The Song Company | Songs Under the Southern Cross
March 17, 2023, The Neilson, Walsh Bay
In her program notes for Songs Under the Southern Cross Guest Director Amy Moore describes The Song Company as “an energetic and engaging group of musicians with a passion for storytelling through the transformative beauty of the human voice,” hear hear Amy, I could not agree more! This was an inspired program of works spanning the near forty year history of The Song Company.
It was a concert that felt a bit like ‘back to the future’ for Australia’s national vocal ensemble. Going ‘back’ to its original format as a vocal consort of six voices for this concert The Song Company is, as I understand it, to maintain this format in future, choosing each program in 2023 from a group of nine exemplary vocalists led by a guest director. Among the nine it was a delight to to see familiar names from the ensemble’s past such as Susannah Lawergren and Andrew O’Connor next to present singers like Hayden Barrington and Amy Moore, with a few fresh new faces which will make for an exciting future line up.
The repertoire choice for this concert also took us back, featuring early music polyphony by Richard Dering and a traditional favourite of the choral canon, Bach’s Jesu Meine Freude, while revisiting two major Australian works from The Song Company’s archive – Anne Boyd’s Revelations of Divine Love, commissioned by the ensemble some 30 years back, and Ross Edwards’ Southern Cross Chants, also a Song Company commission from 2004.
The concert burst to life with David Yardley’s Vision of Norwich where, against a quiet drone, Lawergren’s bell voice and generous, welcoming stage presence invited the audience to elevate themselves towards the divine as she described Julian of Norwich’s blissful vision of the hall of heaven, this was followed by Boyd’s piece inspired by the same literary text. Boyd describes her encounter with Julian of Norwich’s ‘Revelations’ as a “deeply spiritual experience founded upon an overwhelming sense of love,” and this feeling was evident in the deft handling of the music, directed by Moore. Aidan O’Donnell, as Jesus, brought an incredible feeling of comfort and peace with his deep bass baritone chant in the second movement (Luke Chapter 22: 19-20), Jessica O’Donoghue’s voice verily trembled with fear at the sight and sound of Louis Hurley’s Devil, and the whole ensemble blended perfectly into one big mass of wisdom and goodness as Julian’s visions reach their ecstatic peak in the house of her Lord. Dramatic stuff.
What I have always enjoyed about The Song Company is the musical interplay between individual singers, who all have very distinct vocal character, and how they work together to both draw out solo lines and tightly blend as required by the music. Moore’s direction obviously brought out this important aspect of ensemble singing but her conducting was mostly subtle and it was engrossing to watch the group working together with slight nods, knowing smiles, and lots of eye contact, especially during Dering’s Factum est silentium.
The performance of Southern Cross Chants which, in true Song Company style, was a technically difficult piece with cross rhythms and percussion, was to my ear impeccable. Chanting the names of constellations and stars, in both Western and First Nations language, the text was inspired by the night sky in the Simpson Desert. Full of energy and starlight, but also quiet moments, I was particularly captured as the male voices softened to pianissimo, conjuring the velvety tones of night, while Susannah Lawergren’s shooting star soprano burst into the quietude. Ross Edwards at his best!
Francis Greep joined the ensemble to play continuo for the Bach. This is a work which I know quite well, and very much enjoyed hearing it performed with such a small group of singers even if the acoustic did seem to favour the sopranos somewhat (did I mention that I’m an alto?) but the lower voices get their chance to shine, and they certainly did, in the Andante trio movement. The singers really looked like they were enjoying themselves, tripping delicately over the troublesome semiquaver runs typical of Bach’s fugues, hardly taking a breath, with Greep happily bopping along on the chamber organ. The concert ended as it began with an elevation into musical joy and bliss. In a word, ethereal. Bravo to all.
This concert will be broadcast on Australian Digital Concert Hall on Wednesday March 22
Photo credit: Keith Saunders