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Sara Macliver’s teacher and inspiration was the brilliant Perth soprano and pianist Molly McGurk, the only performer ever to appear with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra as a singer one year and a pianist the next. Sara was in awe of her musicianship. If a song she was learning was a little too high, or too low, it was nothing for Molly to transpose it at sight. As Sara join us at ANAM this week, we thought we’d share this recent chat we had with her.

What are you passing on from Molly to your own students?
Lots of things! Technical things. For instance, she had this wonderful expression, “Saddle your cheekbones over you ears.” It gives a brighter sound and helps open up the resonating chambers, and you can hear the difference. She used to always say, “Ah! What a beautiful day!” And with that lovely surprise breath, as if you’re seeing someone for the first time in 20 years, you’ve done everything you need to do in preparation for a phrase. You’ve got good posture, you’ve taken a nice, low breath, you’ve stretched the palate and woken it up with some lovely cool air. But she also taught me a lot about performance. For instance, no one in the audience is looking to make you wrong. They want to hear music.

I’ve never really had lessons with anyone since, and it’s partly because I don’t know who to go to. I feel it was so golden with her. Gregory Yurisich, who was probably Molly’s most successful student internationally, said in an interview he gave overseas, “There’s nothing that somebody told me in a lesson or a rehearsal that I hadn’t already heard from Molly.” Above all, she was such an extraordinarily good musician across the board. Everything she did, or demonstrated, even when she wasn’t really singing, was so beautifully shaped. I hope that’s something I can pass on to my students, because there are lots of people with good voices, but if you can’t sing with any sense of expression, or phrasing, it’s boring!

Although you’ve also excelled in other repertoire, you’ve become Australia’s leading baroque soprano, an area that comes with lots of disagreement over correct historical practise. How do you cope with the minefield of Baroque ornamentation?
It’s so complex. For instance, there’s a French way to do a trill without the leading note, and then you have to decide does it come before or after the cadence, and I think all of that is really important. But I always tell my students that ornamentation was designed to show the singers off and to enhance the music. If you have a beautiful languid aria, whatever ornamentation you put in really must enhance the beauty of that line, rather than diminishing it. And then, if you have a bravura coloratura aria, it comes down to your ability to be creative compositionally. As long as what you do fits the harmonies below you, you can change that whole coloratura passage to something even more brilliant. But, by the same token, you have to make sure that it actually shows you off. If you can’t quite manage it, then why do it? It’s very rare that you’re going to improve on the composer, so if you’re going to ornament, it really must show you off and what you can do, rather than what you can’t.

Do you ever do ornamentation on the fly, or do you always pre-rehearse?
I have, nearly always, written my ornamentation out because I like to be secure. But I just did some concerts with the Haydn Ensemble, and in one of the arias we were doing I hadn’t quite got round to doing any ornamentation. I thought, when I get to Sydney and have a bit more time I’ll do this properly. So in the first rehearsal I just ornamented freely, and they all said, “That’s great!” And I said, “Well actually, I’m just making it up.” Anyway, that’s what I did for all three concerts, I decided to live on the edge and just see what came out. There were a few things I probably did the same each time, but every single cadenza was different. It was a real leap of faith, but if you understand the harmonic structure you’re going to be okay, because you have a reference point. It’s terrifying – I’m sure it’s taking many years off my life! – but it can just give you an extra edge. And Molly taught me, it’s good to feel a bit nervous, and use that energy in a productive way.

How do you use that nervous energy productively?
If only there was an absolute, sure answer to that! I wish I could meditate. I remind myself, I’ve been in this place many, many times, but I still get nervous. It’s horrible! I do a bit of visualisation, not always, but it’s quite a hard exercise. I’m sitting in the audience and watching and listening to myself. It sounds crazy, but I make sure I know what I’m wearing so I can visualise myself and the sound I want to be making, all of the things I’ve been working on. I guess it’s like an athlete visualising the race.

In September Sara Macliver, along with violinist Paul Wright, bring us a jewel box of little known treasures from the Italian Baroque.

Excerpt from “It’s a hat-trick! ANAM’s vocal trifecta” (Music Makers vol 19, ANAM)

SARA MACLIVER, PAUL WRIGHT & THE ITALIAN BAROQUE
FRI 23 SEPTEMBER 7PM

BOCCHERINI Musica notturna delle strade di Madrid op. 30, no. 6 
VIVALDI Violin Concerto in E major, RV270 Il riposo
CALDARA 
In lagrime strempato fr. Maddalena ai piedi di Christo
CHINDAMO 
Sonata in E major after Scarlatti
VIVALDI 
Trio Sonata in D minor RV63 La folia
GREGORI 
Concerto Grosso in C major op. 2, no. 1
HANDEL 
Crudel tirano amor HWV97
CHINDAMO Sonata in G after Scarlatti

Sara Macliver soprano
Paul Wright violin/director
ANAM Orchestra 

Venue ANAM, South Melbourne Town Hall
Bookings anam.com.au 03 9645 7911

This performance is presented in partnership with Sofitel Melbourne on Collins

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