18 September 2011

Katie Noonan does string theory

Text by Brenton Holmes

Only Katie Noonan could deliver as first course to her full-house audience an earnest young string quartet playing edgy modern art music. But it worked beautifully. The Sydney Symphony Fellowship Quartet (Freya Franzen and Monique Irik –violins; Tara Houghton –viola; Adam Szabo-cello) set the space vibrating with two of the Three Idylls (1906) by Frank Bridge before launching into String Quartet No.4 (2003) by the Latvian composer and eco-warrior Peteris Vasks. Written for the famed Kronos Quartet, the SSFSQ delivered a similar punch in a work that blended Stravinsky’s rhythmic grunt with the ferocious tonalities of Shostakovich’s late quartets.

One minor gripe. The individual instruments were fitted with the wonderful DPA clip-on condenser mics, but with the volume pumped up each instrument seemed hyper-exposed, and we lost the more blended quality that gives a string quartet its trademark unified voice.

The main event showcased Elixir’s new album First Seed Ripening, most of which comprises settings of poems by the Australian poet Tom Shapcott. The songs had been conjured into existence in the unhurried atmosphere of Arthur Boyd’s artists’ retreat Bundanon. The album uses strings to fine effect. The lyricism of Magnusson’s guitar and Hurren’s sax is the sweet, warm solder that fuses the elements together.

Katie opened the Canberra concert with the title track First Seed Ripening. Guitar and voice strolled in, Hurren prodded gently and the quartet glowed behind them. Noonan fluttered and glided around Magnusson’s simply plucked lines. Hurren slipped in a mellow solo before Magnusson joined him in what was reminiscent of a Golla and Burrows outing. The aperitif went down well.

My Skin is a Glove came next, with arranger Steve Newcombe giving the cello a hauntingly beautiful opening, the full quartet nestling in behind a tender-voiced Noonan, with a nicely understated guitar from Magnusson. The end hovered. The audience paused, rapt.

Katie then invited us to imagine tropical semi-nudity and other delights as she introduced another Tom Shapcott work, Stuff of Myths Magnusson had fun with his digitally-enhanced guitar intro before settling into a jaunty Airto Moreira feel. Noonan splashed happily in the shallows. Husband Zac’s sax joined her for some playful parallel precision work and we all came away suitably tanned.

Next came Pierrot, a Melbourne-tinged tribute to the sad clown, with an especially fine interplay between all the instruments, Magnusson’s plucking hinting at Ry Cooder. Noonan’s remarkable vocal abilities serve her well on songs like this. It is an instrument over which she exercises exquisitely subtle control.

Sleep Soundly, Peacefully was the song Katie and Zac wrote together as they anticipated parenthood for the first time. Magnusson’s intro drew the song perfectly into its lullaby mode. The room became a poetry reading. Katie Noonan can pluck a high note from anywhere and let it hang, only to lay it down gently as she would her baby’s head.

Time to switch to Radiohead In Limbo, and Elixir gave it a suitably FX treatment, looping Katie’s voice and Steve’s guitar. There was a touch of coloratura in the Noonan stratosphere, the crowd whooped its pleasure, and a clapping patron with glowing forearms caught some onstage attention.

Shapcott again manifested slightly tropical in Elixir’s efforts with Last Night’s Comfort. The jaunty Caribbean feel returned. Katie and Steve delivered some delicious duets.

Next came Tip of Memory from Elixir’s self-titled 2003 album. Essentially a waltz, and here in an arrangement by Paul Grabowsky, it was one of the evening’s highlights. Think of George Martin’s effort on Eleanor Rigby and you’ll catch the quality of Grabowsky’s work. The cello lines gave Adam Szabo a chance to shine.

Noonan made Joni Mitchell’s My Old Man her very own. Saying cheekily that she “doesn’t do covers … I prefer to think of them as tributes”, Katie delivered a tribute that Joni would have been proud of.

Three fine songs rounded out the concert. Hemispheres had the string quartet open à la Appalachian Spring, slipping neatly into Magnusson’s guitar; Nocturne satisfied in every respect; and Snapshot gave Katie Noonan the chance to remind us of just how remarkable the voice is that a jammed-packed audience had flocked to hear at the Street Theatre.

The blessing that is Elixir will be visited upon audiences around the country through September and October: Melbourne 17 September; Mullumbimby 23 September; Adelaide 7 October; Perth 8&9 October; Hobart 13 October; Launceston 14 October.

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