We did a Q&A earlier in the year about how Halcyon is celebrating 20 years.
This Saturday 1st December, you’re doing your last concert in your birthday year. In this concert you’re reflecting on the world around us and works significant to you as a group.
classikON: Looking back over 20 years, it must be difficult to select the works to feature. What were the key features to bring these ones together in a concert?
Jenny: This year has been a rare opportunity to reflect on our large catalogue of performed repertoire and to bring back to light some works I think really deserve to be heard again. Vocal chamber music of any kind is so rarely performed, and was one of the key reasons we first founded the group – so we could bring this intimate music for the sonorities of voice and chamber ensembles to new audiences. So the chance to revisit some of the extraordinary pieces we have premiered over the years seemed a true celebration of this body of work we have presented and helped create.
Rosalind Page’s Apollinairesongs (2002), Gordon Kerry’s Three Malouf Songs (2016) and Ross Edwards’ Five Senses (2012) were all works that I wanted to share with audiences again and are borne of long relationships with each of the composers. But Rosalind’s piece was significant for another reason as it featured on our very first studio CD, Cool Black. Released in 2008, it is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year so this seemed a very good time for us to perform it again live (for the first time since 2002) and share it again with an audience many of whom may not have seen that first performance.
One of Halcyon’s other trademarks is we are what I call ‘chameleonic’. We do not have a fixed ensemble: the line up of players is drawn together for each specific program. Rosalind’s work was the starting point for the program so I knew what my largest ensemble would be – voice with flute, clarinet, viola, cello and piano. The evocative imagery of water and moonlight are a feature in both Rosalind and Gordon’s works, so from there the program began to evolve with both a theme and an instrumentation.
As always, this concert showcases the diverse programming we have become renowned for – drawing together Australian and international works (many of which are Australian premieres), recent works alongside older compositions, larger ensemble pieces alongside intimate chamber duos.
classikON: You are also featuring some new works to Australian audiences, why did you choose them?
Jenny: Getting to know living composers and being able to explore their ideas with them is one of the things that makes performing new music so rewarding. This year’s programming has been a chance to focus on these relationships, some formed over days and some over decades. While our links with Australian composers are well developed (as our In Conversation With video series demonstrates), our relationships have grown world-wide though there are still many composers we are yet to meet face-to-face though we have been in contact via email for years!
When we first started exploring this repertoire for voice and chamber ensemble we discovered that there was already a wealth of music that was rarely being performed but incredibly rich – full of wonderfully diverse sonorities and individual voices. Some of the music was by composers we were aware of but were pieces that we had never been exposed to, but regularly it was by composers that were completely new to us. Discovering composers and new works is a definite high point of this job, listening to new voices articulating their ideas and responding to text that ‘speaks’ to them. Drawing them together so that they can create further resonances with each other through a shared theme, musical idea or even just a sonority, is what really makes programming so enjoyable.
In this concert you’ll hear Australian premieres of works by Sadie Harrison (Australian though based in UK), Hilary Tann (Welsh though based in US), Gillian Whitehead (NZ) and Robert Lombardo (US). While some of the names may be new to our audiences, we have built relationships with each of them in varying degrees over time and they are thrilled that their works will be heard by Australian audiences for the first time on Saturday night. It is wonderful to be able to introduce audiences (and sometimes even the performers) to works and composers they did not know before. The world of new composition is constantly expanding and there is so much to explore and discover!
classikON: I’ve been impressed by the volume and range of music you’ve recorded over the years of Halcyon. It is important to record new works so they’re documented.
Jenny: One of the things we decided early on was that it was important to record new Australian works as we wanted to document some of this music and these performances in a more tangible way. Live performance is still the best way to hear music being made but it’s ephemeral and only the audience there on the night gets to share that magic. Live recordings are good to remember the event but they cannot capture the energy of being present in the space with the performers and the audience. And especially when it is a new work, we are all still getting to know the piece and there may be some things that the performers may wish to express better after a first performance which a studio recording enables them to capture. So much work goes into bringing new work to life – from processing the score and interpreting the composer’s intentions to delivering the performance – that we wanted to capture this and share this wonderful music with a much wider audience. Our recorded catalogue means we can now literally share it with the world.
I find it amusing to realise now that this was something we really believed in from the outset. Our first studio demo was produced in 2002, right after our first full concert series! We’ve come so far since those early days with a dozen albums now released through Tall Poppies, Wirripang, Move Records and our own Waves series and featuring in tracks on a few more as well.
classikON: What is the process you take to choosing to record works, which are you most proud of and why?
Jenny: We generally go into the studio following a performance as the energy generated by live performance is something good to be reminded of when you are in the confines of the studio. So when we programmed works we were keen to record we would line up studio time immediately after the performance to keep the momentum.
I have to say I am really proud of all the CDs we’ve produced and of the many important works we have made accessible beyond the concert stage. But these are some particular highlights.
- Our three composer-focused CDs featuring vocal works by Rosalind Page (Cool Black), Andrew Schultz (This Moment Must Be Sung) and Elliott Gyger (From the Hungry Waiting Country) each show the depth of these unique composers.
- Our Waves series was a way of collecting together pieces that we wanted to have a lasting impact. We have now released three in the series featuring works by Elliott Gyger and Andrew Ford (Waves I), Ross Edwards and Dan Walker (Waves II) and Nigel Butterley and Raffaele Marcellino (Waves III) with a fourth due out by year’s end. Although most of the works featured on them were Halcyon commissions, there are a few other pieces featured which we wanted to include as they are all significant examples of excellence in vocal writing.
- the Kingfisher CD was part of our most significant commissioning project, generating 21 extraordinary new works by a wealth of Australian composers in celebration of our 15th birthday.
Our aim has always been to showcase the best of what is happening here and around the world and to enable audiences to engage with this wonderful music. And twenty years on, with a significant catalogue of new work created and performed behind us, that’s what we’re still doing!