The Song Company | Songs of Rosa Mystica
Friday June 9, 2023, The Neilson, ACO Pier 2/3
Is it possible to grow more intelligent by simply attending a concert? Can music stimulate the synapses and promote neuron connectivity? I certainly felt that way on leaving The Neilson last night. The Song Company’s Songs of Rosa Mystica was mind blowing – in all the best ways.
Guest director Jack Symonds (Sydney Chamber Opera) was responsible for this evening’s clever program of carefully curated, thought-provoking contemporary masterworks for unaccompanied voices that pushed the limits of convention.
The Song Company’s current evolution has included the revisiting of past commissions and Symonds chose Elliott Gyger’s Ficta to begin the concert. Written as composer-in-residence nearly thirty years ago and performed only once, this work gained a reputation among the singers for being incredibly challenging to the point that they invented the ‘Ficta scale’ against which all future compositions for the ensemble were judged from zero to Ficta! Symonds says it is, “quite simply, one of the most virtuosic things I’ve ever encountered for six unaccompanied voices…” and also, “It looks like the plans for a nuclear weapon or something on the page!”
Why? Well, it’s complicated, ready for this?…the work sets a 15th century text on the ‘rules’ for writing musica ficta alongside the text from the ‘Prize Song’ from Richard Wagner’s Meistersinger (a five hour treatise on how to write a song) and a poem by the hoax surrealist poet Ern Malley about the 15th century artist Dürer. It explores the concept (or construct, if you prefer) of “falseness”, which is undoubtedly a hot topic right now. I’ve summarised Gyger ruthlessly of course, but you can read more here >>.
The music demands a lot from the performers, not only to understand and articulate to an audience the highly intellectual concepts it encompasses, but it also assigns each member of The Song Company to act as a soloist, as well as functioning as part of an ensemble, snapping in and out of the two seamlessly. If that is not enough, each singer must also assume their own predetermined solo style to be performed in character with all the clichés and mannerisms of the characterised period.
It was perfect actually – imagine each soloist vying for supremacy; from Susannah Lawergren’s 19th century bel canto with slightly neurotic vocal flourishes, Jessica O’Donoghue’s funky scatting 1950s’-60’s jazz singer and Andrew O’Connor’s vaguely inappropriate but wholly enchanting 1930’s crooner… add Amy Moore (mediaeval folk exoticism), Timothy Reynolds (Monteverdi Madrigalist) and Simon Lobelson (French baroque elegance) and there you have it.
Each singer rose to the part and added their own personality to the eclectic, time-bending nature of a work that truly pays homage to The Song Company’s virtuosic versatility. Bravo indeed, and thanks to Jack Symonds for pulling this one out of The Song Company’s bottom drawer, and conducting it with such exacting precision, I hope it sees more outings in the future.
The middle section of the concert hung together beautifully around the visionary poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, now considered to be one of the greatest poets of the Victorian era but in his own time perhaps a little too radical. These included three movements from Benjamin Britten’s A.M.D.G. Ad majorem Dei Gloriam song cycle and Michael Tippett’s The Windhover. All formidable and stunning works performed with great accuracy and confidence, they sat around the feature work of the concert, Jack Symonds’ world premiere Fire-Featuring Heaven.
Just as Britten and Tippett pushed the boundaries of musicality in their time so does Symonds’ setting of Hopkins’ poem, Spelt from Sybil’s Leaves. The addition of live captured electronics that augmented the a cappella vocals, stretching vowels and reverberating percussive consonants in real time, was ingenious and sound designer Ben Carey was an equally important performer in this work.
Let’s face it, any poem that uses words like ‘dragonish’ and phrases such as ‘as-tray or aswarm, all throughther, in throngs;’ has me a bit smitten already. The words seem written to be sung, and not surprisingly on further research I found that Hopkins himself is quoted as saying the text should be performed, “not reading with the eye but loud, leisurely, poetical…This sonnet shd. be almost sung: it is most carefully timed in tempo rubato.” This is exactly what Symonds achieves, as he invites us to ‘open the poetry out and go deep inside it’. I was glad for the text in the program, the sheer lyricism is still haunting me.
To round off the concert and draw a neat connection to the electronic soundworld of his premiere, Symonds programmed one of his favourite composers, the sadly late, Kaija Saariaho. Quoting his blog on the Song Company’s website best explains his choice, “Saariaho [in Tag Des Jahrs] weaves a hallucinatory spell from her complex, resonant chords (aided here by subtle electronic transformations), colouring the vivid poetry of Friedrich Hölderlin in a way no previous composer imagined. Far from the usual German Romantic tradition encountered with this writer, Saariaho finds a very French sensuality in his gnomic words”. A fitting finish to a profound and memorable concert.
Yes, for me this concert did push the boundaries of musical exploration, demanding my utmost attention and engagement, and yes, it was an utterly enriching experience I wholeheartedly embraced. Thank you to The Song Company for expanding my world (and adding a few brain cells in the process).
Photo credit: Keith Saunders