With a powder-keg of a voice and unique abilities spanning jazz, soul and mainstream pop, Kate Ceberano was a phenomenon purely of her own invention when she burst onto the Australian scene 40 years ago. All these decades later, we arguably have still not seen a more original or versatile singer in this country than she.

So it seems high time to take a look back and revisit some of her glories – which is how My Life is a Symphony is in part conceived. COVID prevented this show seeing the light of day in 2020, but following its release as an album in May this year, Ceberano was able to bring it here for the 2023 Adelaide Cabaret Festival in collaboration with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra.

It’s absolutely fitting, given that she was this event’s artistic director in 2012, 2013 and 2014, and is part of the Cabaret Collective which has programmed the 2023 festival.

However, My Life is a Symphony is far more than a mere compilation of hits. It is a personal sharing of songs and experiences that have been most meaningful to Ceberano through her life – transformed into a symphonic journey. Turbulent but uplifting, melancholic yet ultimately triumphal in its optimism, her show’s distinct message is how joy can only arise out of darker times.

Telling us that pure sensual desire is where it all starts, Ceberano turns up the heat wickedly in “Pash”. But her pleading vocals amid a broiling eruption of orchestral sound immediately plant emotions of doubt and loneliness, even in this opening number.

The arrangements by Roscoe James Irwin are excellent and add lushness to each number. He is up there next to her accompanying tirelessly on piano, while Vanessa Scammell conducts the ASO behind with sure hands.

Next comes “Sweet Inspiration”, cinematic in grandeur and magnified in its interior pathos by a bluesy solo from electric guitarist Kathleen Halloran. Halloran is one of Ceberano’s trusty three-piece band that join the stage for this, together with a quartet of backing singers that includes her own daughter, Gypsy Rogers. The only negative is that they are somewhat recessed in the mix.

My Life is a Symphony – Kate Ceberano with the ASO. Photo: Claudio Raschella

Forces are pared right back in “Courage”, which Ceberano explains was a gift for her parents that takes lines from their wedding vows. Bathed in warmth, this song is not without anguish either, calling attention to the need for mutual support through the tougher times of love.

The quiet, bewitching pulse of “Earth & Sky” and the nostalgia of “Sunburn” relate further stories of life’s struggles and the search for ecstasy. Clearly on fire with all this orchestral burley behind her, Ceberano’s voice is glorious, and the complexity of her songs has entirely swept up the Festival Theatre audience by this point.

Two of her biggest numbers are yet to come, though: “Champion” and, in the second half, “Brave”. Both are pumped-up songs but even more passionate and darker in their harmonies in these epic arrangements with the ASO.

The show’s highlight is when Ceberano describes how generous and supportive John Farnham was towards her when they met in Adelaide years ago, and then sings “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” from Jesus Christ Superstar in moving tribute to him. Maybe such memories will never happen again, but she and he starred in the Australian cast for that musical and recorded a chart-topper with “Everything’s Alright” in 1992.

Ceberano’s vocals are likewise superb and tear at the heart in her 1998 song “Sympathy” at the words: “So don’t call me in the middle of the night, and don’t ask me if everything is alright, and I don’t want to hear too much honesty. Your sympathy destroys me.” Halloran’s electric guitar wails here like another voice.

Toward the end comes the beautiful, enigmatic “Cherry Blossom Lipstick”, a sensual song about how dreams, no matter how fervently held, may never come true.

There is an intensity about Ceberano’s ventures into the soul: gutsy and poetic at the same time, they stop the listener in their tracks every time. Her one-night-only performance with the ASO will be long cherished.

My Life is a Symphony was presented at the Festival Theatre on June 10 as part of the Adelaide Cabaret Festival, which continues until June 24. See more stories and reviews on InReview’s Cabaret Festival page.

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