Friday evening at Hamer Hall saw a capacity crowd fill the auditorium to enjoy a highlight of Melbourne’s musical calendar for 2023. It’s been a long time since this reviewer has been so thoroughly entertained. Australian soprano, Ali McGregor is a performer who really should be a household name. The coupling of the singer and her core trio of musical director and pianist, Sam Keevers, double bassist Ben Robertson and drummer Hugh Harvey, was a perfect fit with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra under the energetic baton of conductor Benjamin Northey – or “the man with the stick” as McGregor called him.
The eclectic and surprising repertoire gleaned from her long career, was beautifully arranged and crafted for the orchestra and voice by Alex Turley, with others by Connor D’Netto and Nicholas Buc. The musicians were able to create colours and soundscapes that transcended the physical limitations of the stage and take the listener right inside each song. In some cases, it was as if I were hearing the songs for the very first time. But there was no time to get accustomed to one style or another as the musical menu swung from songs by INXS, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Blur, Cleo Laine and Yma Sumac; and all that was before interval!
Somehow this lady’s voice can adapt to all these styles with an easy authority, her tone sure and steady on the most perilous notes. McGregor freely admitted to us that she is about to turn 50, but it doesn’t show in her vital stage presence and the elasticity of that fabulous set of pipes. She has a relaxed and relatable attitude with the audience and a respectful camaraderie with the musicians, which made the program slide together seamlessly.
The second half of the program was a complete change of pace with the star and the orchestra returning in lounge mode. “I love a good musical mash-up”, said Ali McGregor and she demonstrated by opening with a pairing of Nina Simone’s hit Feeling Good and Feel Good Inc by virtual band, Gorrilaz. Other pairings included The Beatles’ Blackbird with Annie Lennox’s Little Bird, then Gus Kahn’s jazz standard, Makin’ Whoopee with Aqua’s Barbie Girl as a lush Nelson Riddle-style jazz classic. As McGregor wryly introduced it, “You can’t polish a turd, but you can roll it in glitter!”
This was followed by Best of You from Foo Fighters, and then another stirring mash-up, but this time with her real-life husband, comedian and television host, Adam Hills. As she sang The Church’s Under the Milky Way, he recited Banjo Patterson’s Clancy of the Overflow, a poem that reminded him of home while he toured overseas. With the orchestra providing evocative backing and the ceiling lit as a night sky, it was yet another part of this show’s varied palate. It was also great to see the two of them on the same stage, if only for a few minutes.
A particular moment that will remain with me and many others would be the beautiful Cleo Laine song, Thieving Boy by John Dankworth from the film The Criminal. Performed in duet with the orchestra’s principal clarinettist David Thomas, it showed the voice in a darker and more vulnerable character. In the aria Beautiful, for a While from the Australian opera The Call, we saw another stirring demonstration of McGregor’s emotional range.
My favourite part would have to be the songs of Yma Sumac, which McGregor brought to life in such an engaging way. These songs are part of her Helpmann Award winning show Yma Sumac, the Peruvian Songbird. Of course, if you know the work of the great Yma Sumac, you’ll know that her having one of the world’s largest vocal ranges, makes her a hard act to follow; however, La McGregor was more than equal to the task, to the delight and amazement of the audience. Before beginning this set, our star performed a costume change that was as surprising as it was fast. By removing a golden belt from the waist of her gold sequinned coat dress, the entire garment transformed into a jade green gown and the gold sequins became its lining. The addition of a matching green feather headdress completed the transformation into the Peruvian Songbird herself! Quipping that “Drag is a force for good!” the audience cheered as she launched into diva mode.
Starting with Aytapura from Voice of the Xtabay (1950) and Taki Rari from Mambo (1954), we then moved on to Chuncho or The Forest Creatures from the album Inca Taqui (1953). In this song, Yma Sumac is in the forest imitating the birds and animals she hears around her. For this piece, McGregor was accompanied by her one-time musical mentor, guitarist Paul Rettke. It was truly wonderful to hear the voice in rhythm with the simple strumming of the guitar, growling like a bear and then trilling like a nightingale. This song requires a flexible four and half octaves to navigate, so that gives you some idea of this song stylist’s talent. To close the first half of the show, all stops were pulled out as the full orchestra and rhythm section bounced into life for Queen of the Night Mambo! “Der Hölle Rache” is a big soprano aria, but when set to a mambo beat, it’s something else entirely.
At the beginning of the concert, Ali McGregor told us that her getting to play with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra was the musical equivalent of a sportsman getting to play at the MCG. And that theme continued to the end of the final number, Creep by Radiohead, when the audience sprang to its collective feet for a rousing and well-deserved standing ovation. With the audience still standing, our star began her encore, a mash-up of Lizzo’s Cuz I Love You and Queen’s Somebody to Love. As she began the Queen part, the conductor faced the audience and cued a small choir in the stalls to chant “find me somebody to love” while McGregor sang the melody over them. Almost instantly, the entire audience joined in the chanting. The atmosphere was electrifying as we merged into a giant musical mass. Our diva had tears rolling down her cheeks, quite overcome by the emotion of the moment. It was a truly memorable night of music and cabaret and a demonstration of the enormous performing talent we have in this country. For those of you who weren’t there, you missed a wonderful night of entertainment by a great lady of the Australian stage with a world class orchestra in one of the world’s greatest concert halls. Right here in Melbourne.
Photo credit: Laura Manariti
Jon Jackson reviewed Ali McGregor and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, presented by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra at Arts Centre Melbourne, Hamer Hall, on May 26, 2023.