Concert Review: And the earth turns

Solar flair

Solar flair

Presented by: Bethany Hill and Penelope Cashman
Reviewed: 28 November, 2023

Baroque Hall, Adelaide’s chamber music jewel-box, encased a gem this evening, when the combined artistries of Bethany Hill and Penelope Cashman created a revolution of the earth, from sunrise to day to dusk, then evening, midnight, and back to sunrise again.  The product of some years’ planning, research and preparation, And the earth turns is a programme of songs and spoken text meditating upon the diurnal/nocturnal cycle. Cashman and Hill have together developed this themed recital from the works of 15 different composers, with songs dating from the eleventh to the twenty-first century. Hill sings in Latin, German, Hungarian, Norwegian and English.

Soprano Bethany Hill, with her signature wavy ginger-gold tresses, appears on stage barefoot, wearing a cream hi-lo hemline dress.  Hill, although currently based in the U.S.A, is an Elder Conservatorium graduate, well known in Adelaide for a broad range of work covering opera, recitals and theatre. (I recall her brilliance in Patch Theatre’s Can You Hear Colour? in 2018.) 

Penelope Cashman, pianist, vocal coach and so much more, wears muso blacks in the form of an elegant mid-length floaty dress. Cashman’s scholarship and specialist work as a collaborative pianist is already acknowledged internationally; South Australia is fortunate to have her here for the moment. 

The recital begins memorably. After an articulate acknowledgement of First Nations and their historic role as our country’s storytellers, Cashman sits at the grand piano, ready to play. Hill sits back-to-back with her on the same piano stool and commences singing Hildegard von Bingen’s responsory O nobilissima viriditas. The invocatory quality of the vocal line, accompanied by minimal piano chords, serves to emphasise the primacy of voice in this recital. As if starting an art song recital by sitting on the pianist’s stool, not standing in the middle of the stage and facing your audience squarely, isn’t sufficiently subversive, Hill stands and walks around the performance area whilst still singing.  Movement adds weight to the mystic Latin text and von Bingen’s Gregorian-on-steroids melodic line. 

Thus, Hill and Cashman set new recital parameters. In performance, both artists sit, stand, walk and speak. Cashman accompanies on piano. Hill sings. Spoken linkages between songs are sometimes a literal English translation of a little of the next song’s lyrics. On other occasions, they are personal observations about times of the day and the artist’s emotional response. There are no wasted words. No chatty personality work. “My next song is by…” is never spoken. A fully-annotated programme and a five-page lyric-and-translation for all non-English songs are free to all concertgoers. Movement, spoken and sung word and played and sung music, all combine to create a meditative theatrical force.

Hill’s voice is a surprise, not least because its resources are so rich. She is a Soprano-With-Benefits.  (OK, so that’s not an official fach.) The intimacy of this venue displays her dynamic range to excellent effect.  Interestingly, it’s her pianissimi that impresses, especially the final notes of Wolf’s Die Bekehrte, and the other-worldly quality of the sustained last note in Sculthorpe’s The stars turn. The warmth and clarity Hill accesses in her low range gives her a big theatrical advantage, She is, at heart, a storyteller, and her vocal range paints the narrative with a broad range of nuanced emotions. Her articulation is superb, not least because she clearly cares about the lyric content. As an interpretative artist, she matches timbre with vowel tone to create engaging stories, constantly enabled by Cashman’s accompaniment.

Collaborative pianist Cashman is never subservient and self-effacing; her artistry is as much on display as Hill’s. Cashman’s playing is a needle-sharp counterpoint to the sung legato in Die bekehrte. She achieves a pianistic effect much like a Turner painting in Rebecca Clarke’s June twilight. The piano is quirky in Bartók (Ha kimegyek arr’ a magos tetöre), creepy in Schumann (Waldesgespräch), iridescent in Strauss (Junghexenlied) and shimmers in Peggy Glanville-Hicks’ Stars.

Together, Hill and Cashman create a theatrical and musical whole. Their performance of Grieg’s Det første Mødes starts as solemn as a Lutheran hymn then slowly expands into astonished joy, to filigree piano accompaniment. Hill perches on a stool and flings a cheeky It was a lover and his lass at us, full of knowing shrugs and delicious portando. For Strauss’s Junghexenlied, Hill crouches, hides, runs and prowls. Britten’s At the mid hour of night is exquisitely delicate; Waldesnacht (Schönberg) is lush and luscious, revealing the warmth in Hill’s mid- and low-range.

The North Adelaide Baroque Hall, a 21st century reconstruction of a late-baroque-style recital room, is just right for this recital.  No theatrical lighting. No microphones. No raised stage. Just a high-ceilinged, acoustically sympathetic room over which the music presides.  It’s what the kids would call “old-school”. 

In summary, this recital shows what two scholars, performance artists and friends can produce by collaborating with integrity and authority on material they love and respect. Hill’s and Cashman’s programme is entertaining, intelligent, theatrical, musically satisfying and aesthetically elegant. 

Reviewed by Pat H. Wilson

Photo credit: supplied

Venue: North Adelaide Baroque Hall
Season: ended

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