Women's Work

Review by Peter McCallum May 2014

Women's Work - concert review

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).

Peter McCallum

This review appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald.