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24 October 2008

Halcyon and B3

Sydney // NSW // 17.10.2008

Nigel Butterley Image: Nigel Butterley  
© Bridget Elliot

I'd hazard a guess it was sheer coincidence that the three composer names in Halcyon's B3 program all started with the letter B. But we did have other, common denominators to make for a well-planned evening of new music for an ensemble with solo voices. There were three composers, three pieces, and a generally similar kind of attitude towards composing music based on a text. Gavin Bryars, George Benjamin and Nigel Butterley seem to belong to the school of composing that treats with respect both the original poem and the human voice. Their writing, in these pieces at least, puts emphasis on melody and the natural flow of the poem. There is hardly any fragmenting of the text, no scattering of random syllables at extreme ends of the singers' vocal ranges, no extended vocal techniques, no screeching, screaming, shouting or whispering. And yet, there was enough ground left for a surprisingly varied, entertaining concert.

It would be misleading to define Nigel Butterley (b. 1935) as predominantly a composer of vocal music. It is quite clear, however, that text setting and the female voice are important elements of his musical personality. The new work, Orphei Mysteria, commissioned by the 10-year-old Halcyon, is scored for seven players (a string trio, guitar and woodwinds) and two singers. The solo part is written for Jenny Duck-Chong's mezzo-soprano, while Alison Morgan took her place as part of the ensemble. The text by Patricia Excell is inspired by the Greek myth of Orpheus - a story that has fascinated composers for centuries. Excell's text, however, does not tell the usual story of Orpheus's descent to the Underworld but instead focuses on his music making. (Orpheus the musician was such a master in the art of the lyre that even inanimate objects had to dance - and after his head had been cut off, it continued to sing while floating on the waves.)

Butterley's text setting has four poems - 'The Head of Orpheus', 'The Lemon Tree', 'The Lyre of Orpheus' and 'The Song of Orpheus' - framed by a prologue and an epilogue. The structure is symmetrical, as 'The Lemon Tree' is heard in two parts, before and after the centrepiece poem. In the prologue, the two female voices blend together enchantingly, with woodwinds joining in gradually. The plucking of the lyre finds its equivalent in the guitar writing, and the lemons dancing in the tree are reflected in dancelike, playful figures. There is some beautiful counterpoint between the solo voice and the guitar-lyre and a gorgeous passage where the two singers' voices blend together in something like organum. The piece ends with their voices fading into the distance as Morgan and Duck-Chong slowly walk away from the stage.

Word painting, which had its heyday a good four hundred years ago, is not always encountered in the vocal music of our time, but it was a common element in Halcyon's program. When Butterley composes the words 'darkness deeper than night', the music is low and mellow, and when 'tree and sky are still', so is the vocal line. George Benjamin's Upon Silence (1991) sets Yeats's poem Long-Legged Fly, and you can guess where the word painting comes in.

Benjamin is one of a handful of British (male) composers - along with Thomas Adès and Oliver Knussen - to have been labelled 'the new Britten' in his youth. Since his child prodigy days and studies (in Paris as one of Messiaen's last students and Cambridge under Alexander Goehr), Benjamin has directed a lot of his attention to teaching and conducting and is particularly well-known for his work with the London Sinfonietta. Consequently, his list of compositions has grown only slowly. Before a 2006 chamber opera (for two female voices and Ensemble Modern), there were only a handful of vocal pieces, and one of these is Upon Silence (1991). The work was originally composed for soprano and five viols. The version for modern string instruments, heard in the Halcyon concert, retains a fair bit of the sonority of the viol that so fascinated the composer in the late 1980s.

Jenny Duck-Chong visibly enjoyed the formidable challenge that the work offers to its mezzo-soprano soloist. The poem is divided into three verses, each about a historical character during a quiet moment of contemplation. These little portraits of Caesar, Helen of Troy and the painter Michelangelo are set to music in a relatively straightforward, syllabic way, and separated by a contrasting, extremely melismatic chorus ('Like a long-legged fly upon the stream/ his mind moves upon silence'). The task of the soloist, then, is to conjure up a state of quiet meditation while simultaneously showing the firefly-like quickness of the meditating person's busy mind. The voice is an integral part of the ensemble here, and the timbral element is one of the unique aspects of the work, the buzzing sul ponticello effects conjuring not only the fly but the five original viols.

There is a certain low-key quality, even timidity, to Halcyon's performance that favours some music and is not as flattering for other works. The 'house style' has presumably developed over the ensemble's ten years of existence, and the distinct upside of it is the balance of the instruments - the singers never overpower the rest of the ensemble, and the instruments never drown out the vocal parts. All the same, I felt that, especially in Gavin Bryars's The Adnan Songbook, there was some passion and energy lacking, which made this slightly overlong and rambling work seem even longer and more rambling. The love poems by the Lebanese-French poet Etel Adnan are a mixture of concrete, everyday imagery and sensual love poetry and, if simply read out, the text evokes a fast-changing scenery and a capricious tempo. Bryars's word-setting seems to have robbed the poems of their lightness, and the eight songs now have a surprisingly similar mood and tempo. The work was clearly written for a soloist, with the ensemble in an accompanying role, and the contrast between this and Butterley's and Benjamin's works - richer in timbres, ensemble playing and dramatic contrasts - was not very favourable. Alison Morgan's soprano voice has a simple beauty displayed to advantage by floating melodic lines such as these, but this time her diction was not up to the task, and without the words, the work lost a lot of its charm.

Due to the busy period of the concert season, there was too much to choose from for Sydney-based concert-goers on this particular evening. There is surely not enough audience for (at least) four new music concerts, and consequently there were lots and lots of empty seats in Verbrugghen Hall. This was a shame, as Halcyon's well-designed program introduced to its audience a very interesting combination of works. Elliott Gyger's program notes deserve special mention for drawing connections and giving a handsome amount of background information.

Performance details

Halcyon: B3
Music by Gavin Bryars, George Benjamin and Nigel Butterley
Conducted by Mark Shiell
Friday 17 October 2008
Verbrugghen Hall, Sydney Conservatorium of Music, Sydney, NSW

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Anni Heino is a Finnish-born journalist and musicologist, and the acting editor of resonate magazine.


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