On entering the Art Gallery of NSW entrance hall on Tuesday evening the audience was seated around a small stage containing a table set with goblets, wine and candles. We are all invited, Artistic Director Anthony Pitts tells us, to a 16th-century dinner party in the Tudor home of one Mr Robert Dow.
Pitts went on to explain that Dow was the creator of the Dow Partbooks, a collection of 137 songs in 5 books, where each book contains the part for a single voice. Apparently these were especially popular during the Renaissance. Dow’s Partbooks, photographs of which are reproduced in the program, are beautifully transcribed with great calligraphic flourishes and surprisingly easy to read considering they were written 400 years ago.
As Pitts is explaining this to us, 5 members of the Song Company appear around the dinner table, each picking up a book and, one voice after another they begin to sing in glorious harmony. Appropriately for a dinner party, a drinking song has begun the evening.
These people at Dow’s table are his friends and colleagues, all composers in their own right, including William Byrd. Joyful polyphony ensues as the dinner continues while in between works Pitts acts as narrator, telling their story and the story of the works they are singing.
A highlight of the concert for me, was when Pitts invited the audience to ‘join the table’. Being a choral singer I relished the opportunity to try singing from the partbook pages reprinted in my program, and it’s tricky! Thank goodness Song Company were strategically placed around the room to assist, the Art Gallery entrance hall is a resonant but clean acoustic space and it was easy to hear them helping us along.
We were also treated to a sort of open rehearsal when the ensemble demonstrated how the partbooks would have been used in homes by rehearsing a work completely unknown to them. This certainly added to the convivial and generous spirit in the room.
But it wasn’t all bonhomie and cheer. As latin quotes in the partbooks reveal, ‘Wiine and music make hearts glad’ however, ‘Music is the medicine of a sad mind’. Robert White’s Lamentations were contemplative and often chant-like, and the final work from the books was as soft and subtle as the dinner guests wafting out into the cold English night leaving their somewhat voyeuristic audience both rejuvenated and at peace with the world.
Song Company, all highly accomplished vocal talents, were for this evening, soloists Amy Moore, who played the ambiguous ‘Mr Tayler’ and Robert McFarlane, Dow, accompanied by Owen Elsley (William Byrd), Mark Donnelly (Nicholas Strogers) and Andrew O’Connor (William Mundy). The evening was full of good cheer, good humour and great music.
As Pitts quoted, “Like an emerald among gold so is music making among good friends and wine.”
Cheers Song Company!