Phenomenal Harmony

Kitchen table conversations bring out home truths: Anna Pierard is a thrillseeker; Madeleine Pierard needs a controlled climate.

One of Europe’s most in-demand opera singers, Madeleine says she still feels ‘stage nerves’, particularly when performing in recital rather than in full-blown operatic productions.

For Anna though: “I almost don’t feel comfortable if I’m not exposed.”

The morning we meet, Anna’s at home in Napier peeling apples at the kitchen bench with Madeleine on Skype. London is homebase but she’s currently in Auckland rehearsing for Benjamin Britten’s Turn of the Screw. Between now, that opera’s run and her concert for the Arts Festival she will have fitted in multiple trips to Wellington and a weekend rehearsal retreat somewhere near Hamilton.

Anna sees singing with Madeleine as a personal pleasure. “I love it. She is so busy. This is my opportunity!”

It’s a rare delight to hear two sisters harmonise, counterpoint and riff off each other’s idiosyncrasies in this way. Weaknesses are bolstered, strengths enhanced. That relationship extends into their musical partnership, which is precious but not often possible with each living half a world away from the other.

Madeleine and Anna’s Harcourts Hawke’s Bay Arts Festival concert presents “lieder” by Johannes Brahms with two pianists playing four-handed in accompaniment. Lieder are songs, or poems set to music. For Madeleine, Brahms is the greatest composer of lieder, certainly her personal favourite.

“I’ve sung Brahms as a mezzo and as a soprano. Really, as long as I’ve been singing,” she explains.

The combination of two pianists, two voices and a carefully curated collection of additional musicians in support of the work, will be a special treat for audiences.

“It is such a rare thing to hear two sisters. We have clearly quite different voices but in unison it sounds like one person,” says Madeleine who is looking forward to working closely with Anna but also with pianist Michael Houston who she first met when she was 16.

“There’s nothing like that experience of being onstage and doing something completely collaborative,” Madeleine explains. “You are totally in service to the music. You have to be completely vulnerable and allow people in, otherwise they won’t empathise, and they won’t get as much out.”

For Anna, working with her long-distance sister and a collection of established and emerging artists she has enormous respect for are the highlights of the approaching festival.

“It is that experience of making sense of things through performance,” she says. “Language is inadequate, in music you don’t need to articulate, you just feel it.”

At the centre of Phänomen is the magic of Brahms, who Anna calls a “magician”. There is a restorative quality to the music.

“It’s transformative, everything falls away. That’s what we want for our audience, an opportunity to find harmony,” says Anna.


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