Earth Jewels

Earth Jewels, Halcyon
St Aidan's Church, Annandale

Sydney Morning Herald, September 2003
By Peter McCallum September 9, 2003

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.