Monthly music concerts at the McClelland Sculpture Park and Art Gallery are attracting increasing audience numbers, as the program curated by creative directors, Stefan Cassomenos and Monica Curro, brings a broad range of musical genres and top performers to a fine place to be on a Sunday afternoon. Today Wiradjuri soprano Shauntai Sherree Batzke, well-known and admired for her performances in opera and musical theatre, shared her most loved repertoire from the stage to soul, gospel and her own classical and traditionally inspired vocal compositions.
Opening the program with “Donde lieta usci”, Mimi’s Farewell from Act 3 of Puccini’s La Boheme, was a solemn choice, an emotive and heart-touching aria accompanied with much sensitivity by Cassomenos on piano, with balanced orchestral build-up and final soulful pianissimo. Batzke then gave us her Welcome to Country, and humorously referred to the opening song as “telling the bad news first” before then sharing her second La Boheme favourite from Act 1, “Si, mi chiamano Mimi”. Perhaps the mood was surprisingly broken when introductions and welcomes to the audience were placed between these dramatic arias rather than at the beginning of the program.
How beautiful is Fauré’s Les Berceaux, its gently rocking piano accompaniment adding Romantic colours to Batzke’s warm and golden lower register, her colour and emotive shaping of every phrase connecting the poetic setting of sadness and acceptance with the departure of ships on rhythmic ocean swells. Again, piano and voice connected beautifully with every listener for this poetic setting. A more joyous, lightly flowing“Ouvre tes yeux bleus” by Massenet brought smiles all round, before we returned to Batzke’s dramatic friend Puccini, where her strengths in voice range, expression, sincere and natural characterisation shone in the popular choices of “O mio babbino caro” from Gianni Schicchi, and“Signore, ascolta!”from Turandot to close the first set. Batzke held us captive with her natural ease and presentation, with admirable diction and smooth golden clarity in her tone.
Returning for the second set, Batzke again shared her love of musical theatre in its many forms, cheekily engaging the audience with her wit and engaging stage presence – “Why do you think I have changed frocks? Because I AM a soprano!” From the popular musical Ragtime (Broadway 1997) and now using a fairly muted microphone under Cassomenos’ orchestrally increased dynamics, Batzke sang Back to Before and Your Daddy’s Son, songs demanding a wide and grand vocal range. At times there was a little less vocal power at the extreme pitch levels, but Batzke’s very professional stagecraft and gestures were highly communicative and truly a joy to watch. Based on African-American themes, how could songs from Ragtime be followed with a reflective and complementary piano solo? Sympathetically, Cassomenos looked to the music of Florence Price, a pioneer and award-winning Afro-American pianist, composer and recording artist. Choosing the Andante from her Piano Sonata in E minor (1932), Cassomenos highlighted the poetic blues melodies, gave us the tastes of the familiar colours of Gershwin’s jazz infused harmonies, a growing passionate orchestral styled central focal point, and a closing fade out of diminishing resonance and coloured pedal effects.
Telling her journey of spiritual belief and faith, Batzke continued to share the songs by performers who had inspired her, ballads with meaningful lyrics and affirmations of strength, hope and faith. With its symbolism and biblical reference, the slow gospel ballad, Alabaster Box by JaniceSjostrand was followed by a tribute to one of Batske’s childhood heroes, Whitney Houston, with her two classics – The Greatest Love of All and One Moment in Time – warmly received with their honest delivery and emotional expression. From the dramatic and controversial musical Floyd Collins (Broadway 1994), Batzke chose How Glory Goes as her final theatre piece, a contemporary ballad with deeply questioning lyrics and probing spiritual questions. This was daring, thought provoking and at times haunting and harmonically creative music, dissonant and edgy at times.
It was then Cassomenos who introduced the final song, inviting Monica Curro on violin to complete the accompaniment for Batzke’s own composition Babirra Nyiwarri Gariya Giran (Sing Sweetheart do not Fear), a powerful hymn-like anthem, a simple yet strong melody, with a colourful instrumental accompaniment, passionately delivered.
Seated within the studio’s glass walls, the audience at McClelland Gallery can also see and enjoy the natural bush surroundings of the park, access a fine café and artwork, and take time to explore the sculpture in the outdoor environment. These pleasant Sunday music concerts keep the Australian arts very alive and diverse and accessible to communities away from the city centres.
Julie McErlain reviewed Music at McClelland: A Feast of Song performed at the McClelland Sculpture Park and Art Gallery on Sunday July 16, 2023.