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2 September 2008

A decade of Halcyon

now they are 10

Andrew Ford at about the age of 10. Image: Andrew Ford at about the age of 10.  

Attached to the door of my fridge is the flyer for the next Halcyon concert. It features the faces of 24 ten-year-old children, one of whom is me and one of whom – very obviously – is Claire Edwardes (does she have a slowly aging portrait of herself in an attic?). More importantly, one of the children is Alison Morgan and another is Jenny Duck-Chong. On Saturday 6 September, in the Great Hall of Sydney Church of England Girl's Grammar School, Halcyon is celebrating its origins with a partial recreation of its first concert.

For anyone who was at the original gig, the memory won't need much jogging. The concert contained four 20th-century classics: two early French works (a Ravel masterpiece, the Trois poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé and the admittedly minor but gorgeous Quatre poèmes hindous by Ravel's pupil Maurice Delage) and two mid-century works from America. These were the celebrated Folk Songs by the Italian composer Luciano Berio, written for his then wife Cathy Berberian and the Juilliard Ensemble, and George Crumb's song cycle to words by Federico Garcia Lorca, Ancient Voices of Children.

Back in February 1998, the concert was given by the Sydney Alpha Ensemble under Antony Walker, and two singers were mezzo-soprano Jenny Duck-Chong (Ravel and Berio) and soprano Alison Morgan (Delage and Crumb). Such was the buzz that summer night ten years ago that Duck-Chong and Morgan decided to keep going – even as the Sydney Alpha Ensemble, abandoned by its main funding body, gave up the ghost. Calling themselves Halcyon and gathering around them, from project to project, instrumentalists and other singers, they have ever since provided one of the few consistently bright spots on Sydney's fairly dire new music scene. (Why is it that Australia's largest city, has become virtually a new-music desert? Another blog entry, perhaps?)

The Halcyon pair has achieved several things in its decade of existence, besides giving musical adventure a good name. If new music is rare in Sydney, song recitals are just as unusual. That Halcyon provides both, makes Duck-Chong and Morgan doubly admirable. These two women have also – especially in collaboration with Ensemble Offspring – launched the careers of not a few composers. In particular, I'm thinking of Rosalind Page, whose Halcyon-commissioned Sonetos del Amor Oscuro (another Lorca cycle) won the Paul Lowin song-cycle prize in 2006. There's an all-Page CD on the way.

Halcyon's future contains a lot more commissions. Most significant among these is an eagerly awaited new song cycle from Nigel Butterley, Orphei Mysteria, which will be heard as early as October 17.

But first there's the birthday concert. Once again Jenny Duck-Chong will sing Berio's Folk Songs and Alison Morgan Crumb's Ancient Voices of Children. Once again, Antony Walker will be conducting, and some members of the Sydney Alpha Ensemble will be playing. And Jane Sheldon – who as a 15 year-old school girl, sang the child's role in the Crumb – will be returning, a little longer in the tooth, to sing that part again. I wonder if she's on the flyer? I'm the one in the red pullover, by the way.

Subjects discussed by this article:

Andrew Ford is a composer and broadcaster. He is composing Willow Songs, settings of poems by Anne Stevenson, for Halcyon in 2009.


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Wet and Windy in Darlinghurst

For the uninitiated, finding the great hall at SCEGGS can be a challenge. I at least knew where the school was, having recently travelled to a meeting on the 389 bus. Anyhow, at the main gate we braved a flush of exiting women, cheerful from reunion wine, to be advised the "church" around the corner was what we were after. The security man on the venue door was a reminder it was, after all, Darlinghurst (reinforced after the concert when we had to swerve to avoid a cat in a hat, high heels and suspenders who looked like an escapee from a Rocky Horror Show set. But I digress).

Halcyon is indeed something special, and so was their casserole concert of vocal expression. Although not initially convinced, on reflection the program was well structured, starting with the intensity of sound in Kerry Andrew's Luna-cy, enough to awake the audience from their reveries about whether they should have snuck into the reserved seats near the two gas heaters. Then a couple of Andrew's Fruit Songs restored the balance. The program built from there: I was waiting, particularly, for Katy Abbott's Night Thoughts. This we had heard last at the first Sydney outing of the whole work, It is Just the Heart, with Alison Morgan and the excellent Melbourne based Flinders String Quartet. Saturday’s performance lacked the refinement of the Star Clusters concert, although this should not be laid at Jane Sheldon’s door. We had not heard her before, and will be happy to hear her again.

Likewise we had not heard of Edison Denisov before. Archipel des Songes was an emotional and sensual piece, performed with great skill and lovely interplay between voice, flute and percussion. (Claire Edwardes was in great form, and looked magnificent. Motherhood clearly agrees with her.)

The best came after interval, although to my taste I would have preferred to finish with the George Crumb, rather than the Berio. But you would not wish to leave the audience with the sight of singers with their heads in the piano and their backsides presenting to the audience. The Crumb had all the unusual elements you might expect from this composer, with the possible exception of mood lighting and masks, but a number of the players had red accessories (including red socks on one percussionist) to complement Alison Morgan’s red velvet dress. Was this chance, planned or a note in the score?

Had to miss the birthday cake and bubbly, unfortunately. But had we stayed we would have missed Darlinghurst’s lone transvestite pedestrian. Truly from the sublime to the ridiculous.