The Poet's Voice

Review by Ben Apfelbaum, Sydney Arts Guide September 2016

The Poet's Voice - concert review

The first time I ever heard chamber music was in a medieval church lit by candlelight in Dubrovnik, Croatia. It was atmospheric and the acoustics were superb.  Cut to Drummoyne and the challenging contemporary chamber music benefited from the warm acoustics of St Bede’s Anglican Church.

This recital which took place on Saturday 10th September was staged by Halcyon, an advocate for new contemporary music, especially by 20th century composers.

With a career spanning more than 25 years mezzo soprano Jenny Duck-Chong is the Artistic Director of Halcyon. She performed in the first piece, composer Margaret Sutherland’s Woman song, Midnight and Winter Kestrel, based on poems written by Judith Wrightand Duck-Chong was sensitively accompanied by Daniel Herscovitch on piano. Herscovitch is Associate Professor in Piano at the Conservatorium of Music. The abstract rhythm and metre of Wright’s poems were equally matched by the dissonance of the intense, bold, long flighted melody that threw out a challenge to Duck-Chong which she easily mastered. She found a balance between voice and words and her diction was excellent so as to wring the emotion from the poems.

This musicianship  was continued in composer Brett Dean’s Literature And A Child Is A Grub, based on Michael Leunig’s prayer poems, which are both whimsical and serious. Duck-Chong ably mastered these contradictory themes.

Composer Roger Smalley’s Piano Trio was performed by Ewan Foster on violin, who currently works with the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra, Geoffrey Gartner on cello, who has played ambulatory cello for the Sydney Dance Company’s CounterMove, and who lectures extensively at Universities and Conservatoriums  throughout Australian and the United States. Daniel Herscovitch played on the piano, the titular instrument in this piece. It draws its inspiration from  a chromatic chord of Chopin’s Mazurkas. The work comprised with a prelude cherzo followed by a passacaglia. The Trios performance encompassed hypnotic dissonance interspersed with accessible Chopin like motifs and extracted the delight and complexity of this piece. Composer Andrew Shultz’s Paradise naturally deals with a dystopian world. Performed by Gartner on cello and Herscovitch on piano, this piece is sung by soprano Alison Morgan. Again with a 25 year career span, she has performed as a soloist with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Pinchgut Opera, The Song Company amongst others.  Shultzs’ melodies matching its theme were, for me, the most accessible. I found that I was so enchanted by Morgan’s bell like soprano that I occasionally lost track of Shultz’s lyrics.

I have presented mini biographies of these performers to highlight the calibre of musicianship and to show how they have battled and won  the challenge for audience acceptance of new classical chamber music.

My favourite piece was the whimsical The Domestic Sublime Part 1, composed by Katy Abbott Kvasnica, based on the poems of Christopher Wallace-Crabb. The poet asks us to pause and think about mundane things like shaving, changing beds, and the indoor yacht and spinnaker when you throw out the bed sheet, and coathangers coming to life. These pieces show that new music can have a sense of humour. Alison Morgan sang playfully, accompanied by Herscovitch’s piano chords.

The next piece brought a real sense of occasion to this enjoyable recital. This was the World Premiere of David Malouf’s Three Malouf Songs and it was performed in the presence of fabled author David Malouf and its composer Gordon Kerry. Both they and the audience were delighted by the performance of Duck-Chong, violinst Foster and cellist Gartner. The three songs – Stars, Rock Pools, and The Glass House Mountains had the theme of water interacting with the shoreline. Kerry created music that shimmered like water and brought out liquid motifs on the piano. Duck-Chong’s mezzo soprano beautifully amplified  the glassy piano chords and string harmonies suggesting still and then suddenly shattered water surfaces. Malouf’s songs are intensely atmospheric and the performance captured this. The piece was also performed in the presence of the compositions’ sponsors Denise and John Elkins who applauded enthusiastically.

Petit Testament, the final piece, composed by Elliott Gyger, saw both singers harmonising and singing counterpoint to each other. The piece is based on the hoax poems of Ern Malley, (really written by James McAuley and Harold Stewart), spoofing incomprehensible modern poetry.  Duck- Chong and Morgan mimicked the two poets whose voices then create a single musical line and then drop out of unison into polyphomy as though the two poets sought to highlight their individuality.

Symphony Orchestras can only be commercial  if the contemporary classical music they play is a musical score. So the modern Symphonic icons are composers like John Williams and Enrico Morricone. By playing in intimate venues like St Bede’s Church and performing for love rather than money, Halcyon keeps the flag flying for new Australian and international chamber works.

Ben Apfelbaum

This review appeared in Sydney Arts Guide