Verbrugghen Hall, Sydney Conservatorium of Music
Reviewed by Keith Gallasch
Cosmic views: new music in Sydney
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.