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Lied to Art Song

In January 1990, singers and musicians were partying after an orchestral performance when the conversation between singers Jill Sullivan and Anne Millar and West Australian Symphony Orchestra bassist Joan Wright turned to Mahler. They discovered that they not only shared a mutual love of Mahler's vocal music, but of the whole genre of Lieder and art song.

Before coming to Western Australia, Anne had taken a special interest in the Lieder of Wolf and Mahler during her studies at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music and Jill had been a member of the Lieder Society of Victoria.

Talking further with other singers at the time convinced Jill that it was worth trying to establish some kind of forum for the performance and enjoyment of the Lied and art song repertoire. She then set about gathering information and finding people who might be interested. The Lieder Society of Victoria provided suggestions and encouragement.

An initial meeting of those interested was held at Jill's home in July 1990. Those who attended included Jill, Allison Fyfe, Anne Millar, Elspeth Binckes, Lisa Brown, Margaret Kineen, Elisa Wilson and Mike Parry. Ron Macqueen was at this time away working with the Australian Opera but was supportive. Also unable to attend but keen to assist were Molly McGurk, Molly's late husband, John Brown, Mark Coughlan, Monique DeVianna Nicoll, Anne Robinson, Megan Sutton and Robyn Wheatley. All were interested in establishing some kind of musical organisation promoting Lieder and art song in Perth. But they were also conscious of the risks involved, as not all were able to donate their time.

Not to be deterred however, Jill arranged the first event, a house concert, with the help of Monique DeVianna Nicoll who volunteered the use of the home of her good friend and music lover Stanley Parkinson. Stanley at the time was in London and returned home only two days before the concert held on Sunday 23 September 1990.

Four singers performed at the inaugural recital. Emma Matthews (then Lysons) sang Schubert; Anne Millar her beloved Mahler; John Brown also sang Schubert; and Andrew Foote presented four Brahms Lieder. Violinist Paul Wright played Vivaldi. Mark Coughlan expertly accompanied all. Rehearsals were a very Australian affair with a kangaroo named Emma jumping in and out of the studio. Stanley found Emma orphaned as a joey on the local golf course and had his house classified as a zoological garden so that he could keep her.

The audience who entered by donation, sat elevated on the lawn, and enjoyed drinks and a picnic supper looking down into the studio. The evening was designated a success although, some guests pointedly said that they would not donate anything as so many things like this had failed previously in Perth, and they did not want to give false encouragement or waste their money. Others, however, including noted Perth singing teacher Megan Sutton, pianist and vocal coach Roma Conway and retired singer Robyn Wheatley were enormously encouraging and gave substantial assistance and guidance in the early days. A total of $364 was raised from this first concert.

A small committee was formed with Jill as president, Allison as secretary, and Siegfried Praxl as non-executive treasurer. Other committee members were Mark Coughlan, Margaret Kineen and Ronald Macqueen. Christopher Fyfe, father of Allison, offered and undertook the long process of formulating the official constitution. The Lieder Society of Western Australia was chosen as the name, inspired largely by the Lieder Society of Victoria. But the committee was not convinced by the inclusion of "Inc." following the title. While this was required to indicate the Society's status as a formally incorporated organisation, the word was slightly tainted due to the notorious WA Inc., a political and financial scandal then under investigation by a royal commission.

Over the next year different venues were used and the format of concerts and recitals varied, often including an instrumental soloist. The number of truly proficient recital singers and accompanists was at that stage more limited than now, and meeting times were often spent trying to identify suitable artists.

The Society was also ambitious in presenting eight events each year. Allison faithfully provided the supper for each recital, later adding programmes to her list of tasks. She continued to do this for many years, providing immense service to the Society and musical community. Jill wrote publicity articles, took photos and then in the pre-internet days would physically take them into the offices of the journalists of the local newspapers. Ron and Margaret designed fliers and programmes, compiling them in painstaking fashion with the now redundant Letraset technique. Physical cut and paste was the order of those days.

Three major advances occurred late in 1991. The UWA School of Music agreed to provide a venue for 1992 - the beautiful Eileen Joyce Studio - and to print the brochure. And Professor David Tunley accepted an invitation to become patron of the Society.

A huge part of the survival in those early days can be attributed to the tenacity of the initial founders, and the groundswell of interest from young singers, young accompanists and their teachers, all sharing a common desire to explore the repertoire and seeking learning and performance opportunities together. Frequently, Professor Tunley, Mark Coughlan, Roma Conway, Megan Sutton, Evelyn Thompson and Janice Taylor Warne could be seen in the audience, a fact not lost on their students. Also important was the support given by Alan True and the formerly skeptical Mike Parry who regularly mentioned or reviewed the recitals in the publications for which they wrote.

