Josie (Josie Ryan, Soprano) and the Emeralds (four viol da gamba players) first presented a special program honouring Lady Music in 2014. It was such a success with their audience, the Emeralds decided to make it an annual event.
Some 80 fans crowded into the Glebe Town Hall – including Dame Emma Kirkby and her husband who slipped in fairly undetected – quite a sign of her recognition of the professionalism of this group, especially Josie Ryan, that she attended on a free Saturday night while in Sydney. The program was, as always, extremely varied and included compositions from the C16th through to some of Artistic Director Brooke Green’s recent work. Gamba player extraordinaire Laura Vaughan from Melbourne joined the core players as guest artist.
Coupled with the honouring of the Patron Saint of Music, the concert also honoured some of music’s ‘big boys’ birthdays – Claudio Monteverd (C16th) at 450 years, John Jenkins (C17th) at 425 years, and Philip Glass (C20th) at 80.
The tone for the evening was set with the lively first piece by John Blow, soprano Josie Ryan inviting us to celebrate “the glorious day ….music’s greatest jubilee”. While the exact origin of the St Cecilia’s celebrations is unknown, the first recorded celebration in her honour was in France in 1570. By the end of the 1680s it was an established annual festival, celebrated on 22 November. Many famous composers, including Purcell, Handel, and Charpentier have written pieces specifically honouring St Cecilia.
The Monteverdi was a mystical song from his opera L’Orfeo, reminding us of the power of music to touch us emotionally at a deep level, to calm and bring peace. This ability of music to speak to the human condition and arouse us emotionally, even to action, was powerfully demonstrated later in the program with some of Brooke Green’s compositions. Over the last year Green has premiered works influenced by and dedicated to refugees on Nauru. The third in a trilogy inspired by three young girls featured on a Four Corners Program last year, was premiered. ‘Batoh’, named for the third girl, was the last piece of the night and honoured the struggle of this 10-year old. Green reworked Elena Kats-Chernin’s The Rain Puzzle, but despite the lightness of the music, there was an underlying cry of despair and an ebbing of hope. The wistful harmonies suggested a lost childhood, with Josie Ryan vocalising, a song without words – and I wondered what words could be sung, in the face of such despair.
The Ensemble performed an unnerving work by Brooke Green in Hamed Shamshiripour. Hamed was one of six refugees to have died on Manus Island, having mentally declined over his four years incarceration. His final 19 words were powerfully set to music, and sung by Ryan as a terrible cry of pain building up to frenzied climax before his life ends. I closed my eyes and felt I was listening to a powerful modern opera with the hero singing his final aria before taking his life. The audience was quiet and subdued at its close, but I could not help feeling St Ceclia would have been honoured by this music which speaks so deeply to the soul.
Music from earlier centuries included a beautiful song by Bottrigari, a brilliant Italian, Purcell (whose Chacony was arranged by Brooke Green for viols, and it probably sounded better than the original!), Blow’s Ode for St Cecilia’s Day with its specific reference to ‘ravishing viols’ and to the name of St Cecilia which ‘resounds to the sky’, a five Part Fantasy of John Jenkins himself a great lover of the viol, and an In Nomine by Tye.
The surprise of the evening for me was the piece by Philip Glass. I have to confess that his minimalist music generally does little for me but Green had arranged the final movement of his String Quartet No. 3 and I found the viols lend themselves very well to his style of music.
Josie and the Emeralds is an enormously talented Ensemble – its members have national and international experience, with most having done graduate study overseas. Their ensemble playing is tight and animated, with a well-blended sound and sense of emotional connection to the music played and sung. The inclusion of contemporary works from one of their number coupled with the great viol composers of earlier centuries always makes for a fascinating and rich program. This one was no exception.