Megan Washington & Queensland Symphony Orchestra

Megan Washington presented a great musical palette but failed to engage with the audience.
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Image: Megan Washington via Brisbane Festival.

Under the umbrella of the Brisbane Festival, Megan Washington – the multi-platinum selling artist and winner of the prestigious ARIA award (twice) – presented songs from her as yet unreleased new album, Sugardom. 

A mix of traditional pop, rock and jazz inspired songs with a style described as ‘indie pop and alternative rock’, this concert tour was designed with a single purpose, to showcase a series of love songs. This included both old favourites and brand-new compositions, ranging from raunchy rock beats to late-night jazz numbers and some heart-breaking ballads, with special well-crafted musical arrangements accommodating the luxury of a full-size orchestra as backing. 

The concert benefited from excellent design values and superb lighting. It opened with the concert platform swathed in deep blue and purple light. Shimmering lights that changed colour, according to the songs sung, dropped from the ceiling to create an evocative mood. This was matched by Megan Washington dressed in a sophisticated black velvet gown that gave a sense of class to the evening. This appeared to be a serious move by Washington towards acceptance in a classical environment that was perhaps outside her normal playing style or the informality of a rock concert. 

Clearly a talented musician and artist with a rich, creamy well-trained voice that can cross many styles of her artform, Megan Washington has a fabulous range and can sing varied repertoire to great effect. Composing her own material, she accompanies herself on piano and guitar, though for this tour she chose just to use piano, engaging band member, Alex Bennison, as guitarist. He also provided backing vocals and solid support musically.  

Washington takes her art seriously to the point where there was very limited interaction or communication with her fans. She devoted little time to developing a rapport with the audience, perhaps preferring to let the songs speak for themselves. However good the music was, this produced an evening that was flat rather than exhilarating with few highs and lows.

Four songs were sung in quick succession at the beginning, with ‘Achilles Heart’ a strong well-orchestrated opener, showing off her velvety sounds with just a hint of fragility. Perfect for love songs. She introduced her fifth song from the piano with a story about a gorilla, both funny and sad, which explained the lyrics perfectly.  More of this type of exchange would have been welcome. But after this she mostly thanked her audience, making brief political references, which raised some smiles. But humour and fun was thin on the ground.

It was in the half dozen songs where Washington played piano and sang – often mournful ballads or jazz numbers – that she seemed most comfortable and the music really came alive. The first song she ever wrote, ‘Love a Soldier’, was charmingly delivered. Describing Roy Orbison as the best writer of love songs, she gave an impassioned and sensitive rendition of ‘Anything At All’, a highlight of the evening. Guitar and piano brought out the angst and despair of ‘Limitless’ with its wonderful descriptor of ‘sleeping in your jeans.’ The encore Stars and People was also heart-achingly played and sung. 

The orchestra under the baton of an efficient and competent John Foreman played exceptionally well and their backing of many of the well-crafted arrangements of her songs was first-rate. The strings, brass and percussion were particularly effective in new songs such as ‘The Give, Body Double’ and ‘Kiss Me Like We’re Gonna Die.’ The rainbow lighting and effects accompanying the ‘Yes’ vote song, ‘Futureproof’, brought the lyrics sharply into focus with good brass and dark strings, while an old favourite ‘Catherine Wheel’ was lovingly recreated with the full orchestra in joyous mood. 

Unfortunately, Washington appeared ill at ease in the company of the orchestra and, apart from acknowledging a wonderful cello solo from David Lale at the end of ‘American Spirit’ a tongue-in-cheek song about the American election, there was no exchange with the orchestra which was a great pity. A tour of this type clearly allows little room for improvisation or even rehearsal time, so the singer stands out front and sings and the orchestra plays in the background. But it needed more than this and certainly more to be included under the festival umbrella. 

With all the ingredients lined up for a great night, in terms of orchestra and musicians, fabulous arrangements, high production values and a singer of the calibre of Washington, the concert was a muted affair and ultimately disappointing.

A concert must give us more than just straight renditions of the CD and more than Megan Washington seemed able to provide at this performance at least.

Star Rating: 3 stars out of 5

Megan Washington and the Queensland Symphony Orchestra  
Brisbane Festival
Singer: Megan Washington
Conductor:  John Foreman
Guitarist:  Alex Bennison
Concert Hall, QPAC  Thursday 28 September 2017

Suzannah Conway is an experienced arts administrator, having been CEO of Opera Queensland, the Brisbane Riverfestival and the Centenary of Federation celebrations for Queensland. She is a freelance arts writer and has been writing reviews and articles for over 20 years, regularly reviewing classical music, opera and musical theatre in particular for The Australian and Limelight magazine as well as other journals. Most recently she was Arts Hub's Brisbane-based Arts Feature Writer.