‘Music inspired by a world behind closed doors‘ was the tagline for the latest project of crack contemporary vocal squad Halcyon, led by mezzo-soprano Jenny Duck-Chong. The quiet introspection and reverent naturalism of Asian poetry and culture has inspired composers for decades, and this concert transported listeners via music to a very different but desperately beautiful world of autumn winds, icy hills and footsteps in the snow.
A Ross Edwards interlude for Japanese koto (a 13-stringed flat wooden soundbox), performed with characteristic mastery by Satsuki Odamura was a fine introduction to the sound-world of this concert. The strings warmly twanged and shimmered underneath Odamura’s fingers as she gracefully moulded Edwards’ east-Asian musical inflections. The theatrical Sohmon III‘ a poetic creation of eminent Japanese composer Minoru Miki for soprano, piano and percussion was particularly vivid; soprano Alison Morgan interspersed elegant narration with elegiac vocalises as she ‘played’ all the characters in a story of courtly yet unrequited love, displaying never-less-than-remarkable vocal control amid a vibrant spectrum of precision percussion.
Jenny Duck-Chong performed Larry Sitsky’s newly-penned A Feast of Lanterns suite, the music comprising veins of dark melody deeply enveloped in clouds of thrumming instrumental colour. The mood of the work’s seven Chinese poems veered gently from iciness to luminosity, the directness of the poetry’s natural images beautifully word-painted by the two singers with as-one togetherness and captivating textual engagement.
Another entrancing composition for koto, this time by Sydney’s Rosalind Page, was the first of two pieces comprising Winter Moon Secrets’ second half. The concluding composition, Andrew Schultz’s I am writing in this book, composed specially for Halcyon in 2011, set five songs in English from the tenth-century text the Pillow Book, a diary of quirky anecdotes penned by Japanese poetess Sei Shonagon. The selections chart Shonagon’s growth as a woman’ from the singular visions of A gift of paper (‘Lingering days, holding this brush, never knowing others would see’, sung in gloriously direct homophony) to the funeral It is getting dark (‘I am old and barely live…’, set as a ghostly duet between the voices and cello). Overlapping sibilances and intense vocal patter added character to the work’s central three movements, in which powerlessness, revulsion and wonder all played compelling parts.
Notably, three of the evening’s five featured composers were present in the audience at Winter Moon Secrets – Page, Sitsky and Schultz were all able to take well-deserved bows and join the other listeners in congratulating Halcyon on crafting yet another unforgettable concert of contemporary treasures.