A significant boost came in the first year of operation when Terry Craig, the then General Manager of West Australian Opera, graciously allowed the Society to hold a recital in the upstairs rehearsal room at His Majesty's Theatre, with visiting Victorian singers Iain Cousins and Julie Edwardson performing Strauss and Brahms Lieder. He also assisted with promotion of the event.

One particularly enthusiastic young accompanist performed regularly for the Society. Richard John went on to be awarded the first Ralph Thompson Memorial Scholarship in 1994, putting this towards his studies in London with Geoffrey Parsons. Richard later joined the committee, and suggested the development of an Emerging Artists Programme. This was subsequently managed by Sarah Macliver.

Other committee members in the first five years included Hendrik Bot, Laura Bernay, Terry Burridge, Anne Robinson, Neroli Carlton, Michelle Galazowski and Pamela Turner. Anne Watson joined the committee in early 1992, providing stability, reliability and solid financial stewardship. Anne continues to play a vital role on the committee of Art Song Perth twenty years later.

In the latter half of 1992, major assistance arrived in the form of the Cohens. Harry and June attended a recital at the Eileen Joyce Studio when Ronald Macqueen, accompanied by Mark Coughlan, performed Beethoven's Song Cycle An die ferne Geliebte. They enjoyed this so much that not only did they become members but June also joined the committee. Not long after this, Harry was elected as president, a role he has continued to fulfil. At the start of 1993 the Cohens provided their garden for the first major fund-raiser. Glyndebourne on Tyrell was a sell out success. A fairy theme was chosen and on a burning hot March night singers Pamela Turner, Terry Burridge, James Malcolm and Barry Preece, with Marilyn Phillips on piano, entertained over 120 guests. Funds raised were put towards the establishment of a scholarship.

In 1993 the Society held several recitals in the Callaway Auditorium, UWA. One of the year's highlights was the presentation of Meta Overmann's ‘Composition da camera' Return to Moses performed by Ronald Macqueen, Neil Boon (clarinet) and Michael Cole (piano). This year also saw the first performance by soprano Elsa Kura, described in The West Australian by music critic Neville Cohn as "a true recital singer". Instrumentalists were still a regular feature of recitals with the performance of Beethoven's Irish songs by Jill Sullivan (soprano), Anne Watson (alto), Evelyn Thompson (piano), Penny Baldock (violin) and Helen Tuckey (viola).

In 1994, some consolidation occurred. The number of recitals was reduced to six, with a focus entirely on vocal recital. The format settled into the now familiar pattern of two established singers and two emerging artists, with instrumentalists used only if requested by the singer.

Over the next few years the recital series continued first at the Callaway Auditorium, UWA, then at Trinity Uniting Church, Perth, and more recently at the Uniting Church Nedlands. Initially a biennial event the Evelyn and Ralph Thompson Memorial Scholarship has been presented annually since 1998. It has also increased significantly in value.

For two years, in 2007 and 2008, a special training programme for emerging artists was coordinated by Marilyn Phillips and Jill Sullivan, providing a valuable development opportunity to singers Alexandra Bak, Jane Artelaris, Yann Kee and Leila Fox. This was subsequently discontinued due to the existence of other similar training programmes in the formal teaching institutions. It was also felt that performance experience in art song and Lieder - one of the key components of the programme - should be offered to a larger number of young artists, particularly given the limited opportunities available in Perth.

Visiting performers and teachers such as sopranos Merlyn Quaife, (Melbourne) and Rowena Cowley (Sydney) and German bass baritone Professor Peter Ziethen, have taken masterclasses and performed for the Society. Lectures and demonstrations have been presented by Dr Sally Kester and by Emeritus Professor David Tunley.

Many developing and established artists singers and accompanists have performed for the Society, and many have gone on to significant Australian and international careers including Emma Matthews, Brett Carter, Aldo Di Toro, Rachelle Durkin, Stephanie Gooch, Lisa Harper-Brown, Sara Macliver and Luke Gabbedy.

In 2008, foundation member Allison Fyfe resigned from the committee, followed by Jill Sullivan who had relocated to Queensland. A further significant change occurred when The Lieder Society of WA Inc. was renamed Art Song Perth to reflect the broader scope of repertoire, and to increase audience recognition.

At the same time efforts were being made to reach a wider audience through use of the internet and social media. A new website, designed by IT consultants Square18, was launched in January 2011, replacing the website set up some years earlier. Art Song Perth also maintains a presence on Facebook.

Celebrating its 21st birthday in 2011, Art Song Perth continues to strive always to ensure excellence, audience satisfaction, encourage young performers, bring beautiful and sometimes lesser known repertoire to the public and to break new ground.

Jill Sullivan
2011