass series. Applicants submit their CV and present for audition, but also devise two recital programs for consideration (a thoroughly fascinating aspect to the application process).

The program itself has a strong mentoring focus, picking up where average tertiary course of study ends. Really, it has been no surprise that the response to our call-out has been overwhelmingly enthusiastic, as if this has been something that has been missing from our home-grown training grounds for a long time.

The Australian artistic landscape has followed global trends and narrowed in many ways. Performers now travel internationally with relative ease, and are presented by major promoters for the enjoyment of local audiences. This has, however, proven challenging for home-grown artists, and art song recitals (even those given by major recording artists) have long been considered a "hard sell".


And yet, our experience at Songmakers Australia is that once people attend a recital, they are absolutely hooked. The flexible nature of our ensemble allows us to juxtapose composers, themes and our core artists to create programs that are interesting and often out of the box. 

Some of the most memorable and enjoyable recitals over the years have been completely unexpected. Earlier this year, my colleagues gave a complete performance of Dmitri Shostakovich's cycle for soprano, mezzo-soprano, tenor and piano From Jewish Folk Poetry, Op. 79. Another special program entitled 1863 marked the 150th anniversary of the Salon des Refusés (the art exhibition that gave rise to the Impressionist movement). Our Romance series featured clarinet, viola and cello respectively over three consecutive years in programs that aimed to bridge the gap between art song and chamber music. We have journeyed down the River Rhine, acted out Shakespeare in song and explored the tango rhythm of Astor Piazzolla. Performing new Australian work is a given, but we have also introduced children to fine poetry and fascinating characters of A.B. "Banjo" Paterson's The Animals Noah Forgot in the school holidays. And alongside famous songs and cycles by Schubert, Schumann and Brahms, we have presented relatively unknown vocal chamber music by these great composers. Through this approach, we have built a loyal following, and will continue challenge the expectations of our audience.

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Insofar as the response from our potential Young Songmakers has been concerned, these singers have unanimously been able to identify that the study of art song will assist them to broaden their horizons as performers. (I would argue that the genre also helps us to broaden our perspective as listeners, not to mention as human beings!) However, most of them possess voices cultivated to realise operatic potential, but of course, this is not enough to be successful in this field.

What the audience can experience in the salon is entirely something else. We often speak of intimate recitals (so as to differentiate the medium from the grandeur of the concert hall or opera theatre). But we rarely seem to talk about honesty in performing - a quality which can all too easily be lacking. And yet, this is where the magic happens. The essence of human connection. The mutual trust between audience and performer.

As an ensemble, Songmakers Australia has travelled a lot since our inception in 2011. This something we intend to keep doing in order bring the highest quality recitals to those willing to lend us their ears, hearts and minds for between 60-75 minutes! More about Songmakers Australia here.