Halcyon reverses gender bias with sublime concert of women's music
May 12, 2014
Sydney Morning HeraldReviewed by Peter McCallum
Tony Abbott attracted criticism for including only one woman in his cabinet. Some of our major musical organisations, notably the Australian Chamber Orchestra and the Brandenburg Orchestra, matched the Abbott standard by including just a single female composer in their concerts this year.
But not even a single Australian woman composer appears in the main subscriptions series of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Musica Viva and Opera Australia this year.
Thank goodness for Halcyon.
In Women's Work, Jenny Duck-Chong sang Kerry Andrew's witty, capricious Fruit Songs for voice and guitar (Ken Murray) with apt archness and brilliant timing. The music exploits fragmentation and nervy repetition amid sparse minimal gestures to extract playful meanings.
Only the last one, Moonlit Apples, embraces fluid phrases.
Then Alison Morgan gave us a chance to hear the superbly crafted, subtly expressive modernist atonal style of Elisabeth Lutyens in her 1965 song cycle The Valley of Hatsu-Se. Lutyens pioneered Schoenberg's revolutionary serial technique in Britain but with a language of delicate, compressed distinctiveness.
In these elusive Japanese texts, Morgan and the small instrumental ensemble matched tone and timbre with exquisite refinement.
Moya Henderson's Lovely How Lives - arranged for ensemble, soprano and mezzo soprano - takes poems by Judith Hemschemeyer that explore intersections between poets Alexander Pushkin, Emily Dickinson and Anna Akhmatova.
Hemschemeyer's words are intelligent, analytic and reflective, whereas Henderson's music is golden, glowing and fluid. The analytic narrative of the text is heard in a lush, immensely attractive and radiant sound world in which musical ideas are threaded together.
Helen Gifford's Spell Against Sorrow for voice and guitar (Duck-Chong and Murray) was bleak and despairing in the first song, while the second found liberation of sorts in a free speech-like vocal line against delicate, precisely-voiced guitar harmonies.
Rosalind Page's Hrafnsongvar (Ravensongs) for soprano (Morgan) and ensemble conducted by Elizabeth Scott captures in music a sense of intense, slumbering inner glow preserved against the spare blue cold of deep Icelandic winter.
Correction: The original version of this story said no woman composers appear in the main subscriptions series of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Musica Viva and Opera Australia this year. This should have read no "Australian" woman composers as American composer Joan Tower's work Copperwave will be included in the first of the American Brass Quintet's concerts for Musica Viva (City Recital Hall, May 19, 2014).
Halcyon: Women’s Work
Reviewd by Margaret Steinberger
It’s not often you can come out of a concert and say one of the featured composers was sitting directly behind you and another was two rows ahead of you. But that was indeed the case with Halcyon’s Women’s Work concert at the Sydney Conservatorium on Friday 9 May, for the five works were from contemporary women composers, three of them Australian.
Halcyon’s artistic directors, mezzo Jenny Duck-Chong and soprano Alison Morgan, crafted a program that had variety, challenge, discovery and fun in equal measure. The intimate surrounds of the Conservatorium’s recital hall were the ideal forum for these pieces, with the singers’ clarity of diction and engaging stage presence drawing in the listeners for an evening filled with interest. The meticulously prepared program was a great aid to understanding, most notably in the two works requiring translation.
Some pieces were accompanied by just one instrument, others with a range of instruments. Kerry Andrew uses only guitar accompaniment for the voice in her playful, spiky settings of several poems, fruit songs. Helen Gifford’s Spell against sorrow creates a poignant, questioning kind of magic out of Kathleen Raine’s poetry, again using just voice and guitar.
Fifty years separates the oldest and the newest works presented. British composer Elizabeth Lutyen’s The Valley of Hatsu-Se, matching voice with a small instrumental ensemble, was the oldest work on the program (1965), while Moya Henderson’s Lovely How Lives: Ensemble Version received its world premiere at this concert. This piece, which featured both Morgan and Duck-Chong accompanied by a larger, conducted group, including harp, was the standout for this reviewer, in its subject (how lives overlap … or just miss), the attractive music and the ability of the performers to compel attention.
Conductor Elizabeth Scott also took command of the larger group of instruments required for Rosalind Page’s popular setting of Icelandic poems, Hrafnsöngvar
(Raven songs), bringing to a close a very satisfying program.
The review was originally published by classikon here
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Kingfisher – Songs For Halcyon: A Gift For The Present, A Legacy For The Future
Sounds Like Sydney
Reviewed by Shamistha de Soysa
Celebrating a decade and a half of innovative music making and professional collaboration in 2014, vocal ensemble Halcyon presented an evening of song Kingfisher – Songs for Halcyon in association with the Australian Music Centre. Kingfisher is a ‘seminal commissioning project’ for which 22 composers were invited to compose songs for the duo, soprano Alison Morgan and mezzo-soprano Jenny Duck -Chong.
The project is all the more personal as the composers selected have worked closely with the duo over the years. As a result, they are well acquainted with the voices and styles of the singers.
The 22 songs of this bespoke project were performed over two evenings. The second of these was last weekend. Although Halcyon has collaborated with numerous other singers and instrumentalists over the years, on this occasion it was flautist Laura Chislett-Jones, cellist Geoffrey Gartner, clarinettist Jason Noble and percussionist William Jackson who shared the stage with the duo.
It was indeed a historic occasion as several of the project’s composers – Andrew Ford, Andrew Schultz, Nigel Butterley, Gordon Kerry and Dan Walker – were all in attendance to hear their works come to life.
The 10 songs presented on this second evening, a mix of solos and duets, took around an hour to perform, each with pre-recorded insights from its composer, describing not just the song, its text and inspiration but the writer’s unique relationship with the performers.
As a collection, it was bold and visionary. The songs represented vocal writing at many levels – the voice in solo or as an instrument in an ensemble; percussive or melismatic; experimental or conventional; or, as Graham Hair observed in his introduction, presenting “the beauty and elegance of the voice with the virtuosity of the instruments.”
Dan Walker’s The Mystic Blue showcased the lower tones, writing for mezzo-soprano, alto flute and percussion; the soprano voice was celebrated in Sharon Calcraft’s technically adventurous Verthamende, Schillernde, Blitzernde, the only song with a non-English text; the singers and percussionist created a beautifully tranquil and shimmering calm with Gillian Whitehead’s All One Water ; Rosalind Page’s a capella duet Aquila’s Wing might just have been the audience favourite vying with the jazzy syncopation of Andrew Schultz’s Lake Moonrise.
The singers – dressed to complement in shades of kingfisher blue – are masters of their craft. Halcyon’s sense of ensemble is watertight. Phrasing, dynamics and the other minute details of an accomplished performance were achieved with perfect musicianship and synchronicity. Comprehensive programme notes with text, artist and composer biographies complemented the performances and fleshed out the stories behind them.
Kingfisher – Songs for Halcyon is a substantial gift for the present and a legacy for the future. During the year, the ensemble will be recording selected songs from the project. Hopefully the songs will also be published and accessible to more performers and a wider audience.
As composer Sharon Calcraft said in her recorded introduction, “Floreat Halcyon!”
This review was originally published by SoundsLikeSydney here
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Kingfisher: Songs for Halcyon
Reviewed by Alan Holley
When any music ensemble commemorates 15 years it is cause for celebration but when that group specialises in music of ‘now’ and in particular that of Australian composers it is appropriate for all to cheer and to do so with a big voice. The vocal ensemble Halcyon celebrated this milestone by premiering 21 short works, spread over two concerts, all written by local composers.
Alison Morgan (soprano) and Jenny Duck-Chong (mezzo) are Halcyon and throughout the 10 works performed in the second recital at the Sydney Conservatorium (March 29) they displayed fine ensemble and a great sensitivity in interpretation.
Morgan was soloist in two works and showed great dramatic skills as well as lyricism. Duck-Chong’s three solos drew the listener into the soundworld she was intent to share.
Several works stood out and not surprisingly they were by the most prominent composers.
Nigel Butterley’s Nature Changes at the Speed of Life was another example of his mastery at the miniature form. Indeed, I know of no other composer in Australia who can contain and develop intense musical ideas in such a short timeframe. And having said that, Gordon Kerry’s Music (La Musique) was a delightful marriage of vocal lines and intelligently wrought instrumental writing. This is a very beautiful composition and should be taken up by groups far and near.
Andrew Ford’s folk-song like and musically happy To My Excellent Lucasia, on our Friendship was a perfect concert opener as it sang out celebratory phrases from its opening bars.
All One Water by Gillian Whitehead reminisced music from the mid 20th century English tradition invoking the music of Ben Britten and was a good vehicle to show the skills of the singers.
The concert concluded with the most ecstatic composition of the night, Graham Hair’s All About Anna. Apart from the strong and often rising vocal line Hair wove around the text virtuosic writing for the flute and the vibraphone.
Joining the singers in this birthday concert were four instrumentalists who in any other event could easily been the main focus. Laura Chislett (flutes) and Jason Noble (clarinets) are well known as performers of virtuosic new music. Cellist Geoffrey Gartner and percussionist William Jackson were outstanding.
Five of the composers were in attendance and the audience responded to them as much as the performers. A true celebration.
This review was originally published by Classikon here
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Composers come to Halcyon's party but the audience gets the presents
Sydney Morning Herald March 31 2014
Reviewed by Harriet Cunningham
Kingfisher: Songs for Halcyon lets voices soar
Kingfisher: Songs For Halcyon
Sydney Morning Herald, March 17 2014
Reviewed by Peter McCallum
Halcyon is a type of Kingfisher, whose eponymous mythological forebear was credited with the power to make seas calm.
Halcyon is also a Sydney-based vocal chamber music ensemble directed by Alison Morgan and Jenny Duck-Chong, which for the past 15 years has been commissioning and performing new work for voices and instruments, creating a progressive Australian vocal repertoire and a new understanding of how to write to the voice in a post-modern age.
