A Cunning Blog

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Forward & Bach


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.


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




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St Mary’s Passion

pic_0270In a bold collaboration the Song Company, the Choir of St Mary’s Cathedral and Omega Ensemble have come together to perform Arvo Part’s Passio, his setting of the St John Passion. It’s an extended obligato, broken up by interjections from the three characters –Jesus, Pilate and the crowd — and, just as important, by silence.

Not that there is much silence to be had in St Mary’s Cathedral. In spite of the ethereal music and the other-worldly surroundings, the sound of the city seeps in to fill the gaps. A chorus of car horns does rather the spell of the evangelist quartet. So too did the collapse of one of the quartet, soprano Susannah Lawergren, half way through the performance. All is well, and she was helped off stage, leaving her colleagues to finish the work as a trio, and leaving most of the audience, who couldn’t see the performers, wondering what on earth was going on.

Notwithstanding these distractions, however, Passio is a mesmerising work and this was a mesmerising performance which felt much shorter than its 75 minute duration. The Evangelist Quartet — the Song Company’s Richard Black, Mark Donnelly, Anna Fraser and Susannah Lawergren —  carried the narrative, along with the quartet of orchestral instruments and the organ. After a tentative start, they tuned in to the tintinnabuli with an impressive consistency. Nothing stuck out. Nothing jarred. It was just enduringly fascinating.

In the role of Jesus, Andrew O’Connor, the Song Company’s resident bass, had few words, but the scoring and his rich, even tone made every line count. As Pilate, Richard Butler, who is Principal Lay Clerk at St Mary’s, cut through the crowd with his crisp, acid responses. Meanwhile, the contrast between the well-drilled ranks of the Choir of St Mary’s and the blood-curdling sound they made as they yelled “Crucify” was one of the dramatic coups of the evening. That, and the quartet’s — or trio, by this time — lapse into unison after the death of Jesus.

The four members of the Omega Ensemble found their way through the labyrinthine score with unfussy style, and David Drury drew power and glory and strangeness out of the cathedral’s organ

Congratulations are due to everyone who made this happen, because it couldn’t have been easy. A late date change, co-ordinating three different ensembles and fitting into the schedule of a working place of worship, not to mention the challenge of the music, and the magical but treacherous acoustic, which amplified every hit and every miss. Congratulations in particular on the work of the Song Company’s artistic director, Antony Pitts, not just in holding the performance together but also for his specialist knowledge, intricate understanding and commitment to bringing this work to Australia.