Concert review: Ali McGregor and the MSO, Hamer Hall

A one-night only showcase of hybrid musicality.

Even a cursory glance at Ali McGregor’s impressive CV is enough to garner astonishment at her range of achievements. Here’s a precis: McGregor started off as principal soprano at Opera Australia and then veered to cabaret, with stints co-directing the Adelaide Cabaret Festival, as well as recently winning a Helpmann Award for her show Yma Sumac – The Peruvian Songbird.

She’s won several Green Room Awards and also created the FLUXUS opera lab, riding the crest of a new wave of contemporary Australian opera.

Although her international standing has seen McGregor perform at Glastonbury and Carnegie Hall, and she’s toured across Australia in various iterations, she was delighted to be on home turf for this one-night only extravaganza.

From the moment she took to the stage in a shimmery golden robe (which cleverly changed to emerald at the flick of the wrist later on in the night), McGregor was a diva incarnate. ‘Music mad’ from a young age, she told us that playing within the acoustically resonant depths of Hamer Hall was like winning the Grand Final.

It was a perfect space to soar. Honed by decades of professional training and practice, her voice was honey, fire and ice. There were many plaintive songs about love, but also those that can only be sung after you’ve had your heart splintered into pieces.

Conducted by Benjamin Northey, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra (MSO) was in similarly fine form, supporting McGregor as she took us through an astonishingly diverse playlist. For fans, and for those who’ve never heard her before, the night’s offerings presented a sampler box of goodies.

Although billed as her first solo show at Hamer Hall, this was not strictly accurate; McGregor’s generosity extended beyond her vocal range. About to turn 50 this year, the singer’s gift to herself (and to the audience) was to welcome and share the stage with various guests with whom she’s had a particularly close musical relationship. The MSO downed tools at such times, allowing a single clarinet at one point and a guitar at another, to take precedence. Such an invitation to extend the spotlight to others gave the night a fuzzy warm glow of collegiate respect and allowed a note of intimacy into the cavernous surrounds.

With composition arranged by Alex Turley, the songs sung with passion, sensitivity and cheekiness defied easy categorisation. McGregor is fond of the hybrid and medley models, so many were a mash-up of not just her twin loves – cabaret and opera – but also a good dollop of 80s and 90s pop as well, as taken from her 2012 album, Alchemy.

As a Gen-Xer, these were the hits of her youth and it was disorientating but wonderfully weird nonetheless to see the lounge chanteuse treatment of rock songs by Soft Cell, Blur, Aqua and INXS. It was her attempt McGregor said, half-jokingly, of turning trashy into treasure through the alchemical magic of jazz. Her version of Radiohead’s ‘Creep’, the anthem for disaffected misfits everywhere, was particularly tingly-special.

McGregor also performed songs from Yma Sumac, during which she did indeed seem to have channelled the spirit of the Peruvian singer, as well as a couple of new releases from her recent work as creator at FLUXUS. One of the highlights was a collaboration with her husband, ABC presenter Adam Hills, who recited Banjo Paterson’s Clancy of the Overflow while McGregor sang The Church’s ‘Under the Milky Way’.

Read: Concert review: Rachmaninov – the Piano Concertos, ASO concert 1, Adelaide Town Hall

This wasn’t a show for opera purists; her eclectic range is McGregor’s strength. From vaunting arias to moody melodies by Nina Simone and The Beatles, to a mischievous number about being a Barbie girl in a Barbie World, McGregor can do it all. And how.

She received a well-deserved standing ovation from a clearly rapturous crowd.

Ali McGregor performed with the MSO for one night only on 26 May 2023.

Thuy On is the Reviews and Literary Editor of ArtsHub and an arts journalist, critic and poet who’s written for a range of publications including The Guardian, The Saturday Paper, Sydney Review of Books, The Australian, The Age/SMH and Australian Book Review. She was the books editor of The Big issue for 8 years. Her debut, a collection of poetry called Turbulence, came out in 2020 and was released by University of Western Australia Publishing (UWAP). Her second collection, Decadence, was published in July 2022, also by UWAP. Her third book, Essence, will be published in 2025. Twitter: @thuy_on Instagram: poemsbythuy