Next year it will reach the age of consent. To mark the milestone, it has commissioned 22 composers to write four-minute miniatures, the first 11 of which were presented at this concert.
Stuart Greenbaum's Opalescence adopted a sensuous vocal style, with slides between notes against rain-like drops from vibraphone and plucked cello. Follow Me Through the Shadow by Katy Abbott started languorously before a skittish quick coda.
Moya Henderson's I Lost a World the Other Day (text by Emily Dickinson) was reminiscent of Bach, with its well-shaped, intricate melodic line over a stylised, quasi-symbolic cello obbligato.
Nicholas Vines' gently humorous, metaphoric The King's Manifesto presented gently melismatic vocal writing against idling instruments interrupted by percussion as though they had hit a bump.
Turbulent Passions Calm by Raffaele Marcellino set Whitman's Halcyon Days in a gently meandering duet that resisted the poem's instinct towards ecstasy.
Paul Stanhope created coyly balanced vocal phrases against impatiently trilling clarinet to describe My Love in Her Attire, while obviously imagining her out of it.
For See the Prismatic Colours, John Peterson wrote the most romantically lush and rhapsodic music of the evening, while Ross Edwards' The Tranquil Mind was meditative and gently numbing.
Elliott Gyger said that, in The Pleiades at Midnight, he felt he had crammed a much longer piece into four minutes. That was true, but its complex compression was rewarding.
By contrast, Stephen Adams' Sometimes Snow Fell … was restrained, minimal and fragrant. Kevin March's Sea-blue Bird evoked soaring flight in the two voices with distant activity far beneath from the instruments.
The next Kingfisher concert is on March 29.
The review was originally published in the Sydney Morning Herald online here
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presented by the New Music Network
artshub, Monday September 9 2013
Reviewed by Paul Nolan
Two significant 21st century vocal chamber works filled out this compelling program presented by the New Music Network. Acoustics, ambient film and spatial design as well as controlled performances ensured a captivating delivery of texts. Paramount throughout the evening was a fine balance between the quartet of female vocal forces and accompaniments.
Subtleties in the compositions were exquisitely rendered by voices, instrumentalists and narrator. Predicament, isolation and fragile journeys through passion and identity were communicated through a diverse tapestry of tone colours and imagery.
This concert began with a world premiere of Raffaele Marcellino’s newly completed A Strange Kind of Paradise (2013). Cinematically dimmed lights obscured the help of detailed program notes and texts but dramatically shrouded the audience. Billowing sheer drops of fabric flanked the stage. Michael Bates’ projections on and beyond a screen flooded the NIDA Atrium space.
The range of texts in this delicate and deeply descriptive work was effectively shared between the vocal parts, at times in mid sentence or fragment. From this first hearing, repetitions and ornamentation timelessly emphasized the despair of this work’s subject, the mythological Ariadne.
The beautiful harp accompaniment in Marcellino’s work was a suitable support for the voices, especially in the hands of Genevieve Lang Huppert.
In the concert’s second half, the sprawling Gillian Whitehead work Nga Haerenga (2000) extended the concept of journeying and various aspects of isolation and identity.
Vocal sound effects, shifts from solo to ensemble and Tom Llewellyn-Jones’ resonating delivery of diary excerpts from Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton enhanced the assorted inspirations behind the piece.
This work’s huge battery of percussion instruments was an incredible texture beneath all types of vocal expression. This busy score was brought to breathtaking life by percussionist Claire Edwards.
In both works, the contrasting timbres from sopranos Allison Morgan and Belinda Montgomery with mezzo sopranos Jenny Duck-Chong and Jo Burton were finely blended and communicated both works with chilling clarity.
On this election night, Halcyon refreshingly maintained its worthwhile agenda of introducing Australians to recent vocal compositions – journeying through multi-faceted works with film projections enhancing a myriad of emotions and sonic events.
The review was originally published at artshub here
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Offbeat stunning and genius
Works from 21st century composers
31 August 2012
A SENSE OF CONNECTION
North Shore Times, September 7 2012
Reviewed by David Gyger
Halcyon's four female singers joined the Acacia Quartet to present a concert on Friday in the New Hall at Sydney Grammar School. It was devoted to five 21st-century works by living composers.
Receiving its world premiere, Lyle Chan's string quartet Mark and Adrian are Her Sons morphed seasmlessly from wispy slithers and slides to energetic percussiveness before lapsing into near-exhaustion as it probed the anguish of AIDS.
Mezzo Jenny Duck-Chong was a stellar soloist in the Australian premiere of Gordon Kerry's Goodison Quartet no. 1 Country Music.
Elena Kats-Chernin's Suite from Anna Magdalena's Notebook opened the evening on a strong note, and soprnao Alison Morgan gave a splendid account of Osvaldo Golijov's How Slow the Wind of 2001.
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Small wonders program offers big value
June 2 2012
The New Hall, Sydney Grammar School
North Shore Times, June 8 2012
Reviewed by David Gyger
In the cavernous New Hall at Sydney Grammar School...Halcyon presented a demanding program entitled Small Wonders. Soprano Alison Morgan, mezzo Jenny Duck-Chong, pianist Jo Allan, cellist Geoffrey Gartner and flautist Laura Chislett-Jomes performed nine works by as many composers, but only two offerings required more tahn two to appear at once.
It was a significant tribute to the performers that their efforts came close to satisfactorily filling the hall.
In Giorgio Colombo Taccani's Soleil levant, Chislett Jones displayed impressive mastery of the giant bass flute, and both she and Gartner excelled in Nicholas Vines' Jury's Din.
With one hand on the keyboard and the other plucking the innards of her piano, Allan impressively to the challenge of accompanying George Crumb's inspired Apparition of 1979.
The Sydney premiere of Katy Abbott's droll The Domestic Sublime Part 2 was a highlight, and the world premiere of Moya Henderson's intriguing Lovely How Lives, with the two singers blending beautifully, put the cap on the proceedings.
The other world premiere was the first half of an eight-part song cycle by Elliott Gyger entitled Giving Voice.
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Toe tapping fun
Performers stand and deliver
April 21 2012
HALCYON & VOX present
DREAMS AND DANCES
Verbrugghen Hall, Sydney Conservatorium
North Shore Times, May 4, 2012
Reviewed by David Gyger
Halcyon and Vox, the youth wing of Sydney Philharmonia, presented a program entitled Dreams and Dances in the Conservatorium’s Verbrugghen Hall the following night.
Soprano Alison Morgan and mezzo Jenny Duck-Chong, joined intermittently by tenor Andrei Laptev and bass Clive Birch, provided splendid vocal solos during a fine program encompassing nine items by as many composers. Vox acquitted itself admirably and the intermittent percussion skills of Claire Edwardes provided the only instrumental input most notably in a breathtaking performance of Gerard Brophy’s Coil of 1996.
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Take nine composers and hear how magic is made
November 19 2011
Music Workshop, Sydney Conservatorium
Sydney Morning Herald, November 21, 2011
Reviewed by Harriet Cunningham
HALCYON has always been defined by its sense of adventure. First Stones, then, is a natural next step in an expedition into the jungle of contemporary art music, a hands-on collaboration with nine emerging composers. Their performance was the culmination of six months of development, including two intensive workshops with the musicians and the composer-mentor Elliott Gyger.
The results were impressive: nine well-formed new works, all displaying their own, distinctive voice and all performed with a thrilling mix of commitment and virtuosity. Individually, each one was persuasive. As a whole, this blind chocolate box of new works provided some fascinating revelations about the voice as an instrument, as a mouthpiece for words, and a conveyor of meaning.
Nicole Murphy's Temple Bell was an exquisite place to start: voices integrated seamlessly into the musical texture, with words coming later, all building to a delicate denouement. James Wade's The Voice of the Ancient Bard was heavily pregnant with meaning, to the point of self-consciousness at times.
Pedro Oliveira Woolmer's In Eternity and Chris Williams's That a Circle, This a Line were also ambitious in scope, but managed, through vocal and instrumental textures, to cut through the sheer weight of their philosophical texts.
In The Queen, Owen Salome repurposed a natural history text on insects to create a disturbing buzz of sinister intent.
Meanwhile, Peggy Polias's Digital Lullaby was a counting song for the 21st century. Lachlan Hughes's Lines Drawn of my Cartilage was a brave rejection of structure and control, while Anastasia Pahos's Seeking Eurydice took traditional modes and rhythms to tell a story. As for Damian Griffin, he bypassed the burden of meaning with his delightful and curiously sensible nonsense song Fzzzt-Pop!
As a bonus, this slickly-produced concert filled the gaps for scene-shifting between works not with the usual agonising talks from the stage from shy artists, but with a rough documentary, fleshing out the story of this six-month process. It was a nice example of how the process and presentation of new music can engage, enlighten and entertain.
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Versatile Schultz finds it pays to go by the book
Sept 18 2011
LIFE ON PAPER
Verbrugghen Hall, Sydney Conservatorium of Music
Sydney Morning Herald, September 21, 2010
Reviewed by Peter McCallum
ANDREW SCHULTZ'S new work, I am writing in this book, adapts texts from The Pillow Book by 10th-century Japanese writer Sei Shonagon. In a pre-performance talk, Schultz said he started working on the texts in the 1990s but when Peter Greenaway's eponymous film was released he put them to one side to avoid confusion between his work and that striking reinterpretation.
Schultz has selected five texts, moving from golden lyricism and love to a stormy list of Sei Shonagon's dislikes before a quiet close.
The first song, A gift of paper, is a quietly radiant duet for soprano and mezzo-soprano in which Sei Shonagon states she will use the gift of some paper to write things she sees, hears and knows.
Schultz's setting shares some affinities of classic female vocal duets in exploring the golden sound of female voices a third apart. It is a world away from the ''flower duet'' of Delibes's Lakme but shares some affinity with it as an orientalist representation of the female.
The third song, Language of women, erupts into something of a tantrum.
While the conception of the final two quiet numbers was imaginative, the instrumental accompaniment could tolerate more detailed working.
