It was with a light heart and high expectations that I boarded the Saturday morning ferry towards Cockatoo Island for the 2019 Bel a cappella Come and Sing Project. My expectations were high because this was the second such project I had participated in with Bel, the first being a three-hour rehearsal of Thomas Tallis’s complex 40 part motet Spem in alium with an impromptu public performance under the dome of Sydney’s iconic Queen Victoria Building, which was a delightful, if extremely musically challenging, day out.
In 2018 all the participating singers were assigned a part and given their music a few weeks in advance with instructions to learn them prior to attending. This year was slightly different as we were told we’d receive our music on the day. This was just a little daunting for me. My sight singing skills are not the greatest, and I confess that I manage to scrape by as a member of a semi-professional choir by working very hard behind the scenes to learn my parts. The thought of learning 20 minutes of a cappella repertoire in a couple of hours with the intention of performing it in a public place was not one I was particularly looking forward to. So, why on earth was I doing this – for fun?
Actually, yes! It turned out to be a super day of singing and camaraderie…
Bel a cappella’s Come and Sing Projects are the brainchild of the ensemble’s Music Director Anthony Pasquill, who, a singer himself, relishes the opportunity to workshop and perform interesting (sometimes challenging) music and experiment with the acoustics in unique public spaces. This year’s venue, Cockatoo Island, the largest island in Sydney Harbour, was certainly that.
For Sydney’s Aboriginal people, Cockatoo Island was known as Wareamah, believed to mean ‘women’s land’. In 2010 it was inscribed on the UNSECO World Heritage List and it showcases the city’s layered history from Indigenous meeting place, to colonial convict Sydney and then into an industrial, maritime and defence site. Given that the focus of the 2019 Come and Sing event was to pay homage to this significant historic place, Pasquill’s repertoire choices reflected this amazing opportunity with a selection of new Australian works by female composers (with a nod to Clara Schumann, as music lovers celebrated 200 years since her birth recently).
Locus Iste, Heather Percy’s response to Anton Bruckner’s famous setting of this text (the translation aptly meaning ‘This is the Lord’s place’) was a perfect start, and we were so pleased when Heather herself joined us to workshop her piece. What a joy to be able to hear insights into the interpretation of the music from the composer herself. (I was particularly happy that she was an alto, like me – who better to learn your part from than the person who wrote it!)
Next was Melbourne composer Juliana Kay’s Songs No Longer Sung. In her words ‘Despite the backdrop of hunger, death and despair, music was constantly being composed, performed and heard during the Holocaust, even in the most desperate of places… Songs responding to victims’ varied circumstances emerged, asserting individual and collective survival and agency.’ Singing Kay’s haunting melody, it was easy to imagine similar tunes being sung long ago in this historic convict site.
Then (after a bit of Clara Schumann) we got to my absolute favourite piece of the day, Ruth McCall‘s rollicking arrangement of Waltzing Matilda. Combining the traditional Waltzing Matilda tune, the ‘Queensland tune’, a new tune, and a chant on one note using Aboriginal botanical names. Pasquill set the pace with clapsticks that resonated under the rusty corrugated iron roofline, rustling up our impromptu audience of innocent bystanders with iPhones at the ready, plus a smattering of friends and family that came along to enjoy our free concert.
So we, a group of 40 singers (many of whom had never met before) experimented, sight read, rehearsed and performed amongst nesting seagulls, disintegrating machinery and crumbling buildings, surrounding the vast Turbine Hall, all of which were a joy to sing in, our voices ringing clear as bells and the harmonies blending beautifully. All in all it was a fantastic day out, not just listening to music but being involved in the creation of it, laughing, singing, picnicking, forming new friendships and deepening existing connections. I for one can’t wait for the next Project from Bel a cappella. Bravo!