For Halcyon, their last concert for 2018 could be considered something of a landmark for the vocal chamber group. Formed in 1998 by mezzo-soprano Jenny Duck-Chong and soprano Alison Morgan, the ensemble has been a leading light in the fostering of new Australian art music, especially for voice. With Duck-Chong now at the helm as Artistic Director, the group celebrates their 20th year of enthralling and engaging music-making with their program, Shining Shores.
Situated in the Sydney Conservatorium of Music’s ‘Music Workshop’ recital hall, the evening began with Gillian Whitehead’s Girl with a Guitar (2000), featuring cellist Geoffrey Gartner and pianist Daniel Herscovitch alongside Duck-Chong. The text chosen by Whitehead is of seven haikus by poet Ruth Dallas. The work tended towards both intensity and minimalism, as is often the case with haikus themselves. The first movement, Autumn music, began with the strings of the piano being plucked – a clear reference to the guitar itself. Whiteheads choice of vocal melismas, various extended techniques and overall absence of a clear tonal (and rhythmic) centre meant the work was a bold one to begin the evening with, but the trio gave a convincing performance and I enjoyed the way in which Duck-Chong responded to the poetry.
Next in the program was a bracket of three short chamber works by Robert Lombardo, Sadie Harrison and Ross Edwards.
- First was Two Love Songs (2014) by Lombardo. Set to two poems by Robert’s wife Kathleen Lombardo, the work came as an interesting change of pace. With Nicole Forsyth on viola paired with the rich mezzo voice of Duck-Chong, there was an intimacy that made the work feel more emotionally direct than the last. Aside from the novelty of such a rare combination, Forsyth’s playing was particularly notable, due to both her ability to craft beautiful phrases and the way in which her tone matched perfectly that of Duck-Chong’s voice.
- Following on was Harrison’s We sit late from Little Gifts (1996). Featuring Jason Noble on clarinet and Duck-Chong as vocalist, this time the sparse texture lent itself to the intensity of the work. With only three lines of text, the feature of the piece seemed to be the conversation between clarinet and voice, the two often responding to each other with contrasting phrases. As with the Lombardo, the choice of non-harmonic instrument allows for intimate conversation between the two performers that perhaps isn’t possible with voice and piano.
- Last in the set of three was The Forest from Five Senses by Edwards (2012). Being not entirely familiar with Edward’s vocal compositions, the work was not at all what I was expecting. In this piece Edward’s found a way to blend lush harmonies on the piano with his love of bird call, which allowed the piece an emotionally diverse character. As with many of the evening’s work, the tonal ambiguity meant the listener is drawn to the essence of the poetry.
Each song demonstrated an equilibrium between instrument and voice that is seemingly uncommon.
To finish the first half of the program was Three Malouf Songs by Gordon Kerry, an Australian composer who was is in attendance and came on stage to provide the audience with some details on his 2015 work. Kerry discussed that, like Ravel and even Sculthorpe, he had written about a location he hadn’t visited, in this case, the Glasshouse Mountains (the last song in the set of three), yet the poetry by David Malouf had such a profound effect on him that he felt moved to compose the work. Perhaps the first aspect that stood out was the change in texture, With the ensemble now comprising of Gartner, Herscovitch, Anna McMichael (violin) and Duck-Chong, the larger texture came as a refreshing change. Kerry’s juxtaposition of the glassy tone colour of the piano with the warmth of the strings meant the instrumental music often reflected the poetry equally as much as the vocals, specifically in Rockpools. Kerry’s idea of cohesiveness was clear, with the cello part in the last song recalling moments from that of the first – something which had not featured in the previous pieces. While the voice was not always the main feature of this piece, it still managed to create particularly vivid images of the poetry it was based on.
After a brief interval, Hilary Tann’s Winter Sun, Summer Rain (1986) recommenced the concert. With an ensemble now consisting of flute (Laura Chislet), cello, viola, clarinet, celeste (played by Hersocovitch), and conductor Elizabeth Scott, the work highlighted each musicians ability to not only play their own instrument to a high calibre, but to engage with each other at ease. According to the program, Tann intended to evoke the first experience she had with the first cycle of seasons in North America, and her use of tone colour combined with frequent sporadic solos from each member was an effective way of creating the imagery she had in mind. Chislet’s flute playing, which was both exceptional and an integral part of the piece, certainly deserves a mention.
To conclude the evening was Apollinairesongs by Rosalind Page, which brought all performers throughout the evening on stage. Page was another composer who was in the audience and provided some insight into her work. While I generally try to avoid reading program notes before listening to a work, it was interesting listening to her discuss the intersection between her fascination with Carl Jung and the work of French poet Guillaume Apollinaire, reflecting her Jungian interpretation of the poetry in her composition.
Whether intentionally or not, the impressionist harmonies and phrases perfectly suited the French sung by Duck-Chong, and the work often took on a certain ethereal quality, also aided by the text’s references to space and divinity. Noble’s clarinet solos in the the first song Le Pont Mirabeau were particularly stunning, and Chislet’s use of flutter tonguing on her alto flute in the second song Toujours was evocative. A striking aspect of the piece was the way in which it moved; there was a sense of isolated, but beautiful, moments that occured in the piece rather than constantly moving towards an ultimate musical goal. In this sense the piece took a certain spaciousness and equanimity in its pace.
In the program notes, Rosalind Page says, “in an industry in which performance relationships are often fleeting, Halcyon has consistently forged on with tireless energy creating a continuum that supports the work of Australian composers.”
With Halcyon having premiered and commissioned many of these composers works, I’m not sure I could have said it better myself. Girl With a Guitar by Whitehead, Two Love Songs by Lombardo, We sit late by Harrison, Winter Sun, Summer Rain by Tann were all given their Australian premiere at Shining Shores.
“Halcyon days” often refers to a time from the past, one better than today. But from this evening’s performance, Halcyon shows no sign of slowing down, and if anything the next 20 years promise to be just as good as the last.