The concert began with a performance by Jenny Duck-Chong and instrumentalists of Books I and II of George Crumb's Madrigals, which take lines of intense expressive power by Federico Garcia Lorca.
These works are superb examples of Crumb's capacity to isolate distinctive sounds to colour and capture a moment, and are masterpieces of modernist miniature expressiveness.
Joseph Schwantner's Sparrows used haiku by Kobayashi Issa in a series of opulent pictorial settings for soprano (Alison Morgan) and instrumental ensemble, conducted by David Stanhope. Schwantner's music undulates and flows, with the soprano often beginning each verse on high pitch before beginning a slowly soaring ascent.
The instrumental backing highlights, enhances and airbrushes this with textures that, to my ear, were sometimes a little false and cosmetic.
This was another beautifully and thoughtfully constructed Halcyon program.
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From static to dynamic, and magic in between
September 13 2010
HALCYON WHERE THE HEART IS
Bay 20, CarriageWorks
Sydney Morning Herald, September 15, 2010
Reviewed by Peter McCallum
This typically thoughtful program, Where the Heart Is, drew out themes of recent Australian vocal music through elegant symmetry. Each half began with works that built on static harmonies and turned away from Western music's complexity.
Ross Edwards's Maninya pieces move from a slow rhapsodic improvisation around a seventh chord to a quick section with rhythms that add notes unpredictably, urging the other on like a collective sacred dance. In Maninya I, for voice and cello, the origin is non-Western but non-specific, creating a sense of personal ritual.
Anne Boyd's Cycle of Love, for voice, flute, cello and piano, alludes to Korean styles and instruments, setting five ancient haiku-like texts by anonymous women poets. Mezzo soprano Jenny Duck-Chong maintained mesmeric concentration, even in a somewhat dry and unforgiving acoustic.
The second works of each half turned from the spiritual to the temporal world's dissonance, fracturing and deceit. Elliott Gyger's Petit Testament uses one of James McAuley and Harold Stewart's ''Ern Malley'' hoax poems. One detects the authors' schadenfreude as they planted booby-trap metaphors, close enough to poetic language to resemble poetry but far enough away for laughter when the trap is sprung (although the texts have exerted more enduring fascination than either intended).
Gyger's setting was delightfully stiff and contrived, relishing the polished artistic surface and letting it unravel.
Mary Finsterer's Sentence for Dinner fragmented the text with precision.
The final works were song cycles. Andrew Schultz's To the Evening Star is symmetrical and applies diverse styles to 19th-century English poetry, sometimes conspiring in the allurement of their picture painting (as in the outer poems by Yeats and Blake) and sometimes subverting it (the quick, spiky setting of Hopkins). The central poem by Wordsworth, full of self doubt, drew warmth and empathy from soprano Alison Morgan.
Ruth Lee Martin's Wimmera Song Cycle, sung by Duck-Chong and Morgan, adopted an ambient style, with the outback images of Kevin Hart's poetry creating a sense of cushioning reverence.
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blues, myth, philosophy & the land
HALCYON, WHERE THE HEART IS
While not a program of the scale and potency of Extreme Nature (RT93) which featured big, challenging works by Australians Elliott Gyger and Nicolas Vines, Halcyon’s Where The Heart Is, is a program featuring six more Australian works, all fascinating and revealing a rich variety of practice.
Bay 20, CarriageWorks Sept 13
Ross Edwards’ Maninya (1981), inspired by the natural environment, comprises hypnotic if rhythmically complex series of apparently meaningless syllables sung by Jenny Duck Chong to Geoffrey Gartner’s talkative cello in passages that evoke lullaby and reverie and closing with a cello jig.
Elliott Gyger’s Petit Testament, like From the Hungry Waiting Country (2006 and soon to be released on CD) in the Extreme Nature program, responds to Australian poetry, here in the form of the last of the Ern Malley hoax poems. Once again Gyger provides Duck Chong and Alison Morgan the opportunity to “highlight one of our particular skills—the illusion of singing ‘as one’ and masquerading as one another” (program note). As Gyger writes, “My setting re-enacts James McAuley’s and Harold Stewart’s dazzling feat of ventriloquism (two real poets masquerading as one fictional poet) in employing two voices to project a single musical lie, slipping unpredictably between unison, heterophony and interior dialogue.” The sopranos dexterously managed the overlaps, sharply articulated modulations and shared sentences while the Stuart & Sons piano (played admirably by Sally Whitwell) provided a resonant other voice, alternately dramatic and ironic, lyrical or ‘going to pieces.’ Gyger aptly evokes both fraudulent excess and the odd beauty of the poem.
One of two highlights of the concert was Andrew Schultz’s To the Evening Star (2009; Best Song Cycle, Paul Lowin Awards), a reflection, writes the composer, on the inner creative life, responding to poems by Yeats, Hopkins, Longfellow, WH Davis and Blake. Yeats dreams lyrically of rural escape while the busy piano suggests both the “bee-loud glade” and “the roadway…the pavements gray.” For Hopkins’ Pied Beauty, Schultz and singer, Alison Morgan, hit the syllables hard and rapidly, evoking excitement at the density of natural riches. Longfellow’s anxiety about a creative life only half fulfilled is rendered emotionally, a soaring complaint, the piano thundering in empathy, while Davies’ Money, O! contrastively celebrates being poor but happy in a vigorous folksy, music theatre idiom. Finally, Blake’s To the Evening Star is a gloriously sung prayer for divine protection framed by piano scoring that seems to embrace the whole of the world, the playing constantly pushing out to the bottom and top-most notes simultaneously until at rest.
Anne Boyd’s Cycle of Love (1981) is in the form of three sung ancient Korean poems and two instrumental interludes (Gartner’s cello and Sally Walker’s flute in exquisite dialogue). For all the meditative Korean and Japanese influences, the compositions are lively, even dramatic and certainly heartfelt in their longing.
The final work, folk singer and musicologist Ruth Lee Martin’s Wimmera Song Cycle (2010), a setting of Kevin Hart’s Wimmera Songs, surprised me with its transparent structure, its deceptively musical theatre character and ease (apt for the uncomplicated syntax of the poet’s finely crafted image-making). Sopranos, cellist, pianist and flautist combined in various permutations to evoke the spread and detail of the land, through moments of delicate observation, pain (“the other silence that fits your head inside a vice”) and the potential for transcendence—“Think like a cloud / Go where the clouds go.”
Halcyon, Where the Heart Is…celebrating homegrown music, CarriageWorks, Sydney, Sept 13
RealTime issue #99 Oct-Nov 2010 pg. 49
© Keith Gallasch
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keith gallasch: continuum sax & match percussion; halcyon
Concerts, topology and halcyon
October - November 2009
HALCYON, EXTREME NATURE
Verbrughen Hall, Sydney Conservatorium of Music, Aug 7
RealTime issue #93 pg. 52
AS CHRIS REID WRITES IN HIS REVIEW OF THE SOUNDSTREAM NEW MUSIC FESTIVAL (P49), SOME MUSIC HAS TO BE SEEN AND NOT JUST HEARD. BRISBANE-BASED TOPOLOGY’S EAST COAST TOUR GAVE US A LIVE, WORKING BAND WITH A CASUALLY THEATRICAL AND JAZZY SPONTANEITY YOU MIGHT NOT BE EXPECTING FROM THEIR NEW CD, BIG DECISIONS, WHICH OFFERS OTHER PLEASURES. SYDNEY’S HALCYON DELIVERED A MORE FORMAL CONCERT WITH AN OPERATIC INTENSITY IN WORKS WITH BIG AMBITIONS AND VISIBLY COMPLEX INTERPLAY BETWEEN PERFORMERS.
The Sydney duo, Halcyon (soprano Alison Morgan, mezzo-soprano Jenny Duck-Chong) gather composers, instrumentalists and other singers around them to create distinctive, inventive concert programs. Extreme Nature featured bold new works from expat composers recently returned to Australia, Elliott Gyger and Nicholas Vines.
Gyger’s From the Hungry Waiting country (2006) draws on Australian poems (mostly of an older generation: Harwood, Stow, Riddell, Hart-Smith, Buckley, Hope) and Near Eastern religious texts in response to “a profoundly ethical dimension to the emerging ecological crises” (Gyger, program note). Morgan and Duck-Chong were joined by soprano Belinda Montgomery and mezzo Jo Burton to execute the demanding interweaving and layering of texts, surprising glissandi and humming, buzzing insectile vocal noise. Genevieve Lang’s harp entwined beautifully and at times dramatically (buzzing too and twanging) with the singing, making the instrumental interplay with the four superb voices the highlight of the work. It was fascinating to watch the exchanges between these artists, heightened by the various re-groupings of the singers, with the harpist a logical extension of the line-up rather than as sidelined accompanist.
Save for the final text, AD Hope’s Australia (an odd choice, Gyger admits, but deployed to target political rather than intellectual poverty), making sense of the poems is hard work and best left until a recording is made available. Countering Hope’s bitterness, the work ends moving from an almost staccato rendering of lines that then flow into neat harmonies, with an almost Swingle Singers’ jazziness, and a final, musing lyricism. From the Hungry Waiting Country is a complex, consuming work, at once grim and beautiful.
In their onstage intermission dialogue, Gyger and Vines discussed the relationship of their music to “large masses of text.” There was agreement that their approach is “not directly semantic...not every word will be understood, but the work will be ‘semantic’ from a different direction [as] a lattice of reference, starting with poetry that is already complex.” It was suggested that “words are musical regardless of meaning” and that “the poem is a kind of music.”
