I’ve wanted to attend a performance by the Emeralds for the last 18 months but their concert dates invariably clashed with other commitments. I’m intrigued with the growing interest in historically informed performance and the increasing appearance of the viol da gamba in ensembles. In fact, a whole family of Viols — treble, bass, tenor and vielle (medieval fiddle, forerunner of the violin) — were strutting their stuff last Sunday in Mosman. For those unfamiliar with a viol, they look like mini cellos with either 6 or 7 strings, and are played on the lap or between the legs using an underhand bowing motion.
Josie Ryan and the Emeralds (with the addition of talented 17 year old Jacques Emery on various sensitively-played percussion instruments and double bass) presented an intriguing program as part of the Mosman Concert Series on Sunday 1 June in Blessed Sacrament Church. This seemed a very fitting location for music celebrating the life of Jeanne d’Arc, with religious iconography and stained glass windows reminding us of the faith that inspired Jeanne’s courageous actions in the 15thc. A very appreciative audience was in attendance, including the parents of Dorothy Porter to hear their daughter’s poems set to music.
The first half of the program focussed on music from the thirteenth to the fifteenth centuries, from little known composers such as Guillaume Dufay, John Dunstaple, and Josquin des Prez. The one nod to modern times was a piece composed by Brooke Green, ensemble Director, in which she wove together a poem by the medieval mystic Hildegard, a quote from philosopher Heidegger, and a melody of Nick Cave. Josie Ryan and Belinda Montgomery provided the soprano voices throughout and when singing about Jeanne d’Arc, Josie appeared in a fifteenth century helmet and brandishing a sword, providing a visual image to the music. Ave, Maris Stella by Dufay was simply beautiful and I could imagine Jeanne d’Arc singing this deep prayer of the heart. There was a haunting quality to much of the music which was well supported by the viols played by Brooke Green, Laura Moore, Fiona Ziegler, and Catherine Upex.
The second half of the program presented modern works, including by Elena Kats-Chernin and Arvo Pärt, with a nod back to the Middle Ages in Dufay’s Veni, Sancte Spiritus, sung prayerfully and with great tenderness by Ryan and Montgomery. The core of the second half was the poetry of Australian poet Dorothy Porter (1954–2008) set to music by the very talented Brooke Green and sung with clarity, expressiveness and feeling by Josie Ryan. I especially loved Hot Date with Death although sadly the words were not included in the otherwise comprehensive program notes.
The highlight of the concert for me was the very last piece, simply titled If — music by Michael Nyman and text by Roger Pulvers, both having given permission for this piece to be performed. Josie Ryan and Belinda Montgomery sang this so exquisitely that I found myself holding my breath at the sheer delicacy of it. As it ended I just wanted to sit there in a meditative place for a few minutes but the generous and well-deserved applause won out! If you’ve never thought about medieval or renaissance music, or have considered the viol da gamba a poor cousin to the cello, please reconsider and come to their next concert , and watch for their soon-to-be released CD. You won’t be disappointed!