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Kate Miller-Heidke and the Sydney Symphony (Sydney Opera House)

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Watching a symphony orchestra backing a pop singer is often a bit of a strange experience. There’s usually plenty of respect given back and forth between the classically-trained instrumentalists and the singer, despite their very different disciplines, but those musicians don’t exactly grow up dreaming of augmenting pop songs with the occasional orchestral flourish.

You can’t help but be intensely aware that this isn’t the greatest musical passion of the majority of musicians on stage.

But the situation is a little bit different with Australian singer Kate Miller-Heidke, who has made a career out of combining alternative folksy pop with a more classical, operatic sensibility.

She comes to the symphonic world having written an acclaimed short opera, having performed at the English National Opera and the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and armed with prodigious vocal technique and arrangements of her pop songs that actually understand how to use an orchestra to create a sophisticated and intricate aural experience.

Last night, Miller-Heidke performed her first of three concerts with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, after winning a 2016 Helpmann Award for Best Australian Contemporary Concert for her performances with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra.

The exchange of musical ideas between Miller-Heidke, her collaborator/guitarist/husband Keir Nuttall and the SSO, under Benjamin Northey’s baton, proved to be enormously rewarding and often entirely sublime.

Many of Miller-Heidke songs have a sense high drama, which is sometimes tongue-in-cheek (like in You’ve Underestimated Me, Dude) and sometimes entirely sincere (as in the two songs she performed from her opera The Rabbits). It’s only magnified with a full orchestra on stage.

Her almost operatic debut pop single Words becomes much more textured as the distorted keyboard riff is replaced by a clarinet solo, before leading into a full orchestral cacophony in the chorus, with blaring brass and strings. A similar template is followed in the arrangements of Sarah and Mama.

The songs also have clear 1980s influences in the way their melodies build and unfold, but this new live setting allows her to trace the evolving narratives of her lyrics with a much greater sense of clarity and gravitas.

And Miller-Heidke’s performance matches that high drama measure for measure, even when it’s just her and the brilliantly talented Nuttall performing stripped back renditions of her hits. Her voice is as glorious as it’s ever been, with her delicate lower register offset by a piercing spinto soprano. Somehow her on-stage presence is both ethereal and relatable.

Miller-Heidke received a standing ovation last night before returning to the stage for an encore of her biggest hit yet, the tear-jerker ballad Last Day on Earth. It became a hit off the back of a commercial for soap opera Neighbours, but this new arrangement offsets the relative simplicity of the melody with unexpected harmonic and rhythmic shifts in the string section.

It’s almost like hearing the song for the first time, and the perfect conclusion to an extraordinary, daring and musically confident pop concert.

Kate Miller-Heidke has two more shows with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra: March 24 and 25 at 8pm. Miller-Heidke is touring nationally with various orchestras.

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Featured image: Daniel Aulsebrook Photography, courtesy Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

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