Nicholas Vines writes that his Torrid Nature Scene (2008) “is at its core a squelchy, lusty romp” but one intended to counter the technologising of our lives and values. In the dialogue with Gyger, Vines said he thought “lush” was not a word typically associated with Australia, but that he wanted to create “a febrile density” in his work, and so he does. The text, a poem by Andrew Robbie, is already dense with ideas and images, and Vines adds nine instrumentalists to engage with Morgan and Duck-Chong. After the opening Wagnerian flourish we are introduced to a sonic world that is certainly lush, rich in operatic soaring, quackings, glides, post-orgasmic gasps, relished words chewed over, and ringing, starry bursts of voices and ensemble as one. In memorable, intense, sustained passages for one singer, the other counters with an undercurrent of noises evocative of nature and the body’s own musical otherworld. Torrid Nature Scene is almost overwhelmingly dense on a first hearing, but its strange beauties are many (its hyper-literary text best left impressionistic). Extreme Nature was an exhilarating if demanding concert, its cogency in no small part the contribution of conductor Matthew Coorey.
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Delicate bites, then a main course to satisfy
September 29, 2009
Trackdown Scoring Stage, September 26
Reviewed by Harriet Cunningham
The first part of Halcyon's latest concert, subtitled Willow Songs, was like a whistle-stop tour of the 20th century in haiku.
The tour did not take in the obvious attractions: no wars or revolutions, artistic or otherwise. It did, however, offer the delicate whiff, like a tea-soaked madeleine, of the work of six composers from six decades in miniature.
Roberto Gerhard's Sept Haiku (1922), for instance, had a tentative astringency from a composer avid to embrace the new. By contrast, the three songs from Anne Boyd's Cycle of Love, written in 1981, were sensual and assured, using the flute as a kind of vocal alter ego, a wise and wordless commentator.
Russian-born Elena Firsova's Seven Haiku (1991) tapped into the troubadour tradition and the two songs from Ton de Leeuw's Haiku of 1963 took sounds and placed them in different spaces and silences, as if under a microscope. Julian Yu's Four Haiku (1992) demonstrated how you can create a complete song from just one note.
It was fascinating, beautifully performed by the soprano Alison Morgan and the mezzo-soprano Jenny Duck-Chong, with their classy line-up of instrumentalists. But madeleines do not make a meal, so after Morgan and the pianist Stephanie McCallum's post-modern palate-cleanser, a neat rendition of Colin Matthews's Strugnell's Haiku, it was time for the main event.
Willow Songs was commissioned by Halcyon, with financial support from Barbara Blackman. It was a good investment. As the composer Andrew Ford says, Anne Stevenson's Willow Song is a ballad waiting to be sung, and Ford finds a gentle lyricism to illuminate the words, enriched by extremes of timbre from piccolo and bass clarinet. This work is an intimate engagement with sensuality, from a woman's point of view, and Ford's music treads carefully, serving the words well without making overly grand gestures of his own.
I particularly liked the tough, worldly-wise voices of Eros and the Cold Woman, spiked with percussive textures. Fools Gold was an excruciating mixture of fun and folly, and Epigraph hung in the air, pregnant with meaning.
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Poetry and religious texts woven in labyrinthine cross-references
August 11, 2009
Verbrugghen Hall, August 7
Reviewed by Peter McCallum
THE program cover had two gorgeously coloured snails, hinting at endangered musical species beyond the concert's environmental theme. If so, Halcyon's immaculately prepared and impressively detailed vocal performances, under the conductor Matthew Coorey, should contribute something towards sustainability.
Elliott Gyger's cycle From the Hungry Waiting Country for harp (Genevieve Lang) and four voices interweaves seven texts by Australian poets, with eight religious texts, creating a beautifully complex labyrinth of cross references.
Prompted by Sydney's 2004 dam crisis, it was a poetic and ethical reflection on the metaphorical meanings attached to water's abundance and absence.
Gyger's music is carefully worked in a way that draws the listener in through its detail. The intersplicing of text and music was subtle and, as with reading a passage by Joyce, one had the impression that there were meanings to be mined on future hearings. In intimate lines by Randolph Stow, the textures were animated, complex and bubbling below the surface.
Mark O'Connor's The Rainbow Serpent expanded massively on the word ''roar'' then writhed and struggled to shape its form.
The final sequence, a setting of A.D. Hope's Australia, which metaphorically describes a cultural desert harbouring unexpected fertility, was the only text that was set in a way that allowed the words to be followed, starting with dry punctuated sounds before mutating into something rich.
Nicholas Vines describes his Torrid Nature Scene for two sopranos (Alison Morgan and Jenny Duck-Chong) as a ''squelchy, lusty romp'', though part of its fascination lay in the way the rhythms, contrived words and artifice of style in Andrew Robbie's text kept moving away just as one was about to grasp it: think Lewis Carroll with a PhD in semiotics.
Vines's music was full, extravagant and wild, as though it was an accomplice in undermining the listener's attempt to tame it. One sometimes had the impression one was being outwitted in conversation by two clever young men.
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Poetry unites vocals and instrumentals
October 20, 2008
Verbrugghen Hall, October 17
Reviewed by Graeme Skinner
COCKING a snoot at ABC Classic-FM-style canonicity, Halcyon proposed its own B-list as contenders for a new music A-team. Only time will tell. Meanwhile, the three works made a powerful statement on what their composers claim as common ground, a creative fluidity in dealing with boundaries between the vocal and the instrumental.
In Gavin Bryars's The Adnan Songbook, this creative fluidity is also a sexual metaphor. His setting of eight poems by the US-Lebanese writer Etel Adnan addressed to her lover Simone Fattal bristles with beauty, literary and musical. In her clear upper register, the soprano Alison Morgan floated above a low-lying instrumental ensemble that elsewhere seemed laid by Bryars to trap singers with weaker middle registers. Upon Silence is George Benjamin's in memoriam to Michael Vyner, the artistic director of the London Sinfonietta, whose death in 1989 brought English music to the darkest hour of the AIDS crisis, as Stuart Challender's did here.
Mining Yeats's Long-Legged Fly for text, and taking a distant backward glance at the exoticism of Ravel's Shhrazade, Benjamin portrays his multi-faceted subject - administrator (Caesar), artist (Michelangelo), and "femme-fatal" (Helen of Troy) - on the verge of silence. With the sepulchral strings making "no more sound than the mice make", the mezzo Jenny Duck-Chong gave a superbly human and musically accurate impersonation of creativity on the brink.
Poetry stands behind everything of Nigel Butterley's, vocal or instrumental. But though he has a mastery of images, his music can seem diffident, withholding meaning until second or third hearing. Orphei Mysteria breaks constraint and communicates immediately. Forget Eurydice, poet Patricia Excell's Orpheus has his head torn off by Maenads either - take your pick - for forsaking Dionysus for Apollo, or for having sex with boys. The point is that whoever has custody of "the shell of harmony" pays.
Duck-Chong, supported by Morgan and conductor Mark Shiell and his instrumentalists, more than earned her right finally to enact Orpheus's glowing apotheosis, everyone doing Butterley nothing short of proud.
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Halcyon - Celebrating 10 Years
September 9, 2008
Great Hall, SCEGGS, Darlinghurst, September 6, 2008
Review by Anni Henio
There was a wonderful sense, throughout this concert, of being part of an event that was more than just the sum of its songs. It might also have had something to do with the shared experience of braving a particularly miserable, blustery Sydney evening, swept along streets littered with the broken tangle of abandoned umbrellas, or the rich history infusing the sandstone and timber hall.
The night featured works drawn from the ten years Halcyon have been making music, a showcase sampling of program highlights leading to the two focal pieces of George Crumb's Ancient Voices of Children and Luciano Berio's Folk Songs. Kerry Andrews's luna-cy was an odd opening. Its gasping breaths, siren calls, honking geese and bellbird whistles were, at the very least, illustrative of the fact that vocalists Alison Morgan, Jenny Duck-Chong and Jane Sheldon weren't afraid to veer off the well-worn track.
Next 'plum' and 'cherry' from fruit songs by Andrews took a folkloric turn, Janet Agostino's guitar playfully leading Duck-Chong's voice through. 'Promises Like Pie Crust' and 'Echo' from Claire Jordan's Memory were a stronger follow-up, the former rich and enunciative, though wavering, the latter more dramatic, weightier, weaving in with Sally Whitwell's piano. An extract from Damien Ricketson's Seven Relics maintained this tone and anchored the opening set. It was a challenging piece, with Julia Ryder's cello and Morgan's voice building up a fragile tension that drew you closer to the edge of your seat, an understated drama underlying the sombre mood.
Sheldon's clear, bright voice was well suited to Katy Abbott's 'Night Thoughts' from It Is Just the Heart, soaring beautifully over the eerie, discordant string quartet scrapings. The delicate forest footsteps and intricate, hushed beauty of 'Miranda's Lament' from Kaija Saariaho's The Tempest Songbook drew another wonderful performance from Duck-Chong, before Morgan closed the opening half pleasingly with Edison Denisov's Archipel Des Songes, a setting of sensual poems by Jean Maheu, built with a weaving, dreamlike tenderness.
The main frustration with the opening set was the 'snippet' aspect – a tasting plate of pieces allowed for a variety of flavours, but kept us from experiencing anything meaty enough to really get our teeth into. The breaks between pieces and stage rearrangements broke the spell and it was difficult to get as swept away in the music as the performers all had the ability to help us do. A couple of pieces also seemed a little under-rehearsed, but it might have been that by the time the performers had warmed into a piece, it was wrapping up.
This is perhaps the nature of a showcase performance, yet it was mere moments into George Crumb's astonishing Ancient Voices of Children before such concerns were cast aside, replaced with the dramatically reverberant prepared piano and nonsensical vocal skittering. In this cycle of songs to texts by the Spanish poet and dramatist Federico Garcia Lorca, the haunting imagery of the poetry is captured in spirit through Crumb's unusual sense of tension and broken ideas, drawn back together in unexpected forms.
Each instrument followed highly individual paths, the prepared piano sounding almost like a double bass at times, the harp rasping away and the clarinet mesmerising like a snake charmer. This could well be a terrifying piece for a singer, asking for a courageous leap into the passionate heart of an aching lament, but Alison Morgan seemed to approach it with relish. Bowing over and singing into the piano, we could see the giant score from which she was singing reflected in the underside of the piano lid.
