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18 December 2009

2009: a year of choral music

'Embrace anything and everything that can be thrown at you'


Young participants at the Moorambilla Festival in Coonamble, NSW, which attracts community choirs from across the state Image: Young participants at the Moorambilla Festival in Coonamble, NSW, which attracts community choirs from across the state  

For choral music, 2009 has been an encouraging year. Numerous new works - of all shapes and sizes, from spiritual choral works involving choirs and orchestras, to simple a cappella miniatures - have seen the light of day, and hopefully these are just the first performances of these compositions, with many more to come. Commissioning new work for a choir is an art in itself, and an unexpected result is not necessarily a bad result, as our short interviews with five conductors reveal.

The responsibility for a new Australian repertory for choirs and vocal ensembles rests on the shoulders of choirs and vocal ensembles and their musical directors. And they are not doing a bad job, judging by the concert year 2009. A quick look at programs shows that Australian works are not just occasional appetisers to start a concert, but that a major new work can still be, and often is, a highlight of the concert season.

In 2009, we heard whole concerts, festivals and concert tours of predominantly Australian repertory from the likes of The Song Company, The Australian Voices and the Sydney Chamber Choir. There were big new works premiered by the Melbourne Symphony Chorus, Sydney Philharmonia Choirs, Brisbane Chamber Choir and the Schola of the Cathedral of St Stephen, smaller-scale pieces were given first performances across the entire concert season by the Adelaide Chamber Singers, while elsewhere we heard new commissions for a Renaissance-style vocal ensemble (Ensemble Gombert), large-scale community choral projects, choral festivals and workshops with young composers... All this at a time when professional orchestras struggle '...we don't quite believe you can come to grips with music of the past if you don't grapple with the music of the present...'to convince their marketing departments of the need to keep creating new work as well as maintaining the existing contemporary repertory.

The chorus master of the Melbourne Symphony Chorus, Jonathan Grieves-Smith explains his attitude to commissioning:

'We commission because we don't quite believe you can come to grips with music of the past if you don't grapple with the music of the present; we commission because we have a responsibility to composers, to foster a dialogue between composers, performers and audience. And we commission for its own sake - because it is amazing, thrilling and often quite surprising.'

It sounds simple when you put it like that. A long-term proponent of Australian work in concerts and workshops, conductor Faye Dumont, agrees:

'I have a strong commitment to suiting Australian pieces to programs. I am proud of being able to present quality Australian-composed music and rejoice in the creativity of our original musical minds. From a practical point of view, I care greatly that the person respects the voice - range, tessitura, weight of work and a sense of voice-leading. But I always seek original thinking that has a resonance as Australian.'

And an original mind is indeed what interests those who commission new work. Quite often the composer in question also has a track record of working with choirs - but not always. The Song Company and their artistic director Roland Peelman work with several composers each year, and what they look for, first and foremost, is a composer with a personal voice.

'I'm much more interested in an original thinker. Composers with a too obvious connection with traditional choral writing generally don't "get" the possibilities of The Song Company, and either don't push us far enough (resulting in something mediocre or boring) or imagine that we can sound like a traditional choir. Which we don't', says Peelman.

Conductor, educator and composer Carl Crossin and his Adelaide Chamber Singers have '...there is certainly less fear of "new" music in our choirs than there used to be'steadily increased their commissions and performances of new Australian music. In this year's subscription concert series, there were three self-funded commissions.

'I believe it is vital for Australian choirs of all types - from primary school to professional - to commission and to continue performing new Australian compositions: short and long, unaccompanied and with ensembles or orchestras. The situation has improved dramatically in the last fifteen to twenty years and there is certainly less fear of "new" music in our choirs than there used to be. I also believe that new music, Australian or not, needs to be programmed along with the mainstays of the repertoire. New music should not be ghettoised. New works by Australian composers are additions to an already rich repertory that ranges from Bach or Byrd or Josquin or Perotin, or whenever, to now! Nor should we be too concerned with whether audiences like every new piece we do. Getting a strong response (positive or negative) from an audience is a good thing.'

Jonathan Grieves-Smith stresses the importance for chorus directors to keep looking for new composer voices and new material.

