Brisbane Music Festival, Part 2 – Festival Gala #3

Brisbane Music Festival, Part 2 – Festival Gala #3
FourthWall Arts, Brisbane. 4 December 2023

This year’s Brisbane Music Festival is the sixth to fulfil its aim of bringing us “music that dances, breathes, uplifts, haunts and stimulates”. And the Gala that started the Festival’s Part 2 event certainly lived up to the promise. The new loft-style space in the heart of Brisbane’s CBD is the perfect venue to immerse yourself in Artistic Director, Alex Raineri’s eclectic mix of music style, instruments and performers – showcasing all the talent that Brisbane has to offer, plus some friends from interstate and overseas. Festival Gala #3 was a triple-bill treat featuring three very different operatic works. The trio of performances was like a little chocolate box selection, served up in a venue that evoked an off-Broadway happening. It was wonderful! And the mix of people I chatted to over a chilled vino in the two intervals were delighted too.

First up, a playful piece featuring cool baritone, Jason Barry-Smith, was a brilliant party starter. Francis Poulenc’s ‘The masked ball’ (1932) was introduced as being little pieces of gossip! The series of short works are sung to the poems of Max Jacob – you can imagine Francis and Max sharing a Kir Royale while entreating one of their friends, maybe Jean Cocteau, to stories about their many famous associates and lovers. No translation was needed! Jason’s rich tones and mellow humour told us all we need to know. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this piece evoked a playful Weimar cabaret feel.

The second offering was a completely new work – ‘Staged’, a world premiere in fact – by Alex Raineri (in collaboration with his performance team). As Alex tells it, the work was inspired by his renovation of the FourthWall Arts space – he’s taken over a former office at the top (Valley) end of Queen Street, which was allegedly “hideous”. The physical work of transforming the space combined with contributions from artist friends who shared their performers’ anxiety dreams. With a backdrop of blinding LED light panels cleverly recycled from the office space, an electronic white noise undertone by Finnian Idriss, and menacing cello shades by Daniel Shearer, Jenna Robertson gave an enigmatic and engaging performance of five pieces that arced from the abstract to the operatic. Naturally there was a dream about not being able to sing; and a thought-provoking vignette that explores how painful it can be for a performer to expose their heart for their art; and a very funny dream where a singer is called on to play principal bassoon in the orchestra! This is a very revealing piece that I can see evolving and opening up important conversations around mental health and performance. Jenna did a brilliant job – especially as she had stepped in at the last minute to cover.

The final piece in the trio was the delectable mini comic opera (about 20 minutes!) ‘The Telephone’ by Gian Carlo Menotti. Directed succinctly by Emma Nightingale, accompanied beautifully by Francis Atkins and Alex on pianos, this is a short filmic story of a young couple – Katie Stenzel (Lucy) and Jon Maskell (Ben) – who have some communication challenges due to the pervasive presence of the telephone in Lucy’s apartment. Considering that this was first performed in 1947, I think the audience agreed that not much has changed in the intervening decades! Katie and Jon are absolutely gorgeous as this endearing couple, with warm and embracing voices that carried everyone home on an absolute high at the end of the night. ‘Twas a gala indeed! And more to come, as Brisbane Music Festival Part 2 runs to 10 December 2023.

Beth Keehn

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Images (from top): Daniel Shearer, Alex Raineri and Katie Stenzel. Brisbane Music Festival.

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