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16 July 2009

MODART and 25 years of The Song Company

The Song Company, from the left: Clive, Richard, Anna, Mark, Lauren, Roland and Ruth Image: The Song Company, from the left: Clive, Richard, Anna, Mark, Lauren, Roland and Ruth  

The Song Company is a rare species: a small, full-time music ensemble. Remarkably, it has managed to survive, in Australia, for 25 years. And even more remarkable is that its success is founded on the exploration of unfamiliar musical territories.

Perhaps this last point should be less surprising than it is. But the standard survival formula for Australian ensembles has been to tempt audiences with the classic greats, occasionally slipping in a new or unusual work, like a vitamin pill in a meat pie.

With creative programming and diligent research, The Song Company has revived dozens of neglected works, and has been responsible for the conception of many others. Over the last 25 years, Australian audiences 'have heard works they’d otherwise never have had the opportunity to hear', says Clive Birch, who has worked with the ensemble for almost 20 years.

Clive joined the ensemble as a full-time singer at almost the same time as its current artistic director, Roland Peelman. He has seen the ensemble expand its musical horizons, develop an audience base that supports several regional tours each year, and build an international reputation.

Soprano Ruth McCall is the ensemble’s second-longest serving singer. She joined in 1996, soon after completing a music degree at the Elder Conservatorium of Music.

Roland Peelman of The Song Company

One of The Song Company’s projects that has stood out for Ruth has been the ensemble’s Tenebrae trilogy. The trilogy, which began in 2005 and was completed earlier this year, presented the music of 17th-century composer Gesualdo alongside modern dances developed by leading Australian choreographers. This music also brings back fond memories: the ensemble was performing Gesualdo’s music on a tour to Adelaide, where Ruth auditioned.

Days later she moved to Sydney to take up her new position.

Although it is not possible to describe a ‘typical’ Song Company concert, the exploration of multiple art-forms is a distinctive feature. And these are the kind of concerts that Ruth enjoys most. 'It makes for a double experience and gives people twice as much to talk about', she says.

For The Song Company, performances are not an act of mere preservation. As the singers breathe life into music of the distant past, thoughtful programming and creative presentation reveals new perspectives, and elucidates the music’s ongoing relevance to modern society.

With a diversity of repertoire spanning more than ten centuries, The Song Company has worked closely with living composers in Australia and overseas. The relationships it has established are manifested in a multitude of new works for vocal ensemble. 'I love that I never know when I might be a part of a really great new work… the kind of work that will have a life beyond the composer', says Ruth.

The Song Company

But not only has The Song Company played a key role in the creation of new pieces; it has also nurtured the development of new composers. In collaboration with the Australian Music Centre and ABC Classic FM, The Song Company runs a biennial composer development program called MODART. The 2009 manifestation of the program will culminate in two concerts in Melbourne and Sydney on the 18th and 19th of July respectively.

Composers who are accepted into the program have the opportunity to develop a piece under the guidance of artistic director Roland Peelman, and attend fortnight-long workshops with the ensemble at two stages during the work’s development. 

Even after 20 years with the ensemble, Clive Birch still finds 'every day a new adventure', and the process of working with young composers particularly fascinating. During his studies at the National Opera Studio and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in the UK, Clive saw himself heading towards a career in opera, but now he wouldn’t go back for anything. 'Working with The Song Company,' he says, 'has been an opportunity for “the most diverse singing career in the world'.

To celebrate its 25th anniversary, The Song Company will present a celebration concert next month – Sound & Silence – in Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra and in regional NSW. The Song Company’s diverse talents will be on full display as it performs works by the iconic John Cage, by living, Australian composers Liza Lim and Michael Smetanin, along with a collection of early madrigals.

Performance details

MODART Melbourne
4pm Saturday 18 July 2009
Salon, Melbourne Recital Centre, Cnr Southbank Boulevard and Sturt Street, Southbank
$20 adult, $12 concession
Tickets: www.melbournerecital.com.au or at the door

4pm Sunday 19 July 2009
Italian Forum Cultural Centre, Suite 51, Level 2 - 23 Norton Street, Leichhardt
$25 adult, $15 concession
Tickets: available at the door
Information: (02) 8272 9500

Sound and Silence tour
9-30 August
11 concerts around NSW
Info: www.songcompany.com.au/concerts/sound-and-silence/

Further links

Australian Music Centre - MODART09 (www.australianmusiccentre.com.au/about/modart)
The Modart Diaries, part I - Lachlan Skipworth
The Modart Diaries, part II - Amy Bastow
The Modart Diaries, part III - Melody Eötvös
The Modart Diaries, part IV - Rae Howell
The Modart Diaries, part V - Mark Oliveiro
The Modart Diaries, part VI - Alexandra Hay
The Modart Diaries, part VII - Anthony Dunstan
The Song Company (www.songcompany.com.au)

Subjects discussed by this article:

Rhiannon Cook has been involved in the new music community as a composer, teacher and writer. Now working in social policy, she continues to contribute as a freelance writer.


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