The urgent, troubled whispering was menacing, venomous at times, while the slowly building drums beat with a voice as ancient as that evoked by the piece's title. The measured, mournful tone gave way to a passionate Spanish flavour melding with a baroque drama, the weepy mandolin slides of Stephen Lalor gliding wonderfully over the bright percussion. The deeper into the piece we travelled, the more it opened out and created space for that rarest of beauties, the profound silence. These silences rendered the ensuing tumult all the more frightening, the clanging bells and smashed gong careering into the two lost voices passing through the piano. The torrential rain hammering down outside, and lashing the stained glass windows, was a fitting companion to the draining climax, a fabulous performance where all elements came together and seemed to wring out every drop of meaning this piece had to offer.
After a performance like this, Luciano Berio's Folk Songs could only suffer in comparison. I'm not sure why the two were programmed in this order, but after Crumb's magical work, Berio's piece came across as a little too light and short on substance. Jenny Duck-Chong worked well with the material, and drew nicely upon her range, yet it was difficult to engage with. The work came to life once the Sicilian song arrived, followed by the cheeky Italian songs and the sad Sardinian lament. The final song was an Azerbaijani love song that finished the night on a jaunty, rousing upswing, bringing to a close a long, often rewarding evening that fittingly marked Halcyon's first 10 years in existence – hopefully merely the beginning of a long and rich existence.
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HALCYON Celebrating 10 Years
September 9, 2008
Great Hall, SCEGGS, Darlinghurst, September 6
Reviewed by Harriet Cunningham
ENSEMBLES come and go in the urban jungle of new music, but the vocal group Halcyon has proved itself a stayer. On Saturday night Halcyon's founders, Alison Morgan and Jenny Duck-Chong, demonstrated how with a fabulous 10th birthday concert.
How to No.1: be adventurous. Mounting a performance of George Crumb's Ancient Voices Of Children - complete with mandolin, harp, percussion and a singer with her head in a grand piano - at your very first concert could be considered foolhardy. But they did it then, and they did it again on Saturday night, with the kind of playful flair and well-turned virtuosity which keeps experimentation fun and makes audiences want more.
How to No.2: have good friends. While just two people remain at the heart of Halcyon, they have surrounded themselves with an amazing array of composers and performers over the past decade. The first half of the concert was a tantalising smorgasbord of voices, from the English composer Kerry Andrew's loopy Luna-cy to Edison Denisov's mysterious Archipel Des Songes, performed by fine players from every corner of Sydney's music scene.
How to No. 3: be good. Obvious, but essential. And for this most important point Halcyon do not disappoint. Luciano Berio's Folk Songs, for example, may sound deceptively simple — after all, they're just folk songs, aren't they? — until you realise they were written for the legendary Cathy Berberian, accompanied by a highly artful orchestration. So when Duck-Chong and her classy band take up the challenge and make these songs their own, it is an impressive and hugely enjoyable achievement.
Other standout performances: Jane Sheldon's scarily beautiful top note at the climax of Katy Abbott's Night Thoughts; Alison Morgan's exhilarating and fearless vocalising in an extract from Damien Ricketson's Seven Relics; Duck-Chong's fruity expression in Andrew's Cherry; and the ensemble's performance of Gacela Of The Dead Child, which nearly made me weep.
Can it really be 10 years? The time has flown by.
Happy birthday, Halcyon.
The exotic and quixotic from a man with big ideas
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FOUR WINDS FESTIVAL
Tuesday March 25, 2008
2008 Bermagui March 21-23
Reviewed by Harriet Cunningham Sydney Morning Herald
The artistic director of this year’s Four Winds Festival, Christopher Latham, is a man with ideas – and he is not afraid to use them. His second and final offering for the bienniel festival took as a template the ground-plan of the Villa Rotunda of the Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio. The contents of the rooms were inspired by the weekend’s serendipitous convergence of cultural festivals: Easter, Purim, Holi, Paramita Day and Mawlid an-Nabi all fell on this year’s autumn equinox. It was exotic and, at times, quixotic.
Thankfully, in addition to big ideas, Latham has impeccable music tastes and a handy knack for bringing together some of Australia’s classiest musicians. So if at any point the riot of ideas became laboured, the beautiful sounds flooding across the earthly paradise of the rolling South Coast landscape made it on the whole easy to forgive.
A quick pick of these sounds, in no particular order: a miraculously beautiful performance of Vivaldi’s Gloria, sung one voice to a part by the vocal group Halcyon; Ross Edward’s funky Mantras And Alleluyahs, featuring the South Coast choir Heartsong; Vivaldi’s Four Seasons on recorder, and a hit-and-miss Brandenburg concerto; a monsoon raga from Manjiri Kelkar, surfing a sea of umbrellas; Sephardic melodies from the heavenly voice of Mina Kanaridis; Sufi works from Omar Faruk Tekbilek; and claustrophobic tintinnabulations of gongs and prayer bowls from the combined forces of Synergy and TaikOz.
One of the highlights was a repeat performance of Steve Reich’s massive Tehillim, featuring Halcyon, Synergy and the specially assembled Four Winds Philharmonia, all held together with energetic delicacy by Roland Peelman, followed by a world premiere of Liza Lim’s Weaver of Dreams, for solo recorder, played with astonishing virtuosity and charm by Genevieve Lacey.
The other main focus – in case we needed more to think about – was the music of the guest of honour Peter Sculthorpe. His String Sonata No. 4, arranged for string orchestra and didgeridoo, played by William Barton, emerged almost inevitably from the backdrop of native bird song to open the program. Cello Dreaming, towards the end of Sunday, was an intense, heartfelt close. Perhaps most moving was Sculthorpe’s own reading of D.H. Lawrence’s Song Of A Man Who Has Come Through. Words and silence were, for a moment, king in this sea of music. The artistic directorship of the Four Winds Festival passes to the recorder player Lacey. She inherits a spectacular setting, a loyal and musically adventurous audience and a tough act to beat.
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Familiar stage feels the shock of the new - TEHILLIM
August 7, 2007
Reviewed by Harriet Cunningham, Sydney Morning Herald
Synergy, Ensemble Offspring and Halcyon, City Recital Hall, August 4
As the conductor Roland Peelman pointed out, the City Recital Hall rarely plays host to a concert consisting entirely of new music. Baroque, yes; classical, of course; but cutting-edge, experimental, out-there weirdness? No. So it was with some sense of triumph that the combined forces of Ensemble Offspring, Halcyon and Synergy Percussion took the stage for their opening work, No More than Liquid, composed this year by the Sydneysider Damien Ricketson.
Ricketson has a reputation for intelligent and inventive music-making and this work was no exception. Ravel's Jeux d'eau was the first tag for a series of watery references, slipping in and out of the nicely layered gestures like a knowing wink. Although the work was not one of Ricketson's most consistently accomplished, the ensemble found their way through the shallows and depths with conviction.
The two vocal works following were rare treats: a hopelessly impractical set of miniatures from Gyorgy Ligeti, and an extended love song from Claude Vivier. Sippal, Dobbal, Nadihegeduvel (With pipes, drums and fiddles) is a setting of poems by Sandor Weores, scored for voice, a miscellany of blown instruments and pretty much every percussive instrument you could think of. It was definitely worth the effort. Jenny Duck-Chong took on the acrobatics of the vocal part with a gleam in her eye and a glow in her voice, while the ensemble hit, blew and scraped with well-disciplined enthusiasm.
Vivier's Bouchara was less immediately rewarding, the ecstasy of love getting lost in the agony of sustaining the long phrases.
Steve Reich's Tehillim was top of the bill, and only a collaboration of this sort, between multiple new music groups, could have realised this elaborate and thrilling work.
The four voices of Halcyon drove the work on with endless energy while Ensemble Offspring and Synergy Percussion kept up brilliantly. Central to the whole shebang was Peelman, who bobbed and weaved his way through the complex rhythmics like a 21st-century Fred Astaire.
All three groups should be congratulated for an inspiring collaboration. This concert is repeated on Saturday at Riverside Theatres, Parramatta. Copyright © 2007. The Sydney Morning Herald.
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TEHILLIM with Synergy Percussion, Halcyon and Ensemble Offspring From water to Psalms
10 August 07
Reviewed by Steve Moffatt, Manly Daily
City Recital Hall, August 4
THREE diverse and rather strange pieces made up the first half of this concert of contemporary music.
Ensemble Offspring's artistic director Damien Ricketson's work No More Than Liquid looks at water and the part it has played in music, with references to Telemann, Ravel's piano piece Jeux d'eau and Sibelius's The Oceanides as well as more modern composers like Takemitsu.
Scored for oboe, clarinet, horn, strings and percussion including a waterphone - a series of metal spikes filled with water which distorts the pitch when struck and shaken - this work received its first public airing and made an interesting opening.
Avant-garde composer Gyorgy Ligeti's work is widely known, though many listeners may not know it as he was a favourite composer of filmmaker Stanley Kubrick and his pieces featured in 2001: A Space Odyssey and Eyes Wide Shut.
Seven of his short songs, brilliantly sung by Halcyon's Jenny Duck Chong, followed. Based on poems by Hungarian poet Sandor Weores they range from the absurd Dancing Song in which there are no words but the direction that the voice is ``virtuoso, dangerous and capricious'' to the rather beautiful Bittersweet, with several mood changes in between.
No less of a vocal challenge was the closing piece of the first half, French-Canadian student of Stockhausen Claude Vivier's Bouchara. Written in the composer's invented language the piece is a love song. Interestingly, Vivier was murdered in Paris in the 1980s, it's thought by a jealous gay lover. Not surprising then that this piece is not your conventional ``moon in June'' song but a work which demands much of the singer, in this case soprano Alison Morgan.
This was a stunning performance, with Morgan having not only to make sense of a nonsensical text but also to use a number of vocal effects including moving her hand in front of her mouth like a child doing an American Indian war whoop.
