New Music Network Presents: Stolen
Halcyon and Soundstream Collective
Saturday 6 September 6, Sydney Conservatorium, Music Workshop
Geoffrey Collins, flute in hand, took his seat in absolute silence. His three colleagues did the same. A long, pregnant pause. No-one breathed. Collins made a declamatory gesture, as if he were about to conduct a downbeat, and – he reached out and touched his music stand, only once, creating the faintest sound imaginable. And it was deafening.
So began Stolen, the latest creation in a concert series proudly presented by the New Music Network, an organisation dedicated to bringing music lovers the best in new Australian performance and composition. The concert brought together vocal chamber music specialists Halcyon (comprising Alison Morgan, soprano, Jenny Duck-Chong, mezzo soprano), and Josh Hill, percussion with Soundstream Collective, the University of Adelaide’s new music Ensemble-in-Residence (Geoffrey Collins, flute; Peter Handsworth, clarinets; Janis Laurs, cello; and Gabriella Smart, piano).
For a concert ‘exploring ideas of displacement, dislocation and identity through the integration of music and visual image’, there were, somewhat disappointingly, fewer multimedia elements on display than even what one may expect at a ‘traditional’ chamber music concert. One washed-out projection screen did little to enhance the musical experience of the concert, which was for the most part incredibly immersive in its own right.
Three world premieres
Three brand new Australian works opened Stolen, the first of which, David Kotlowy’s Mitithi, was an arresting sound-collage, a sparse musical tapestry spun together from eerie woodwind harmonics, otherworldly piano sounds and the disembodied voices of Halcyon, who performed from off-stage. The text, sung in the indigenous Kaurna language, spoke of a deep sense of loss and was rendered by Halcyon with heart-rending conviction. Creative blending of tone colours and the musical incorporation of unknown elements (more than once I was unsure which instrument or voice was making which sound) made for a solemn experience, and was the evening’s highlight.
Gerard Brophy’s When Peacocks Dance took a far more tonal approach to contemporary composition, albeit with distinct Eastern flavours. Halcyon displayed exceptional poise, diction and control in two bucolic songs which spoke of swans and of shadows. Fine ensemble playing from Soundstream Collective beautifully illustrated the voices in a dreamlike, episodic work which captured a mood of quiet reverence before nature.
Concluding the concert’s first half was David Harris’ Yurrebilla Climbing, the evening’s first entirely instrumental work. The characterful lilt and directness of the first movement, displaying crisp ensemble attack and a seamless woodwind blend, broadened out into a more horizontal second movement in which Geoffrey Collins’ trademark glistening flute tone emerged from a dense web of instrumental colour. The third movement combined elements of Stravinsky at his most percussive with Dave Brubeck (most notably Blue rondo a la Turk), but unfortunately felt very loose and uneven in this performance.
Prayers Remain Forever
In the evening’s most befuddling programming choice, the concert’s second half opened with Martin Bresnick’s Prayers Remain Forever for cello and piano, the only non-Australian work on the program. While the first few minutes displayed a thoughtful approach to the music’s yearning, uncluttered mood, major tuning issues in the cello proved to be a distraction. A solo cello section, reminiscent of the Bach suites, felt unconfident and elusive, with details getting lost in the squall, and a lack of ensemble communication between the musicians in the work’s final minutes made for a ragged performance which quite outstayed its welcome.
Thankfully, Andrew Ford’s Willow Songs closed the concert on a positive note. All seven musicians returned to the stage for this compelling song cycle on poems by Anne Stevenson, which put the consummate ensemble musicianship of Halcyon on full display. The nimble mallet-work of percussionist Josh Hill was a highlight, as was the commitment and vivid character of Halcyon’s vocal performances of Ford’s sparse, emotive writing. Jenny Duck-Chong’s diction is nothing short of astounding, and in Eros, the third song of the cycle, the audience were hanging on her every word. A Saturday Night Sonnet featured both voices in harmony for an extended period and the two musicians exhibited an utterly seamless blend in a playful and seductive performance, with Morgan’s histrionic delivery of the line ‘tease our pleasure’ leaving a lasting impression. The quirky poetry of Incident was illustrated with the unusual combination of piccolo and bass clarinet, while the stunningly dark Epitaph led to Willow Song, the cycle’s final movement, in which a carefully crafted folk melody was rendered quietly and understatedly, and was all the more effective for it.