A Cunning Blog

Long words. Short words. Words that say something.


Leave a comment

Forward & Bach

89f249afe1e2e2dd3a6188ff53e37a7f

J S Bach is a poster boy for the power of limitations. A devout Protestant, his music was restrained within strict rules of counterpoint and an even stricter schedule of liturgical deadlines. But in spite of writing to order, using ancient texts, formal techniques and existing melodies, his motets unfold with a degree of invention that is, frankly, mind-blowing. Take, for example, the extraordinary Jesu, meine Freude BWV227, where Johann Cruger’s chorale is laid out, taken apart, transformed, across six verses, but never losing sight of the original melody. Or Komm, Jesu, komm, its intricate antiphonal writing equally affecting and energising, even as it conforms to its solemn statement of faith.

The Song Company’s latest tour, Forward & Bach, takes three of Bach’s Motets as pillars around which to arrange a clutch of new works commissioned from five Australian composers all starting, like Bach, from the chorale melodies of Martin Luther. The result is five works which duck and weave through the rich baggage of the liturgy, five highly individual voices which add new layers to an ongoing tradition.

mivdbvk

Matthew Hindson embraces the broad theme of musical limitations most overtly. His Saviour of the Heathens, dedicated to outgoing Chair of the Song Company, Penny Le Couteur, experiments with a musical algorithm as groundwork for a spare, slightly ghostly meditation. Paul Stanhope‘s De profundis is a more muscular work, carving out great chunks of vocal sound interspersed with passages using the mathematical transformations of Bach and before to create a slick and fascinating mini-drama. In Ein Feste Burg Brett McKern also references the tricks and tools of baroque counterpoint, but then, starting with a slippery basso continuo, subverts their assumed predictability, sliding into new sound worlds.

1 Ella Macens Stavi Stivi, Ozolin and Andrew Batt-Rowden’s Out of the Deep step a little further from the tree. Although they both start from Martin Luther’s “Out of the Deep I Cry to thee”, Macens adopts a new text, adapted from a Latvian folk verse. Stave Stivi, Ozolin describes a great oak tree which stands, unflinching, accepting, as a great storm threatens, arrives, then passes, leaving the tree still there. First developed at the Gondwana National Choral School earlier this year (led by Paul Stanhope), it is an exquisite, assured piece of choral writing which reveals an exciting new voice. By contrast, Andrew Batt-Rowden‘s Out of the Deep is perhaps the least assured, but that’s not to say it’s any less effective. Batt-Rowden comes to the text as an outsider, a non-believer, and a contemporary sound artist living in a relentlessly chilling modern world. As such, he strips away the comforting homophonies and predictable patterns, winding long, tense, strung out melodies and frantic cries into a strange, beautiful and deeply personal new thing.

The five new works and three motets are interpersed with works from the International Orgelbuchlein Project, organist William Whitehead’s collaborative homage to Bach’s unfinished Orgelbuchlein (Little Organ Book).

Of course, none of this could work without the performers. The Song Company, along with guests Tobias Cole, Richard Butler, Jessica O’Donoghue, Neal Peres da Costa and Daniel Yeadon, dive fearlessly into new musical realms and deal with the intricacies of Bach with commitment and intelligence. Meanwhile, Antony Pitts directs with a calm, ‘less is more’ approach to the mind-boggling complexities, exuding faith in the skill and wisdom of his extraordinary team of musicians.

You can catch the Song Company in Forward and Bach at Deakin Edge, Federation Square in Melbourne on 13 June, Christ Church Cathedral, Newcastle on 15 June, the Independent Theatre, Sydney on 17 June, St James’ Church, Sydney on 22 June and the Wesley Uniting Church, Canberra on 23 June.

If you’ve enjoyed this review please take the time to look around my blog and visit my book project, Sanctuary, now crowd-funding at Unbound. Many thanks to the Song Company for supplying tickets, and please support the arts by sharing the love. You could, for example, retweet this or share it on Facebook, you could link to my Unbound page and urge your friends to check it out. Best of all, you could buy tickets to a great performance and pledge to Sanctuary. #lovethearts

 

 

 


Leave a comment

The Madness of King George

When I go mad, I want to go mad like King George. Specifically, like Peter Maxwell Davies’ King George. More specifically, like Simon Lobelson’s Peter Maxwell Davies’ King George. I want to find the music in the howls, the poetry in the pain. I want to smash violins.

madgeorgeOh alright, maybe not that last bit, but it is good to see how shocking it still is to watch someone whack a violin into the stage so hard that it cracks and splinters into pieces. It’s the culmination of Eight Songs for a Mad King, the moment where the King kills a bird, kills a song, kills part of himself. I knew it was coming, but it was still a shock. My neighbour had no idea, and hearing her sharp intake of breath, momentary disbelief, then horror, was everything you could wish for. This is not a gratuitous gesture. It is a key moment for the audience, the players and the central figure, a moment where art and artistry completely loses it. A glimpse into the abyss.

Simon Lobelson is a magnificent King George in this fine performance by the Verbrugghen Ensemble. He makes the role his own (as, indeed, everyone who attempts this crazy work must) with an endlessly inventive repertoire of noises. What I found most impressive, and most affecting, was the way his performance seemed so organic, so frighteningly natural, whether he was matching his voice with birdsong or bowdlerizing Handel or howling. And how the ensemble was gradually lured into being an extension of the king’s byzantine mind, brilliant and brutal and beautiful at the same time. It was deeply moving.

Before that, some sybaritic Villa-Lobos —  seamless lines from flute, saxophone and oboe, over gritty textures from harp and guitar — and a world premiere, Matthew Hindson‘s This Year’s Apocalypse. Cue sirens.

In his program note, Hindson hopes that the effect will be ‘suitably terrifying’, and it is. He opens with relentless barrage which reminds me not so much of the abyss as of that feeling of lost panic when your alarm clock goes off in the middle of a deep, deep sleep. You know why it’s there, you get what it’s doing, but you still want it to go away. It’s loud and, I suspect, a little more rhythmically chaotic than intended in this first performance. The horn solo, however, magnificently played by David Thompson, cuts through the chaos with virtuosic eloquence, a voice of reason in a messy world. And from this, threads of sense start to shine dimly through the hectic texture of the closing bars. A good performance of a promising work from this terrific ensemble. Can’t wait to hear what they’ve put together for next year.