The other two members of Halcyon, soprano Belinda Montgomery and mezzo Jo Burton, joined the ensemble for the headline work of the night, Steve Reich's extraordinary, jubilant Tehillim, based on four of the Psalms sung in Hebrew and layered over a fast percussive beat and slow chords.
One of the founders of minimalism - a term he rejected - Reich had an enormous influence on late 20th century music, some might say to its detriment. This work is from his post-minimalist phase though some of the trademark repetition and simple chord structure remains. But it is a mesmerising piece with four voices singing repeated phrases in a round above percussive effects, including handclapping and an insistent rhythm on a small drum.
Marimbas and keyboards were used in some sections and with an ensemble of 20-plus musicians, many of them wired for sound, it was a brilliant achievement to set the stage up in just 20 minutes.
All works were conducted with a combination of energy, humour and aplomb by Ronald Peelman. A challenging and immensely enjoyable night.
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Some great singing and an innovative program
David Gyger, Opera-Opera
An astonishingly large and enthusiastic audience turned up at Angel Place on Saturday, August 4, for a rewarding concert which took its name, Tehillim, from the title of Steve Reich’s work which occupied its entire second half.
I’m not sure whether Reich’s iconic stature as a voice of the cutting edge of our musical times was the prime drawcard, or the colossal combination of the three performing ensembles involved – the vocal group Halcyon, the instrumental Ensemble Offspring and Synergy Percussion – or the consistently stimulating presence of conductor Roland Peelman who finetuned two of the four pieces; but the ambience of the event was exciting and its overall rewards most satisfying.
In his introductory remarks, Peelman said the blockbuster interest of this concert might well be considered to lie in its second half, devoted exclusively to Tehillim, but there was plenty of merit in the three pieces which made up the first half.
First came the world premiere of Damien Ricketson’s No More Than Liquid, an intriguing instrumental piece focussing on the less abrasive precincts of percussion capability as well as the tootling instrumental segments of Ensemble Offspring. Then came the Australian premiere of György Ligeti’s Sippál, Dobbál, Nádihegedüvel for mezzo soprano and percussion, a beguiling piece whose vocal element was admirably realised by Jenny Duck-Chong. And finally, in the first half, French Canadian Claude Vivier’s Bouchara for soprano Alison Morgan and ensemble, in which a nonsense language invented by the composer is used to extol the exstasies of love which cannot be boiled down to everyday language.
With this trio of preliminary treasures under our belt, the second half of the concert was perhaps rather less overwhelming than it would have otherwise been, though Reich’s music was impressively negotiated by the entire ensemble of voices and instruments.
The cumulative effect of this concert was decidedly positive, though perhaps enough light to peruse the printed program as the evening unfolded – between the items of the first half, we were plunged into near-total darkness while the stage was reset – would not have gone astray.
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STERLING WORK FROM HALCYON
By John Carmody, Opera-Opera
The last concert in Matthew Hindson’s Aurora Festival – “living music” in Western Sydney – curiously put me in mind of a traditional wedding.
Yes, it was in a church (7 May), but the real reason was its alluring blend of old and new. The old was the venue, the former Anglican church of St Bartholomew in Prospect. Though this fine Georgian building is currently sandwiched between the Great Western Highway and the Blue Mountains Motorway, it would have been marvellous in its great days: it is sited on a substantial hill with a striking outlook – I now know the origin of the name of the suburb! – and surrounded by an extensive cemetery where the explorer William Lawson is buried, the man who, in 1838, called for the tenders for the construction of the church. The new was a panoply of music for female vocal quartet, here the admired and admirable Halcyon Ensemble (comprising Alison Morgan and Belinda Montgomery (sopranos) with Jenny Duck-Chong and Jo Burton (mezzo-sopranos)) supported by the harpist Genevieve Lang and (briefly) percussionist Claire Edwardes. They also brought something old: an abiding concern, superbly realised, for peerless standards of performance; it was superbly secure singing.
Their program was, naturally, of varied interest and musical value but some – notably Elliott Gyger’s From the hungry waiting country, which was receiving its world premiere performance – was, I believe, of enduring worth.
As a singer himself (a founder-member of the apparently defunct Sydney Contemporary Singers, he continues to perform actively in Boston where he is a member of the staff of the Faculty of Music at Harvard University) he understands the human voice deeply. Furthermore, he has a fine sense for words. For years, his Christmas cards have featured a brief vocal piece, of 10 bars or so, for diverse forces, their texts in an astonishing array of languages. This major new work is a serious reflection on the importance of water (or the lack of it) for Australia and in it Gyger daringly counterpoints contemporary Australian poets – Randolph Stow, Vincent Buckley, A.D. Hope amongst them – against ancient texts in Coptic, Latin, Syriac and more. It is apiece of great intellectual as well as musical boldness, lasting about 35 minutes.
The texture is complex, the writing virtuosic, the effect deeply engrossing and affecting. Perhaps it is 5-10 minutes too long but its relish for sound, its disposition to respond colouristically to the text never falters – when for instance, Stow writes “seven colours flashed”, that is precisely what the music does; when the text is sere (“the red earth arches away to gibber and dune”) the music is elegiac and chantlike. The concluding quartet (with the harp as much as gentle percussion instrument as a plucked one) mixes humming, dry staccato detachment and soft lyricism in an extraordinary fashion.
This music demands further hearing; it should receive performances in abundance. We are in debt to Halcyon for introducing it to us. By comparison, Three Songs of Sleep by Stuart Greenbaum (a featured composer in this festival), seemed merely competent but conventional. He mixed solos with “ripieno” but did not leave me hoping for a further hearing.
Dan Walker’s tripartite King Ludwig’s Swans was a different matter. This young man’s work is new to me but he shows a flair for achieving interesting vocal textures. At times, the scores was deliberate and hieratic, at others it displayed an adroit overlap of the singers’ lines with some mildly astringent harmonies (yet at the words, “blue lake walk” Walker could bring Stanford to mind); elsewhere his music had a telling richness for such a small cohort of performers.
Kerry Andrew’s lunacy was virtually that. It is an almost insane concatenation of every possible way for the larynx to produce sound (sometimes just noise), yet this Londoner did it with such aplomb that one could take it utterly seriously or as a wild joke with equal warrant. Few other performers could bring it off with such dazzling skill.
Graham Hair’s O Venezia (in four sections) seemed, at the time, to be written with assurance but, as can happen, it left no serious impression. It is the work of a sophisticated musician but somehow lacks the human element to draw one byond noting the skill to responding to the art. Too much learning is not necessarily advantageous for a composer. So, unexpectedly, Steve Reich’s Know what is above you (for vocal quartet and two restrained percussionists) seemed real and direct by comparison. It had frequently had his stylistic fingerprints, of course (notably in the percussion), but the way in which he sustained the voices against that “bass” was refreshingly “unReichian”.
What has become almost old wisdom in Sydney was the way this concert (as David Miller’s Grevillea Ensemble often does, too, especially with their recent performance of Vaughan Williams’ splendid Ten Blake Songs for voice and oboe) was a potent reminder that it is principally such devoted, intelligent and insufficiently valued ensembles which continue to make the authentic contributions to our major city’s musical life.
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Reviewed by Peter McCallum
Halcyon, Flinders Quartet, Verbrugghen Hall, August 17
IT LOOKED like a marriage made in heaven, though it was made in Melbourne. Sydney's sophisticated contemporary vocal duo Halcyon flew south this winter to team up with the Flinders Quartet, whose players bring such care and unanimity of musical thought to Australian chamber music.
The result was performances of sensitive concentration and rewarding attention to tone and detail. We should be sending young people like this to the world's festivals to demonstrate the breadth and depth of our culture, but the reality is that artists with this kind of dedication are often left to make things happen more or less by chance, sustaining their art on what must often seem like arid soil.
That is probably not the kind of isolation Peter Sculthorpe had in mind in 1961 when he wrote the work that was to become an Australian contemporary music classic, Irkanda IV (irkand is an Aboriginal word meaning a remote and lonely place), though metaphors have a way of taking on unintended meanings.
The Flinders Quartet began with the arrangement Sculthorpe made for the Kronos Quartet, playing with beautiful balance and intonation, and capturing the work's subtle colour changes. Three Poems in French, by the Korean-American composer Earl Kim, evoked the meter-less song style of Debussy over chords of subdued richness, and Jenny Duck-Chong made the lines glow with regret, as though to show that regret is warmer than despair.
The song cycle It is Just the Heart, by the Melbourne composer Katy Abbott, revealed an original voice, setting texts that capture a child's perspective in a museum and, metaphorically, humanness in an imposing universe.
In handing beautifully pitched and tonally matched single notes to one another, soprano Alison Morgan and the Flinders Quartet highlighted precisely the kind of musicianship which lifted these performances from the ordinary.
Gillian Whitehead's Bright Forms Return (sung by Duck-Chong) disturbed the calm poetic eloquence of Kathleen Raine with extended instrumental interludes while Somei Satoh's Homa (with Alison Morgan) sought the kind of stasis which stretches a single moment into eternity. May these performers share many such moments.
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A Wide Ranging and Rewarding Evening with Tone Birds
Reviewed by David Gyger, Opera-Opera, Dec 2005
A vocal-intensive concert intriguingly entitled Tone Birds drew a satisfyingly sizeable audience to the Music Workshop at the Sydney Conservatorium on Saturday, October 29.
Unlike the all-Beethoven concert at the Opera House the night before, there was nothing standard about its repertory: four of its components were composed in the 20th century and the other in the 21st, and at least two of them emanated from the pens of composers who as yet don't even flirt with household name stature.
One, Rosalind Page's Hrafnsöngfar, receiving its world premiere performance although it was composed as long ago as 2001, was sung in Icelandic - an exotic tongue which hardly trips off the tongue of very many Australians even in these cosmopolitan times.
Impressively and commendably, both the original Icelandic and an English translation of its text were included in the night's program, but a modicum of the brownie points which would otherwise have been liberally racked up by that ploy were lost because the two texts were presented head to toe rather than side by side, requiring considerable back-and-forthing if one was to keep abreast of the sense of the performance. Though it was innovative, as well as economical, to produce a tall and skinny program by folding A4 sheets vertically rather than horizontally, the frustration was infuriating.
Purely from a musical point of view, this was an evening in absolute nirvana, with the audience treated to a positive feast of vocal artistry from the core members of Halcyon, soprano Alison Morgan and mezzo Jenny Duck-Chong, solo and in duet, backed by a deliciously varied ensemble of 10 instrumentalists under the baton mostly of Mark Shiell.
The concert opened with its most venerable work, Manuel de Falla's Psyche of 1924, and progressed more or less in chronological order. Duck-Chong's delivery of Falla's low-key musings, backed by five instrumentalists under Shiell's baton, was admirably thoughtful, getting the concert off to an engrossing start.
In Oliver Messiaen's Poèmes pour Mi Book 1 of 1939, Morgan was partnered by pianist Clemens Leske in four songs with wildly varying moods and texts. Entitled in turn Thanksgiving, Landscape, The House and Terror, they offer challenging scope for a performer to display dramatic skill as well as vocal beauty, and Morgan underscored their nuances and negotiated their difficulties, which were once considered formidable for performers and listeners alike, impressively.
Duck-Chong, backed by seven instrumentalists, concluded the first half with Michael Berkeley's Winter Fragments of 1996, a seven-part song cycle whose title has a double meaning which, in the words of the composer, "came naturally, partly because I was at that time considering an opera project based on Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale, partly because the music was largely written in a frozen Welsh landscape, and partly because I wanted to write short, spare pieces that combine to create an overall aspect of winter". This interesting, and rewarding, song cycle mirrors its icy provenance splendidly in texts drawn from the works of Shakespeare, James Thomson, Shelley, Longfellow, and Australian David Malouf as well as the composer himself, and provided a varied and rewarding listen in the hands of Duck-Chong and her colleagues.
Apart from its linguistic frustrations, Page's Hrafnsöngfar (Ravensongs), the centrepiece of the evening, responded sensitively to the poems of Hrafn Andrés Harðarson, conjuring up Iceland's often savage and austere landscape, born from undersea fires and was impeccably sung and played by Morgan and her colleagues.
This rewarding concert concluded with Kaija Saariaho's Grammaire des Rêves of 1988, where both singers were heard in a complex fabric of interweaving voices and instruments. Its text, made up of fragments only, is a collage drawn from the poetry of Paul Eluard; the cumulative effect was a kind of surreal unity effectively evoking the Grammar of Dreams of its title and putting the cap on a highly rewarding evening.
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Review of Tone Birds
November 2, 2005
Reviewed by David Vance
Halcyon's Tone Birds program of contemporary vocal chamber music - modern if you begin in 1924 with de Falla's languorous Psyché - was devoted to songs whose texts were concerned with landscapes, geographical and psychological. For the inner eye of the imagination, there was much to admire; equally so for the ear, for the quality of the music was finely matched to the poetry. Graced by excellent performances, this program offered an alluring revelation of infrequently heard and, in some cases, new repertoire. If the physical landscapes evoked were those of the northern hemisphere, the emotional landscapes were universal and charted the ups and downs of human experience, from the awful consciousness of the awakening Psyché, through Messiaen's metaphysical love songs to his future wife in Poèmes pour Mi, to a stream-of-unconsciousness collage constructed from Paul Eluard poems as the Grammaire des Rêves by Kaija Saariaho.
It may have been Michael Berkeley's chilly Winter Fragments or possibly Rosalind Page's captivating setting of Icelandic texts in Hrafnsöngvar (Ravensongs) that prompted me to recall Wallace Stevens's poem The Snow Man, which begins "One must have a mind of winter". Both composers seem to have that sort of intellect, creating evocative, sometimes treacherous vocal lines to chisel their winter journeys, accompanied by or cloaked in instrumental textures of icy beauty.
Particularly appealing was Page's Ravensongs. Convincing musical ideas extended this cycle of lyric poems into an impressive and continuous whole. Alison Morgan's soprano added clarity and brilliance to complement the dazzling colours of piano (Clemens Leske), celeste (Sally Whitwell) and harp (Marshall McGuire). Beneath this surface glitter, however, sang a more profound voice, given to the cello (Julia Ryder), whose lamenting cries and soulful interludes gave no hint of arctic chill but rather of smouldering loss and regret.
Mark Shiell, sensitive to balance and subtlety of colour, directed an ensemble comprising some of Sydney's best musicians in which Morgan and mezzo Jenny Duck-Chong were the ultimate tone birds, soaring with ease and confidence across remarkable territories.
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Halcyon days and a vintage performance
Reviewed by Peter McCallum
Trackdown, Scoring Stage, Fox Studios, June 10
New music in a new hall. The sound in the Trackdown Scoring Stage is clear, close and revealing, leaving nothing much to hide behind, although in the case of vocal duo Halcyon (soprano, Alison Morgan, mezzo, Jenny Duck-Chong) nothing much needed hiding.
The program was built of nicely thought-out brackets. In the first you might call it the flying insect bracket the Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho's Du gick, flog (Morgan with pianist Sally Whitwell) was all sensuous slides and bips. New Zealander Rachel Clement's Fracture started like a mosquito you suddenly become aware of in the night, mutating and flicking in response to the text, while Sally Beamish's Buzz sidled and slipped like a bee on heat.
In the next bracket let's call it the surreal love bracket Edison Denisov's Archipelago of Dreams was eerily chromatic. More appealing to me in their simplicity were two songs by Libby Larsen, motivically tight, with apt match of music and text.
A fragmented-phonemes bracket after interval was led off by David Bedford's Come in here child, where a first-degree modernist treatment worked in tension with Kenneth Patchen's text.
Fung Lam's Amitabha was a still pentatonic meditation, like a morning breeze over quiet water. Ross Harris's Inside the Rainbow Air was solitary and ruminative, while John Peterson's The Return was soaring, rhapsodic and flowing, surging to points of arrival to an expansive narrative text by Michele Morgan. More vintage Halcyon.
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Review of Sirens, Melbourne
Joel Crotty, The Age, Sept 2004
“Sydney-based Halcyon is a quartet of women singers featuring sopranos Alison Morgan, Belinda Montgomery, Jenny Duck-Chong and mezzo-sopranos Jo Burton. The ensemble champions new music, particularly from Australian composers.
For their Federation Hall recital the group selected pieces from Australia (Graham Hair, Dan Walker and Ruth Lee Martin), Finland (Kaija Saariaho and Kahlevi Aho) and England (Kerry Andrew).
The impressive numbers were Hair’s O Venezia, part one, Walker’s King Lugwig’s Swams and Andrew’s luna-cy.
Occasionally accompanied by harpist Genevieve Lang, the vocal ensemble expertly handled its diverse requirements.”
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Review of Sirens
Reviewer Clive O'Connell September 26, 2005
Sirens: New Music for Voices and Instruments St John's Southgate, September 22
Sydney's the Halcyon ensemble is a female vocal quartet specialising in the new and the arcane. The group's two sopranos and two mezzos collaborated with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra's principal keyboard player, Josephine Allan, a local string quartet led by Miwako Abe, and the VCA's head of percussion, Peter Neville in a program featuring three motets by British composer Michael Finnissy, one of Ross Edwards' Maninyas , a soporific piece by New Zealander Ross Harris, a short work by Japanese composer Somei Satoh, and the world premiere of Five Senses by Australian composer Graham Hair.
We have nothing comparable to Halcyon in Melbourne and the group's singing proved remarkable for its urgent drive, self-motivation (no conductor) and sense of one unit emerging from four distinct vocal colours. The Finnissy motets for solo voice and one string line proved very little - ornate chants over an instrumental drone for much of their length. The Harris work, titled Sleep, O Beloved , induced you to follow directions because of its hieratic, block-like choral movement reinforced by Neville's gentle doubling vibraphone.
Pick of the program was the Hair work, a setting of poems by Malouf, McAuley and the famous Judith Wright lyric that gave the work its title. Here the four voices were put to brilliant use, notably in the colourful word-painting of Malouf's Harmonice Mundi, and then a series of evocative solos for soprano Alison Morgan in To the Holy Spirit by Tasmania's noted Catholic poet.
But for an ideal illustration of Hair's insight into setting texts, the Wright poem proved the most engaging and gripping. The voices moved together and apart with masterly variety, the text given its due and remaining clear even in verbally complex passages, the accompanying string quartet shimmering with excitement and providing a vivid commentary on the verbal content, separate but equal with the Halcyon voices and having the last say in a postlude of unabashed euphony and humanity: a most moving work, that we could easily have heard again.
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Review of Floof!
Sydney Conservatorium Reviewed by Peter McCallum July 5, 2005
Floof!, Ensemble Offspring and Halcyon, Music Workshop, Sydney Conservatorium, July 1
You could say it was a concert of uneasy relationships between the vulnerable human voice and the more mechanised certainty of instrumental sound. Michael Finnissy's Springtime wove fragments of intermingling melody on flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano. Each proceeded independently and the first half proceeded like five love songs, each undisturbed by the other, followed by a second part of more focused and assertive energy.
Nigel Butterley's Carmina: Four Latin Poems of Spring brought instruments and sung words into a more formal elegiac relationship, wiath the soprano Jenny Duck-Chong singing in Latin, and the instruments gesturing supportively, as though of like mind. Its final song, By the River, breathed the sounds of sultry warmth and halcyon days.
Esa-Pekka Salonen's Floof: Songs of a Homeostatic Homer is built from words rather like the junk email many of us receive with text drawn from God knows where to evade the radars of spam filters. Starting with monosyllabic groans from the soprano Alison Morgan against heavily amplified instruments, the voice part progressed like one intimidated to random nonsense like "I see the eigenvalue in thine eye" against assertive wildness in the instrumental parts which always threatened to overwhelm it.