'The process starts with endless curiosity - what is being written out there? Who is writing what, and why? What anniversary or subject might be suitable or challenging for which composer? Chorus directors need to spend hours - yes, I mean hours - of each week singing through new scores, listening, reading, researching! Composers for potential commissioning don't have to be established, or established choral composers, but they do need to be haunted, joyful, fascinated, intense; they need to have something to say and know how to say it. Or at least have the curiosity and wit to find out how to say it.'

Not all commissions are overnight successes. According to Peelman, part of the responsibility lies with the director.

'All kinds of things can go wrong, but the worst is ending up with a piece that is under-developed or not thought through. It's my job to make sure that doesn't happen', he points out.

Grieves-Smith sees less successful projects as something that can produce a result down the track.

'We are dealing with a process and a set of imponderables; there may be three minutes of genius and the rest rather awkward, but those three minutes may eventually, thanks to this '...they don't always end up producing the piece that you wanted or had in mind - and that's terrific!'opportunity, become 20 minutes of extraordinary genius further down the track - think Beethoven's Choral Fantasy through to his Ninth Symphony. This is a positive part of our curatorship of composers. We must work with composers, talk to them about who we are and about what we have in mind, what works and what might not. And remember, they are writing the piece, not you, and they don't always end up producing the piece that you wanted or had in mind - and that's terrific!'

A composer's involvement with a choir will vary, and that is how it should be, says Hildy Essex, whose Australian Contemporary Chorale has given more than 50 world premieres of new Australian choral works since 2001.

'I'm happy for the composer to decide on their level of involvement. It's a very personal thing for composers - some want to be very hands-on, some are very happy for the artists to do the work as they see fit. I prefer it if a composer comes in maybe about two thirds of the way through the rehearsal process, so we can just make sure we're on the right track. I don't find it helpful for a composer to be there early on because they can often get very nervous about the state of the piece at that stage!' says Essex.

Roland Peelman's approach depends on how experienced the composer is and how well he or she knows the ensemble:

'It varies from composer to composer. I like a lot of interaction but I understand that some would rather go away and work it out by themselves. With experienced composers, I am happy to respect that if I am confident he or she will come up with the goods. If I am not confident or if the composer is not so experienced or doesn't know us so well, I will push for workshops, seeing sketches etc. and I will invest time in developing a personal and trusting relationship!'

Carl Crossin appreciates input from the composer in the early stages and towards the end of the rehearsal process. He also stresses the importance for the composer to know the ensemble '...the important thing is that they are writing for living, breathing individuals...'well.

'I like to communicate with composers about their work in the early stages, and point out the strengths and weaknesses of the ensemble for whom they are writing. Some people might see that as limiting to their creativity but the important thing is that they are writing for living, breathing individuals who, in addition to the idiosyncratic qualities of the voice, have strengths and weaknesses. Ultimately, if the performers can't convey the composer's intention to the audience, everyone loses. The "message" can't ignore the "medium" or the "recipient". Stravinsky once said, "My freedom will be so much the greater and more meaningful the more narrowly I limit my field of action and the more I surround myself with obstacles."'

'I would also rather work with a composer who is an original thinker. It's not necessary that a composer has written for voices before but it is essential that they have an affinity for the three elements of vocal and choral music - the voice, text and choral sonority', he says.

Faye Dumont believes in workshopping new works - this doesn't necessarily mean that the piece will be altered:

'I like to have the music early enough to be able to workshop and offer reflection - the person does not necessarily have to be present for that. Sometimes the composer can be present and choristers always enjoy the interaction. Sometimes it is just for enjoyment of the learning process without there being any alteration.'

Amongst her most successful premieres, she remembers a work by Julian Yu, commissioned by the Melbourne Chamber Choir and the Faye Dumont Singers, and another one by Wendy Morrissey:

'Ode to a Plum Blossom by Julian Yu was very interesting to perform - the Chinese was challenging, and there was a colourful chamber ensemble involved - an electrifying piece. And Morrissey's Myths of Cloud was a satisfying piece to perform and to listen to, with elegant writing for voices', she says.

From the extensive list of The Song Company commissions, Roland Peelman picks two examples.

'Raffaele Marcellino's O Antiphons and Michael Smetanin's Due Pezzi per Niente. In both cases we had workshops with the composer, spread out over several months - or years in Rae's case. The works captured specific skills of the ensemble imaginatively, i.e. pushed them further in a particular direction. The works received initial premieres in a good, congenial context, as well as many additional performances, so they were fine-tuned through reworking, re-rehearsing and recording them. I hope these pieces will have a long lifespan beyond The Song Company. Other successful commissions include Andrew Schultz's Wild flower and Ross Edwards's Southern Cross Chants in that both are proving to be very useful pieces that will certainly have a long lifespan.

