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  • Writer's pictureMartin Cheney

She Speaks

During the opening concert of last weekend’s festival dedicated to women composers (specifically during Seraphim Trio’s electrifying performance of Fanny Hensel’s Piano Trio in D minor, Op. 11), I was struck with a couple of realisations. The least remarkable of these was that, if I was asked to identify whether the composer of any of the pieces was male or female outside the context of the concert, I would have been thoroughly unable. The question that gave me considerable pause, however, was, ‘if you were told that these were all the most popular and programmed pieces in the repertoire, and you didn’t know any different, would you have any reason to think otherwise?’ My sincere and honest answer would be ‘no,’ verging on, ‘what a stupid question.’ For one, Hensel’s masterpiece is assured, brazen, audacious, beautiful and possesses exactly as much merit to belong in a concert programme as literally any other of its kind, if not more. The same could also be said of the other works in this chamber concert by Clara Schumann, Ruby Davy (Australia’s first female music doctorate recipient) and Anne Cawrse. I then re-answered that question all over again about eight more times over the ensuing few hours of exceptional programming.

The afternoon symposium was a welcome opportunity to hear some more personal perspectives from Hilary Kleinig, Becky Llewellyn, Anna Goldsworthy, Anne Cawrse and Rachel Bruerville. The conversation was engaging, nuanced and discerning and allowed these five women to not only provide their insight into the challenges faced and the ground covered in more recent years, but also give an impassioned plea for others (performers, curators, audience members) to ask for more of what we’re currently not seeing.

She Speaks, the titular evening concert featuring the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, under the secure and confident direction of Luke Dollman, continued to delight an audience who were clearly relishing experiencing some of these works for the first time. The members of the ASO were also visibly invested in the performance, which resulted in some of the best playing I’ve heard from them in years. The sumptuous opening section of Elena Kats-Chernin’s Mythic left me both teary and disappointed that I was only then discovering the piece. And how could this possibly have been the first time I was hearing Dulcie Holland's rambunctious and spritely concert opener Festival Flourish, when she was probably single-handedly responsible for the formative music theory training of half the musicians on stage?

Arguably, the pinnacle of both this concert and the entire day was the World Premiere of Anne Cawrse’s Suite from Innocence (featuring the sublime quartet of Desiree Frahn, Teresa La Rocca, Adam Goodburn and Joshua Rowe), a long-awaited orchestral selection of scenes from her opera Innocence, first commissioned by SINGular Productions back in 2013. I was fortunate enough to hear the initial semi-staged piano reduction performance in the State Opera Studio back in 2016. Telling a distinctly South Australian story based on Stephen Orr’s novel Time’s Long Ruin, the music was lapped up with adoration by the audience members around me, clearly enamoured with not having to spend half the time reading surtitles or flicking back and forth between translations in the programme notes. We were utterly lost in it. I implore SOSA and its contemporaries to prioritise a full staging of Innocence and other works like it – to use their position as a cultural influencer to give audiences a more holistic experience. Watch and listen to their reaction to Holly Harrison’s Jammed to close out the concert, replete with trombones falling over, fits of hysteria from the double basses and finishing an ASO concert in Elder Hall with a gleeful vibraslap. People love different and new, they just don’t know where to find it. Certainly, get them in the door with Sweeney Todd, but then allow them to trust you with something different. It might not work the first time. Then try it again. Then try it again.

Proof if proof were needed, the late evening concert had some audience members staying on for a performance they knew nothing about. They witnessed a fearless rendition of Lisa Cheney’s When We Speak by Hilary Kleinig, scratching and glissing and overtone-singing her way through a tirade of advanced cello techniques, accompanied by a haunting pre-recorded manipulation of an interview with Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho. Saariaho’s own Noa Noa for flute and electronics soon followed, performed by Elder Conservatorium student Jenny Hu, creating an altogether different but complementary musical landscape. Also included were astonishingly contrasting works by Caroline Shaw and Lotta Wennäkoski, with the evocative Great White Bird for string quartet by the multi-disciplined Hilary Kleinig beautifully rounding out the events of the day; the latter two were both ably performed by members of the Elder Music Lab, again directed by Luke Dollman.

Adelaide composer Anne Cawrse’s brilliant curation of this wonderful event proved, with each subsequent piece across the three concerts, that there is simply no good reason for the lack of adequate female representation in concert programming. Even the last-ditch merit-based excuse still used by many organisations is as demonstrably invalid as it is patronising. The perilous double-edged sword of contemporary music is that, while it is certainly understandable and responsible for orchestras and arts organisations to select familiar works with a financial guarantee attached, it is largely this very tendency that has prevented more works from entering mainstream consciousness. Audiences cannot become familiar with composers and works that they do not hear. The Adelaide Symphony Orchestra and the Elder Conservatorium are therefore to be congratulated for their involvement in She Speaks and committing to address this in the future, regardless of the initial consequences (which may well be the case).

Audiences are ready for something different. To completely misquote a baseball movie, “if you build it, they will come.” Build it.


She Speaks was presented in Elder Hall and Madley Studio at the University of Adelaide, curated by Anne Cawrse in partnership with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra and the Elder Conservatorium of Music.

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