Julien Van Mellaerts

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16 April 2019, Julien Van Mellaerts (baritone)
and James Baillieu (piano).
Chamber Music NZ recital, Napier MTG.
By Louis Pierard

In the 12th and final concert of a 3000km CMNZ tour Julien Van Mellaerts and South African-born pianist James Baillieu, who is Professor at the Royal Academy of Music, presented a diverse programme – from Sibelius to Sinatra – that both revealed the versatility of the New Zealand baritone and gave  rewarding insights into the intimate musical relationship between singer and accompanist.

Van Mellaerts is a recent graduate of the Royal College of Music International Opera School in London.  He has an expansive stage presence and was equally at home from Schubert’s blood-chilling Erlkonig and the seething anguish of Sibelius’ Svartar Rosor, to the bucolic shadings of love, loneliness and beauty in Vaughan Williams’ Songs of Travel, to Cole Porter’s acerbic “The Tale of the Oyster”.  

The evening began with a clutch of Schubert lieder to poems by Goethe that also included Ganymed, Rastlose Liebe, Erste Verlust, An den Mond and the much-loved Der Musensohn. There followed  the evening’s highlight –  three of Ravels’  five wittily anthropomorphic Histoires Naturelles – La Paon (peacock), Le Cygne  (swan) and La Pintade (guinea fowl). Pianist and singer were so perfectly attuned it was like witnessing a pair of sculptor’s hands. Baillieu’s finely pointed and sympathetic accompaniment underpinned Van Mellaert’s masterly sense of irony.  A translation in the programme notes would have been useful.

Continuing the avian theme was the well-received, Van Mellaerts-commissioned Ornithological Anecdotes – Dotterel, Takahe, Huia and Tui – by Gareth Farr set to poems by Bill Manhire. The words and music at times made for strange bedfellows – with the latter being more successful in Tui where Farr adroitly captures the essence of the bird while Manhire channels Ogden Nash.

In Vaughan Williams’ Songs of Travel to nine poems by Robert Louis Stevenson Van Mellaerts made a personable Vagabond and in the kaleidoscopic moods of the contemplative wanderer he did the work justice.

Rounding out an evening that had the pleasing intimacy and warmth of a drawing room concert that allowed one to forget briefly the discomfort of the MTG theatre’s procrustean seating, was Ballads and Legends, which included two Sibelius works (the other being the equally bleak Sav, Sav, Susa), the Gershwin brothers’ wickedly parodic Lorelei and Manning Sherwin’s sonorous A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square.  

Appropriately, for the encore (though regrettably the room was hardly crowded), Mellaerts sang Hammerstein’s Some Enchanted Evening.

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