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Photo by Meredith O’Shea

Melbourne Recital Centre June 18, 2023. Review: Greg Phillips

The first time I saw proud Mutti Mutti songman Kutcha Edwards in the flesh was at the presentation of the Melbourne Prize for Music in 2016 where he took out the major prize. I struck by his poise, humility and wisdom. In an emotional acceptance speech talking about his songs, Kutcha said “Just because I wrote a song yesterday, doesn’t mean it’s a day old,” alluding to the fact that there’s a lot of life which goes into a song. It’s a line which has stayed with me and often comes to mind when listening to music. Kutcha didn’t perform on that day and I haven’t had the opportunity to witness a show since, so I arrived at the Melbourne Recital Centre with a great deal of anticipation to hear him sing with the Melbourne Youth Orchestra in this very special show, ‘Warta-Kiki: Come Together’.

The first half of the show consisted of the Melbourne Youth Orchestra, led by acclaimed conductor Brett Kelly performing an eclectic repertoire in order to display their immense skill and versatility. From Richard Strauss’ powerful Death and Transfiguration to an epic rendition of Peter Sculthorpe’s Earth Cry, and some beautiful pieces in between, clearly the future of orchestral music in Australia is in good hands.

After the break, The Melbourne Youth Orchestra eased into a beautiful intro consisting of swirling strings and flute as Kutcha walked on stage clapping sticks. The big man sat down and his wailing vocal immediately blended perfectly into the dramatic sonic panorama that these talented musicians were creating. “No more silence on the land, Here to make you understand,” he sang in Singing Up Country, the opening track from his 2021 album Circling Time.

For this performance, ten of Australia’s leading orchestrators poured their creative imaginations into new orchestral arrangements of Kutcha’s music and it was evident the great man was deeply touched by the gesture. After just one rehearsal the day prior, even Kutcha was surprised at how incredibly well the whole production had come together. In fact he stopped at one point to innocently ask conductor Brett Kelly to explain the process. Kutcha used Yesterday’s Forgotten, from his first album Cooinda, to express his awe of the MYO. Written on just an omnichord, it was given a totally new life by the arrangers, the orchestra and the choir from the Victorian College of the Arts Secondary School.

Written the day before Kevin Rudd’s apology to first nations people, Wait’n (for tomorrow to come) tells Kutcha’s stolen generation story. As a young kid he was taken from his parents by police and transported to Melbourne, where he lived in a children’s home for many years. He was eventually reunited with his mother and at 18 years of age had to make the heady trip to the local  DHS office with her to sign a document to end his status as a state ward. As Kutcha tells us, “the irony of that was that my mother was now my guardian, not my mum and that’s the pain that I carry.” Kutcha obviously lives the songs as he sings them, they emanate from deep down in his soul and this one brought him and the audience to tears as he thanked family and friends who have helped him through thick and thin along the way.

With each new tune, the emotion of the evening and the audience engagement intensified. “I’m dreading this next one Brett,” he tells the conductor nearby as he explained the poignant story behind Photographs, a song dedicated to three close friends (one of them Crowded House’s Paul Hester) and family members he lost within a short time in 2015. Kutcha described how he placed the photos of the three on his wall and explained how their eyes continue to follow him around the room and stay with him. The song was already beautiful but the power of the orchestra and the amazing arrangement tonight took it to another level.

Kutcha’s performance of I Have A Dream, a song devoted to Martin Luther King and written after a meeting with his son Martin Luther King III, was nothing short of epic, showcasing his commanding voice with the MYO in full flight. “I wasn’t on this stage then,” Kutcha tells Brett Kelly after the song’s overwhelming crescendo. “I’d gone.” Wherever it was that the music had taken him, myself and the entire audience had gone there too.

Still affected by the emotion of the previous song, Kutcha missed his cue to the beginning of We Sing. “I missed it didn’t I, Brett!,” he said playfully. It was an uplifting and fitting song to end the set, featuring the incredible VCA choir.

The audience was never going to let Kutcha leave without an encore and he was brought back enthusiastically with applause and stamping feet to perform his latest single Mother Tongue, a universal song which talks not only about Aboriginal languages but languages from around the globe.

Sometimes a ticket to a gig gives you more than just a few great songs and some interesting stage banter. Sometimes it elevates your soul and enriches your heart. This was not only a magical evening of music but also a journey of reflection and education, a shared experience in which we all felt a little better and grown up about ourselves than when we arrived.

From left Clockwise; Anushi Fernandopulle (Flute), Felix Gilmour (Timpani), Jake Newman (Bassoon), Holly Sutton (Violin), Rowan Parr (Cello), Maggie Shi (Horn)

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