Composers in Exile
Nexas Saxophone Quartet
The Independent Theatre, North Sydney
May 28, 2017
Nexas Saxophone Quartet: Soprano – Michael Duke/ Alto – Andrew Smith/ Tenor- Nathan Henshaw/ Baritone -Jay Byrnes / Voice and piano- Peter Coleman-Wright AO (Baritone)
Written by Victoria Watson
A bold and intelligent theatricality pervaded this concert of cabaret music from the Weimar period and its aftermath. It was a very special opportunity to hear rarely performed repertoire, ingeniously arranged infused with both darkness and humour and performed with great artistry and insight.
The Independent Theatre’s full-stage screen was excellently employed for period still photographs as digital projections, and spoken interludes from all performers created a narrative which introduced each composer with biographical anecdotes. Impressively all musicians performed entirely from memory, aptly dressed in period costume and stylishly choreographed.
The stories unfolded the tragic persecution and forced exile of some of Europe’s most gifted composers, many of whom were Jewish. From the edgy satirical and political songs of Kurt Weill and Hanns Eisler to the more romantic lyricism of Erich Korngold and Robert Stolz, the quartet brought its rich mellifluous harmonies to evoke the era from 1920s exuberance to the dark years of World War II.
At the centre of the narrative stood the towering figure of baritone Peter Coleman–Wright as Kurt Weill. He brings a lifetime of international operatic and concert experience to his readings of these songs in German, French and English. He moved fluidly from angular jazz to lyrical love ballads and delighted with his versatility when he joined the quartet at the piano.
The audience relied on the spoken introductions to understand the intent of the songs in foreign languages, with hints from the projections. Generally this worked very well. At times the juxtaposition between the song content and the visuals was in vivid and perhaps ironic contrast. Many of the images focussed on confronting photographs of the Jewish holocaust – establishing a didactic “point of view”- with the horrors of German Nazism dominating the visual subtext. This sits well with Brecht and Weill and their notions of epic theatre, but sat less comfortably alongside the more Romantic music of Stolz and Schreker – the least “cabaret” style of the composers represented
At the heart of the experience were the rich arrangements of the songs for this fine quintet of musicians. It was necessary to amplify the voice to balance the resonant tone of the quartet in the live acoustic of The Independent Theatre. The amplification available at the venue is not ideally suited to placing the voice in the foreground and there were some balance problems in the thickly scored songs which obscured full clarity of text. No doubt as they tour this wonderful concert to Adelaide and beyond, Nexas can fine tune the sound design at other venues.
The concert served as a launch for the terrific new CD “Ballads of the Pleasant Life” recently released by ABC classics.This is Nexas’ second collaboration with Coleman-Wright and their sense of ensemble and shared aesthetic was clearly in evidence.
They travel together next to the Adelaide Cabaret Festival for performances at the Don Dunstan theatre June 15th and 16th– any visitors or locals should try to get along for this special event.
Victoria Watson for SoundsLikeSydney©
Victoria Watson is a graduate of Melbourne university and VCA. She has appeared regularly as a soprano with the Victoria State Opera and has toured and served as artistic director of many chamber ensembles.
She has performed with Sydney Symphony Orchestra and for ten years, was artistic director of a major opera education project with Opera Australia. Since 2015 she has moved into directing opera including Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte at the Independent theatre.
Victoria has lectured in voice at the major universities in Melbourne, and is currently a tutor at UNSW. Having taught at major Sydney secondary colleges, she now runs a busy private singing studio. She is a published author on opera and a popular freelance music and theatre lecturer and advocate for Australian artists around the world.