Successful commissions for Adelaide Chamber Singers include Graeme Koehne's Mass for the Middle Aged, to poems by Peter Goldsworthy, commissioned in 1999 for a tour of the UK with financial assistance from the Australia Council, and Andrew Ford's An die Musik, commissioned in 2005 for the choir's 20th anniversary concert.

'Both were well written for voices and well written for chamber choir - they are not necessarily the same thing', Carl Crossin points out. 'Both works exhibited an affinity for the text and a good understanding of what voices can and can't do in terms of the relationships between text, vowel colour, range and expressive quality. Both works also display a good grasp of choral sonority. In some ways, the Ford is the more difficult of the two, but both are rewarding to perform. Because of its pitching and harmonic challenges, An die Musik needed considerable work on some sections in isolation before we were able to contextualise everything in the overall shape of the work. The Koehne was readable from start to finish - this means that, for example, Ford's work was prepared in a more jigsaw-like fashion, whereas the Koehne was prepared with a clear concept of the overall right from the start, and then "worked" in ever-increasing layers of detail and refinement.'

Jonathan Grieves-Smith rates works by Paul Stanhope, Brett Dean and Ross Edwards as some of his choir's most successful projects. The first two are a result of international co-commissions that have gradually become a regular feature of the programs of the Melbourne Symphony Chorus: about every other year, the choir commissions an Australian work with international partners, and, in the intervening years, performs a new work by a foreign composer, again with international partners.

'We need Australian music heard internationally and performed by international choirs of the highest calibre; and we need international composers to understand the vision and quality of what is happening in some areas of Australia', he says.

Most recent of these works is Paul Stanhope's Exile Lamentations - a major new co-commission with London's Elysian Singers and the Sydney Chamber Choir. A few years earlier, Brett Dean's Katz und Spatz was commissioned together with the Swedish Radio Choir. The next international project will feature a new work by the English Gabriel Jackson, commissioned by the Melbourne Symphony Chorus, Nederlands Kamerkoor and St Jacob's Chamber Choir (Sweden) for 2011.

'Brett Dean's Katz und Spatz was fantastically rewarding. Brett didn't hold back and the challenges issued were stringent even for the great Swedes.... it took us a long time to come to terms with its challenges, but over a year we performed it across the country about seven or eight times, and it became deeply rewarding musically and emotionally. Ross 'Choral directors need to avoid the feeling they are choral programmers with all the related associations, historical burdens, parochialism...'Edwards's Mountain Chant, co-commissioned with Cantillation, has now received many performances across the world. And in 2009 Paul Stanhope's outstanding Exile Lamentations, commissioned with the Sydney Chamber Choir and London's Elysian Singers, has proved to be one of the strongest contemporary choral pieces I've heard anywhere.'

Grieves-Smith encourages choral directors to think big and to believe in their vision.

'Choral directors need to avoid the feeling they are choral programmers with all the related associations, historical burdens, parochialism... they are artists and therefore must look outwards, they are dealing with artistic programming which is about embracing anything and everything that can be thrown at you, and are charged with developing something of profound truth and resonance. No world premiere can be token - never should it be done for friendship's sake (a thousand terrible tales and broken friendships lie here) - it has to be part of a vision. Programming is about vision, about leadership, about integrity. It is about believing utterly in a combination of music, of never resting until a combination is right. It is new music and old - and old must ever be new - it is music from far away and from next door. It is about being uncomfortable, it is about the vicious and the tender, it is about pain and the shocking, it is always about truth. This is the starting point for programming: tell stories, tell extraordinary stories.'

Further links

AMC Calendar - performances of Australian music through 2009
Melbourne Symphony Chorus (http://www.mso.com.au/cpa/htm/htm_article.asp?page_id=154)
Faye Dumont Singers (http://fdsingers.com/)
The Song Company (http://www.songcompany.com.au/)
Australian Contemporary Chorale (http://www.auschorale.org.au)
Adelaide Chamber Singers (www.adelaidechambersingers.com/)


Subjects discussed by this article:


Anni Heino is a Finnish-born journalist and musicologist, and editor of Resonate magazine.


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