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25 September 2008

Halcyon: Celebrating 10 Years

Sydney // NSW // 06.09.2008

Alison Morgan and Jenny Duck-Chong Image: Alison Morgan and Jenny Duck-Chong  

There was a wonderful sense, throughout this concert, of being part of an event that was more than just the sum of its songs. It might also have had something to do with the shared experience of braving a particularly miserable, blustery Sydney evening, swept along streets littered with the broken tangle of abandoned umbrellas, or the rich history infusing the sandstone and timber hall.

The night featured works drawn from the ten years Halcyon have been making music, a showcase sampling of program highlights leading to the two focal pieces of George Crumb's Ancient Voices of Children and Luciano Berio's Folk Songs. Kerry Andrews's luna-cy was an odd opening. Its gasping breaths, siren calls, honking geese and bellbird whistles were, at the very least, illustrative of the fact that vocalists Alison Morgan, Jenny Duck-Chong and Jane Sheldon weren't afraid to veer off the well-worn track.

Next 'plum' and 'cherry' from fruit songs by Andrews took a folkloric turn, Janet Agostino's guitar playfully leading Duck-Chong's voice through. 'Promises Like Pie Crust' and 'Echo' from Claire Jordan's Memory were a stronger follow-up, the former rich and enunciative, though wavering, the latter more dramatic, weightier, weaving in with Sally Whitwell's piano. An extract from Damien Ricketson's Seven Relics maintained this tone and anchored the opening set. It was a challenging piece, with Julia Ryder's cello and Morgan's voice building up a fragile tension that drew you closer to the edge of your seat, an understated drama underlying the sombre mood.

Sheldon's clear, bright voice was well suited to Katy Abbott's 'Night Thoughts' from It Is Just the Heart, soaring beautifully over the eerie, discordant string quartet scrapings. The delicate forest footsteps and intricate, hushed beauty of 'Miranda's Lament' from Kaija Saariaho's The Tempest Songbook drew another wonderful performance from Duck-Chong, before Morgan closed the opening half pleasingly with Edison Denisov's Archipel Des Songes, a setting of sensual poems by Jean Maheu, built with a weaving, dreamlike tenderness.

The main frustration with the opening set was the 'snippet' aspect – a tasting plate of pieces allowed for a variety of flavours, but kept us from experiencing anything meaty enough to really get our teeth into. The breaks between pieces and stage rearrangements broke the spell and it was difficult to get as swept away in the music as the performers all had the ability to help us do. A couple of pieces also seemed a little under-rehearsed, but it might have been that by the time the performers had warmed into a piece, it was wrapping up.

This is perhaps the nature of a showcase performance, yet it was mere moments into George Crumb's astonishing Ancient Voices of Children before such concerns were cast aside, replaced with the dramatically reverberant prepared piano and nonsensical vocal skittering. In this cycle of songs to texts by the Spanish poet and dramatist Federico Garcia Lorca, the haunting imagery of the poetry is captured in spirit through Crumb's unusual sense of tension and broken ideas, drawn back together in unexpected forms.

Each instrument followed highly individual paths, the prepared piano sounding almost like a double bass at times, the harp rasping away and the clarinet mesmerising like a snake charmer. This could well be a terrifying piece for a singer, asking for a courageous leap into the passionate heart of an aching lament, but Alison Morgan seemed to approach it with relish. Bowing over and singing into the piano, we could see the giant score from which she was singing reflected in the underside of the piano lid.

The urgent, troubled whispering was menacing, venomous at times, while the slowly building drums beat with a voice as ancient as that evoked by the piece's title. The measured, mournful tone gave way to a passionate Spanish flavour melding with a baroque drama, the weepy mandolin slides of Stephen Lalor gliding wonderfully over the bright percussion. The deeper into the piece we travelled, the more it opened out and created space for that rarest of beauties, the profound silence. These silences rendered the ensuing tumult all the more frightening, the clanging bells and smashed gong careering into the two lost voices passing through the piano. The torrential rain hammering down outside, and lashing the stained glass windows, was a fitting companion to the draining climax, a fabulous performance where all elements came together and seemed to wring out every drop of meaning this piece had to offer.

After a performance like this, Luciano Berio's Folk Songs could only suffer in comparison. I'm not sure why the two were programmed in this order, but after Crumb's magical work, Berio's piece came across as a little too light and short on substance. Jenny Duck-Chong worked well with the material, and drew nicely upon her range, yet it was difficult to engage with. The work came to life once the Sicilian song arrived, followed by the cheeky Italian songs and the sad Sardinian lament. The final song was an Azerbaijani love song that finished the night on a jaunty, rousing upswing, bringing to a close a long, often rewarding evening that fittingly marked Halcyon's first 10 years in existence – hopefully merely the beginning of a long and rich existence.

Benjamin Millar is a Sydney-based journalist, writer and photographer. He works as a journalist and editor for a stable of community newspapers.


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