In Simone East's The Voice of the Shuttle, the voice in fact did end up symbolically defeated in the last piece, Cage, with the singer, increasingly hesitant and fragmented, enclosed within a circle of firm, domineering instrumental parts. The work explored the relationship of sound and space with each of its four movements involving a different player layout, producing textures evocative of a broad spatial canvas. In the last work the voice (Alison Morgan), singing in an invented language, was reborn in a pulsating, quivering iridescent texture of slow-moving intensity like a long hymn of love from a distant world. Duck-Chong and Morgan sang throughout as intelligent and able servants of the new.
Halcyon and Ensemble Offspring, conducted here by Roland Peelman, are responsible for some of the most innovative and adventurous programs currently heard in Sydney and this concert was a cogent show- case of some of the most original musical thought of our age.
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Earth Jewels, Halcyon
By Peter McCallum September 9, 2003
Sung by Halcyon, St Aidan's Church, Annandale, September 6
The program notes said the pieces had been brought together to tell of our earthly existence. In the first half this provoked, at times, sombre and despondent music, but the second half cheered up, with dance-like rhythms which were earthy as well as earthly.
Halcyon for voice and guitar (Jenny Duck-Chong, Janet Agostino) by Queensland-based composer Christine McCombe, was named not after this ensemble but after a line by Christina Rossetti: "My heart is like a rainbow shell that paddles in a halcyon sea."
The first song, with a haunting modal melody over a serenade-style accompaniment, was particularly effective. Sun, Moon and Stars, by 20th-century English composer Elizabeth Maconchy (and sung by Alison Morgan with Sally Whitwell playing the beautiful light-wooded Stuart piano loaned for the occasion), set poetry by Thomas Traherne in lines which were often angular and sometimes heavily laden with deliberation - as though a little bit too carefully worked out.
The Hermit of Green Light, by Ross Edwards, uses texts by the brilliant Sydney poet Michael Dransfield, who tragically self-destructed in 1973, aged 24. Edwards's accompaniments, in contrast to Maconchy's, were gently stirring in the first song, flowing in the second, unfolding and exploratory in the third and still in the last.
In this work, and in Maninya V in the second half, also by Edwards, Duck-Chong sang with a lower register, dark and firm, while the top range glowed with palpability and presence, ringing brightly in the resonant room of wood and gloss-painted brick.
After interval an offering of Whitman Settings by English composer/conductor Oliver Knussen brought the first sense of swirling rhapsody to the evening, reaching fantastically to the clouds and plunging to the depths in sweeps of imagery and movement, as though the voice part were poised against the swirling gusts of the piano like an eagle on some great air current which was about to carry it long distances. Sally Whitwell's pianism here was coloured, vivid and bold.
Wit broke through in Kerry Andrew's Fruit Songs, which were playful, punning and admirably concise - not unlike a musical equivalent of the visual puns of the poetry of e.e. cummings.
Finally, Somei Satoh's The Heavenly Spheres Are Illuminated by Lights took leave of earthly existence, with Alison Morgan's radiant high soprano shining in the heavens against deeply visceral fifths on the marimba and piano.
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By Peter McCallum SMH Nov 10 2003
Halcyon Verbrugghen Hall Nov 7
There was the grizzled old man of modernism, rebarbative and truculent, the deft but passionately spiritual young Scottish stylist, and two young Australians of modern and postmodern persuasion, all coming together to make one of the most interesting new music programs of the year.
Halcyon consists basically of two singers, Alison Morgan and Jenny Duck-Chong, and its artistic mission is to present new and neglected chamber music involving the voice for which purpose they were joined here by the conductor, Matthew Wood, and diverse instrumentalists.
Vocally it was uniformly excellent; instrumentally a little more patchy. In Maiden Aunts, by Australian composer Jane Stanley to a poem by David Malouf, the two sopranos sang much of the text to a common rhythm, primly staying together against more untamed instrumental writing, except for the odd escape into melismatic indulgence. The vocal writing itself was angular and stiff, sometimes effectively, at other places a little inflexibly.
The Scottish composer James MacMillan’s impressive song cycle, Raising Sparks, adopted a more striking, incantatory and ritualistic style, grabbing attention with an arresting fluency of style and gesture, alternating serene, chant-like song fragments with an wild, shrieking refrain apparently representing the explosive moment of creation.
Duck-Chong was vivid, dramatic and powerful here, holding together its dark narrative with inner intensity and urgency.
Paul Stanhope’s Shadow Dancing for clarinet, viola and piano revolved ambiently around a single motive. The first movement inflected it with disjunctions and distortions, the second with more serene calm, while the finale had the character of human/divine dance sometimes found in the music of Ross Edwards. The most impressive work was Harrison Birtwistle’s Nine Settings of Celan. Celan is a post-holocaust poet, painstakingly trying to reconstruct poetic utterance after barbarism and the settings used the dark, miasmic yet glowing colours of low clarinets and strings.
Morgan brilliantly maintained a subdued, haunting expressiveness in the difficult vocal part, although the instrumental intonation, balance and tonal control was not precise enough to capture the craggy beauty of the instrumental textures. There was an impression here of a slight lack of differentiation in the characterization of each song.
Another intelligent program from Halcyon.
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Cosmic views: new music in Sydney
By Keith Gallasch 2003
Halcyon Verbrugghen Hall Nov 7
Among new music events in recent months the one that lit me up was Raising Sparks from sopranos Alison Morgan and Jenny Duck-Chong who, as Halcyon, gather skilled musicians around them to present rare contemporary compositions and commissions. The standout in this truly daunting program was Harrison Birtwistle’s 9 Settings of Celan (1996) from his Pulse Shadows series. One of the enduring great late modernists, there is a monumentality about this British composer’s work, a sense of vast movements of nature and thought even when writing for small forces, here sublimely integrated soprano, 2 clarinets, cello, double bass and the requisite pulsing viola (Nicole Forsyth). Sensibly, Halycon reproduced translations of the Celan text in the program allowing for reflection on the poet’s brooding imagery. Morgan, in great voice, enunciated with clarity and in the challenging Todtnauberg, displayed eerie ease in the rapid alternations between the octaves of text spoken and sung.
In an hermetic reverie on the divinity scattered throughout creation, the Scots composer James Macmillan’s polystylistic Raising Sparks (to a poem by Michael Symmons Roberts) blends and juxtaposes chant, folk tune, flares and bursts of hurried sound, operatic passion and passages of simple tonal beauty. It’s music that is accessible but that also manages to formally challenge. Equally, Macmillan allows his Catholic faith to open up to Jewish mysticism, musically realised in the opening and recurrent chanting of ‘zimzum.’ (“In the Hasidic tradition the moment of creation can be understood as a divine act of self limitation [zimzum], where God held back his own power and light to make space to create something other than himself”; program note.)
By comparison, Australian composer Jane Stanley’s Aunts (2003) to a poem by David Malouf seemed modest fare, rather too literal at times in its enactment of the text, but nonetheless a fine vehicle for the entwining voices of soprano Morgan and mezzo Duck-Chong who seem to become the aunts while at the same time observing them at a distance both ironic and sympathetic. Also on the program, Paul Stanhope’s Shadow Dancing (2001) has a Ravelian summery ease, clarinet jazziness and, in the second movement, an (almost excessive) eastern edge on the viola, all held together by an engaging and finally mellow dancerly propulsion.
Raising Sparks was a big concert yielding striking resonances and contrasting visions between the Macmillan and the Birtwistle, from the low chant of ‘zimzum’ in the one as the light of creation shatters across the universe and, in the other, the final, hugely sustained last note on the word “light” following on from Beckettian angst glowing with hope, dimly (the same passage bluntly utters: “Art pap”). This was an exemplary concert—musically brave, thoughtful and meditative.
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Artists supreme in ivory-towering task
Fred Blanks, Northern Herald, November 19, 2003
Halcyon Verbrugghen Hall Nov 7
MUSIC came from the ivory tower and the domestic hearth last week. Some contemporary composers live in ivory towers, professing disdain for the populace below. Making their music attractive - even approachable or comprehensible - is never a primary consideration. The name of their game is not communication with a public but concentrating on a personal expression of their own inner feelings and emotional complexity. In this they resemble some modern poets. Their artistic credo is musical egocentricity, which makes them into intellectual hennits. This actually promotes their reputation among an international avant-garde clique.
A prime representative is the leading English composer Harrison Birtwistle, born 1934 and thus approaching a certain venerability. His ivory tower residence is the penthouse.
To listen to his music sympathetically requires a form of self-imposed mental discipline. Such was the case when the ensemble Halcyon, now one of the most courageously enterprising and high-standard vocal groups in Australia, performed Birtwistle's Nine Settings of Celan (1996), part of a larger work called Pulse Shadows, at its final 2003 concert in a well-attended Verbrugghen Hall at Sydney Conservatorium last week.
The work is scored for soprano, two clarinets, viola, cello and double bass. It sets poems by Paul Celan, a Rumanian Jewish poet (1920-70), who lived through the Holocaust and bouts of depression to produce shattered, minimalist verse.
The work lives in gloom and doom. It is slow, high in tessitura, and immensely difficult to sing. Alison Morgan did so brilliantly ¬one felt, conscientiously- there is no way of checking the correctness of each note.
Indeed that was the character of the complete long recital, titled Raising Sparks after its main work. This was a cycle of six songs poems by Michael Roberts, born 1963 -by James MacMillan (born 1959) which merited the vocal perspicacity of mezzo-soprano Jenny Duck-Chong in sad, slow, atmospheric, tortuously melodic music inspired by Jewish Hasidic mysticism. The concert also included the premiere of Maiden Aunts (2003) by Jane Stanley (born 1976)-melodiously convoluted, instrumentally imaginative, with a touch of pointillism - and Paul Stanhope's Dancing Shadows (2001), a trio for clarinet, viola and piano which works inside the attractive modern mainstream.
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