Verbrugghen Hall, Sydney Conservatorium of Music

Sydney Morning Herald, October 2008
Reviewed by Graeme Skinner

Poetry unites vocals and instrumentals

COCKING a snoot at ABC Classic-FM-style canonicity, Halcyon proposed its own B-list as contenders for a new music A-team. Only time will tell. Meanwhile, the three works made a powerful statement on what their composers claim as common ground, a creative fluidity in dealing with boundaries between the vocal and the instrumental.

In Gavin Bryars's The Adnan Songbook, this creative fluidity is also a sexual metaphor. His setting of eight poems by the US-Lebanese writer Etel Adnan addressed to her lover Simone Fattal bristles with beauty, literary and musical. In her clear upper register, the soprano Alison Morgan floated above a low-lying instrumental ensemble that elsewhere seemed laid by Bryars to trap singers with weaker middle registers. Upon Silence is George Benjamin's in memoriam to Michael Vyner, the artistic director of the London Sinfonietta, whose death in 1989 brought English music to the darkest hour of the AIDS crisis, as Stuart Challender's did here.

Mining Yeats's Long-Legged Fly for text, and taking a distant backward glance at the exoticism of Ravel's Shhrazade, Benjamin portrays his multi-faceted subject - administrator (Caesar), artist (Michelangelo), and "femme-fatal" (Helen of Troy) - on the verge of silence. With the sepulchral strings making "no more sound than the mice make", the mezzo Jenny Duck-Chong gave a superbly human and musically accurate impersonation of creativity on the brink.

Poetry stands behind everything of Nigel Butterley's, vocal or instrumental. But though he has a mastery of images, his music can seem diffident, withholding meaning until second or third hearing. Orphei Mysteria breaks constraint and communicates immediately. Forget Eurydice, poet Patricia Excell's Orpheus has his head torn off by Maenads either - take your pick - for forsaking Dionysus for Apollo, or for having sex with boys. The point is that whoever has custody of "the shell of harmony" pays.

Duck-Chong, supported by Morgan and conductor Mark Shiell and his instrumentalists, more than earned her right finally to enact Orpheus's glowing apotheosis, everyone doing Butterley nothing short of proud.