Extreme Nature

Verbrugghen Hall, August 7

Sydney Morning Herald, August 2009
Reviewed by Peter McCallum

Poetry and religious texts woven in labyrinthine cross-references

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.