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Live Review: Zola Jesus & Penny Quartet

15 November 2016 | 2:57 pm | Bryget Chrisfield

"This is the most special incarnation of my music that I feel will exist."

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The atmosphere inside Melbourne Recital Centre's foyer is electric, with ticketholders sipping on tequila cocktails and bopping to the DJ-supplied sounds. There's excitement surrounding this Melbourne Music Week Australian exclusive and this glorious venue's acoustics will most certainly elevate what's in store. We're pre-warned there will be no intermission this evening and file inside as Melbourne's Penny Quartet (violinists Amy Brookman and Madeleine Jevons, Anthony Chataway on viola and cellist Jack Ward) gently warm up their string instruments. They are also joined by Tamil Rogeon (True Live, The Raah Project) on electronic strings.   

All on stage are dressed elegantly, but Brookman and Jevons sport draped dresses that perfectly complement the ethereal, flowing style of Zola Jesus (actual name Nika Roza Danilova) when she arrives on stage in all black everything, flowing brunette locks and trademark dark lippie shade. From the very first bow, we're transported somewhere mesmerising. Visual patterns on the stage's back wall are perfectly in sync with the music, bringing it dramatically to life; this venue's carved Hoop Pine plywood somehow adding an extra dimension. We're infiltrated by these lush sounds, the music becomes a swelling, breathing organism. While Danilova's opera studies are evident in both the way she sings and the breadth of her vocal range, there's also inherent fragility - as if emotion constantly threatens to overwhelm her.

Some latecomers are quickly ushered to their seats, temporarily breaking the spell. After about three songs, Danilova speaks, confessing that up until this point she's been too terrified to do so. She's obviously delighted by how these songs sound, acknowledging that Melbourne composer/arranger Louise Woodward was responsible for half of the arrangements while Australian artist JG Thirwell took care of the rest. "This is the most special incarnation of my music that I feel will exist," Danilova gushes. Rogeon can't help but beam while performing, clearly satisfied with the results. Danilova introduces a world-premiere song, telling us it was written when she was going through a dark time. The entire performance feels deeply personal, raw wounds reopened as we listen attentively and peer out from the darkness of the auditorium. A piano is pushed onto the stage, which Danilova plays, immersed, accompanied only by Rogeon.

Danilova thanks us and leaves the stage, but her string players remain, clapping and gazing stage right, hoping for further instructions. This gives us hope. She returns to the centre of the stage and tackles an aria. Hunched over and vulnerable it's as if her voice has been intercepted by something otherworldly; equal parts devastating and healing, this final song is breathtaking. Danilova faces her accompanists, one by one, as if admiring each musician's virtuosity. At song's close, we're sure Danilova is actually in tears. 

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Update from the Zola Jesus Facebook page: "Thank you so much Melbourne for sharing such a special night and allowing me to feel totally vulnerable in front of you. I have not sung an aria in front of strangers since I was a young kid... no better time to confront such crippling fear crawling in my throat."