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10 September 2009

The Australian Voices - Sounds of Perfection

Brisbane // QLD // 27.08.09

Stephen Leek in action Image: Stephen Leek in action  
© www.stephenleek.com

After being at the helm of The Australian Voices since its inception in 1993, Stephen Leek is stepping down as Artistic Director to pursue other avenues for his art. TAV, this hodgepodge of young people from various career paths, all with a passion for singing, celebrated the many years of direction and mentorship that Stephen has given them and their predecessors. 'Sounds of Perfection' (a hyperbolic title, surely?) contained much to take in, and much to dwell upon. Despite being a retrospective of sorts, it was in many ways quite a forward-looking program, with a healthy smattering of new repertoire (including several Australian and world premieres). This concert presented a view of Australian choral music that was both inspiring - because of its beauty and musicianship - and somewhat troubling - because of a certain homogeneity and conservatism.

Leek's 2000 composition, Coonawrin (from Glasshouses), provided a dynamic opener for the evening's proceedings. The rhythmic precision with which the choir attacked the consonant sounds in the main theme 'See the ocean rising, Coonawrin', thoroughly grabbed the audience's attention. To contrast, the contemplative, hymn-like final section of the piece let the audience down slowly, buoyed by the delicately executed piano-pianissimo harmonies.

The Australian premiere of Leek's Four Sacred Songs was intriguing, beautiful, and boring, all in one. The structure of the work, coupling the traditional texts for 'Kyrie,' 'Sanctus,' 'Agnus Dei,' and 'Lux Aeterna,' with lyric poetry by Michael Doneman, was a clever device that created the feeling of a contemporary realm emerging from an 'archaic' background. While the others seemed to me to lack clearly individual ideas, 'Lux Aeterna' was a standout. Tastefully utilising contemporary techniques, the echo effect of stretto canons at unison (a kind of micropolyphony), glissandi, and the physical movement of many of the female voices around the stage, produced a compelling and eerie swirl of quasi-religiosity.

The next two pieces were world premieres by two Australian composers, one emerging, one relatively established. Requiescat, composed by Queensland Conservatorium student and current TAV member Jaret Choolun, showed a deft control of contrapuntal techniques, and an effective use of unprepared modulation and abruptly strong cadences. Up against Leek's works, it no doubt lacked polish, but the volatility of a new voice was interesting to hear. It also showed a tasteful sensibility that was entirely lacking in the other premiere, Matthew Orlovich's Butterflies Dance. Depending on one's mood or disposition, this piece could either come across as delightfully naive, or grotesquely puerile. The sound painting of the oh so fluttering butterfli-fli-fli-flies, the repetitive rhythms and insistent major tonality, and the predictable turn to minor tonality at the entrance of the theme of death in the last few lines, made one lose oneself in a world of dubious innocence.

After a brief detour into the world of Gerard Brophy's Capricornia - an impressive piece, but one which didn't stand out all that much in the context of the night - the concert returned to Leek. This time, however, TAV called in the cavalry. And quite a contingent it was! 50 or more students of Eltham East Primary School (a suburb of Melbourne), aged eight to 12, arose from the front rows of the hall to take the stage or the boxes on either side of the stalls. Kondalilla (from Great Southern Spirits), introduced as 'one of our most popular pieces', proved to be just that. The audience all marveled at the antiphonal division of singers, a surround-sound chorus of woodland sprites mimicking birdsong, making breathy noises, sibilant sounds and, well, you get the picture. Completed by consistent drones, this was Leek's romanticised Australiana in full swing, and it drew quite rapturous applause from the audience.

TAV then stepped down to allow the kids the spotlight. They performed two pieces by Leek (the texts were co-written by the students and their teacher): Eltham 1800, depicting the peaceful leafy suburb of 200 years ago, and Eltham 2000, a bustling modernity. This was followed by a quaint rendition of Handel's 'Art Thou Troubled.' But the true beauty of the Eltham East students didn't fully shine until they performed two pieces by Tobin Stokes, Koosen and Vox Tronica (for which the children also co-wrote the texts). In these the students enthusiastically performed techniques such as glissandi and spoken word, and beat-boxed a rather complex groove, amply handling all the interlocking ostinatos (complete with rhythmic anticipation and superimposed triplet figures). It was hard to believe that these kids were just your 'regular' state school students. One thing to praise TAV and Stephen Leek for is their commitment to this kind of education-oriented activity. We also certainly need more schools like Eltham East.

