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Sydney Festival: Songs of joy and desperation

Jan 19, 2016 Travel

Our editor-at-large reports again from the Sydney Festival


The City Recital Hall in Sydney is tucked away in the delightfully named Angel Place, just down George St from Martin Place. It’s a building remarkable for its understated elegance – the deco styling of exterior and entrance foyer give way to a timber-accented modernist feel inside the auditorium – and even more so for its history. It was built in 1999, expressly as a concert venue. Imagine that. City of culture, Sydney.

They do all sorts in the Recital Hall: I’ve seen Paul Kelly there, and Cat Power unleashes herself in February. And, coming up very soon as part of the Sydney Festival: the entire lineup of Beethoven’s symphonies, presented by a Belgian orchestra dedicated to “historically informed” performances. Nobody says “authentic” anymore, it seems, because what does that mean?

(Actually, Beethoven’s 9th won’t be in the Recital Hall because it’s too popular, so they’ll be singing that Song of Joy in the larger Concert Hall of the Sydney Opera House. Joanna Newsom, also in the festival, is so popular she’ll also be in the Concert Hall at the SOH.)

Last week in the steamy evening heat I walked across Sydney, because you have to do that after a good late lunch, to the Recital Hall, to hear a concert performance of an avant-garde French opera about Orpheus and Eurydice. Underworld lovers. In the surtitles there was a good deal of “Oh I am overwhelmed by this vision” and “I am lost and stumble in the dark” going on, which was a shame – preposterously stilted lyrics are always guaranteed to sabotage whatever empathy you might be disposed to feel. But it was also rather magnificently beguiling, with music described as “microtonal” rather than straight-out “atonal”, which I assume means it can be a wee bit thrilling if you’re in the mood. Which I was.

Festivals are at their best when you ask them to surprise you, although, I know, that’s also when they can be at their worst. You take risks. They wouldn’t be risks if there was nothing to lose. I saw a couple of flattish things, but also a terrific Aboriginal dance company called Marrugeku, performing a vigorous “meditation” on history and identity with the songs of Nick Cave and others called Cut the Sky. Mostly the murder songs. It was intense, and more than a wee bit thrilling.

Australian cabaret singer Meow Meow was also thrilling, performing her “postmodern feminist” and ridiculously outrageous musical version of The Little Mermaid. She’s coming to the Auckland Arts Festival so there’s no reason to go to Sydney to see her, but mark your dance card: she’s in-your-face funny, especially when she’s desperate, which is most of the time, and she’s got a great set of pipes. I refer to her singing voice, although her show strongly invites you to consider more than one meaning of the term.

Sydney. The weather went rogue while I was there, but it kinda does that everywhere these days. Among the many highlights still to come, which you will need to go to Sydney for: Mexrrissey, the raucous Mexican version of Morrissey songs. There is a light and it never goes out – well, not until they put down the maracas.

The festival doesn’t end till January 26.

Simon Wilson visited Sydney courtesy of Destination NSW and the Sydney Festival.

Photo: Meow Meow by Prudence Upton.


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