as a composer, Derek Strahan studied
modern languages at Cambridge and went
on to combine a career as a film and
television script-writer with writing
music, notably film scores. The song
cycle Rose of the Bay
is the result of a commission from the
Australian mezzo-soprano Lauris Elms
in 1987 for Strahan to write a song
cycle set in Sydney. The work was premiered
at the Sydney Opera House and the work’s
dedicatees went on to make the present
recording in the studios of the Australian
The cycle consists
of nine songs, setting poems written
by the composer. The composer’s intention
was to create a cycle that had a dramatic
unity with a rather operatic narrative.
Strahan sets his own words in a sort
of continuous arioso which gives the
work the feel of one continuous work
rather than nine discrete movements.
The theme of the cycle is not a description
of Sydney so much as the exploration
of a love affair which takes place over
The composer writes
tonally but in his programme note he
says that he uses ‘the rhythms and
extended harmonies of jazz as a musical
expression of the urban setting’.
The resulting instrumental texture is
rather busy and strenuous, giving the
piece a slightly relentless feel. The
composer seems to allow himself (and
his performers) few moments to relax.
The consequence of the jazz influence
is the inclusion of much syncopation
and polytonality. The writing is generally
very chromatic and the accompaniment
particularly rhythmic. The vocal lines
are always expressive and singable.
The singer is never asked to do anything
unreasonable, though the rather extensive
range of the vocal part does tax Lauris
Elms in the lower register. Unfortunately
I did not find any of the musical material
particularly memorable or evocative.
Perhaps this was not helped by the fact
that Elms’ diction is a little patchy.
She delivers a truly committed performance,
rising to the work’s challenge magnificently,
but the words do not always come over
well. This can result in odd phrases
of the text being spot-lit in an unsatisfactory
When reading the composer’s
own text, the words come over as surprisingly
poetic. I could have imagined a quieter,
more subtle setting of the words. But
of course, this would have been less
urban, less evocative of the cityscape.
Strahan includes quotations
and reminiscences into the musical fabric
of the piece, notably the popular song
‘Yes, we have no bananas’, re-used to
set the words Yes, we have no relationship.
All the performers
give a magnificent performance of the
piece. Both Deborah de Graaff and David
Miller make light of the difficulties
of their music and the often strenuous
nature of the music.
This is a valuable
disc, recorded just after the first
performance of the piece. I could imagine
a more relaxed, perhaps more subtle,
performance of the music but here the
work’s dedicatees give a truly strong,