After intermission, the Leek retrospective continued. However, despite the technical mastery of the opening three pieces that form My Country, it was the following three that truly captivated the listener. Between the Horizons, Red Earth, and Wirindji (from Great Southern Spirits) each had a colour, a feeling, a topos into which one could descend. Horizons featured a favourite 'Leekian' device: production of the harmonic series by the vocalists sliding across vowel sounds. But this was not a gimmick; it was well integrated into the whole structure, offset by occasional moments of affective rhythmic and harmonic dissonance. Red Earth and Wirindji both were compelling structures with a couple of remarkable moments. In the ending of the former, a wonderful wavering sound was produced across the female vocalists - in and out of pitch and timbre, in and out of existence. In the latter, a compressed bustle of atomic popping sounds became a non-rhythmic 'smear' before the male voices entered underneath.

The last three pieces on the program were folk songs arranged for choir. Leek's arrangement of a north Australian folk song The Black Swan was masterful in its clear control of the choral medium. After this came two traditional Taiwanese songs - a break with TAV's traditional Australian exclusivity - arranged by Yu Shan Tsai. The first of these, Dalabaling (The Ghost Lake), was a hauntingly beautiful and unpretentious tune, superbly arranged in minimalist frugality by Tsai. The last piece, Fa Shu Ha (The Autumn Flower), was also quite beautiful, languid and bittersweet, if somewhat Hollywood-filmic. With its melancholy refrains, this was clearly not the end of the concert.

For the encore Stephen invited all TAV alumni, 'ex-TAVers', (and there were a couple indeed) to the stage for an uplifting chorus on a Leek piece they all knew - 'Morning Tide' from his Island Songs. It was a fitting end to the evening, which was as much a convivial celebration of TAV's past, present and future, as it was of Stephen Leek and his music.

All in all, the strong voice of Stephen Leek's compositional style lent a beauty and a unity to this evening. And the familial atmosphere was refreshing in its opposition to dry, academic 'new music' concerts. Such a powerful vision of contemporary Australian choral music as Leek's, however, does tend to leave one wondering about the diversity of alternative sounds, styles and approaches not presented within this concert. It also left one to ponder its culturally and musically conservative nature, which perhaps speaks of a conservatism of the broader Australian choral community. These thoughts put a mild depressant on my mood as I exited an otherwise striking and beautiful concert. But in any case, this was an evening of well-wishing and celebration, so I join many in saying farewell to Stephen in his role as Artistic Director of TAV, and wish him success and prosperity in his coming endeavours.

Event details

Sounds of Perfection
The Australian Voices
Works by Stephen Leek, Jaret Choolun, Matthew Orlovich, Gerard Brophy, Tobin Stokes, George Frideric Handel and Yu Shan Tsai.
Conservatorium Theatre, Brisbane, QLD
27 August 2009
Event details in AMC calendar

Further links

Stephen Leek's AMC profile (www.australianmusiccentre.com.au/artist/leek-stephen)
Stephen Leek's website (www.stephenleek.com)
The Australian Voices website (www.theaustralianvoices.com)

Liam Flenady is a young Brisbane-based composer and academic. His music centres on expanding modern art traditions, and his research interests include German idealist and Romantic philosophy, as well as Lacanian psychoanalysis and post-Marxism. In 2008 he won the Queensland Conservatorium Medal and the Griffith University Medal, as well as several composition prizes. He currently works as principal research assistant at the Queensland Conservatorium Research Centre.


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RE: Sounds of Perfection

I am writing to express my concern with Liam Flenady’s recent review of The Australian Voices’ concert Sounds of Perfection. I was quite disturbed by the overall tenor of the article, in which the reviewer seems to harbour a deep and unprofessional antipathy towards Stephen Leek and The Australian Voices not at all borne out by the content of the concert. After referring to the choir as a “hodgepodge” of young singers, Flenady remains astoundingly silent on the quality of their performance. Yet any compliments he offers the group are worded as concessions. The only reasons he gives for his antipathy are his concerns with “the diversity of alternative sounds, styles and approaches not presented within this concert” (an irrelevant question, surely, of any concert?) and his claims of musical and cultural conservatism. I wonder at what point The Australian Voices purported to be presenting a cross-section of all sounds, styles and approaches available within Australian a capella choral music? Much could be said here about the phenomenal contribution Stephen Leek and The Australian Voices have made to the Australian choral repertoire, but now is not the time. Suffice it to say, I found the article inexplicably snide, begrudging and utterly unprofessional, and I am disappointed that it was allowed to appear in print at all.