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Review: The Song Company Haunted Lullabies 2 October 1993

  • John Carmody
  • Source: Opera Australia November 1993

Some concerts, we believe (or hope) are fused forever in the memory;
others, all too readily, become a blur.

The Song Company's final concert for 1993, Haunted Lullabies (Eugene Goossens
Hall, Sydney, October 2), is, for me, in the latter category.

The Program juggled repertoire and styles but, for all that l0 composers were
represented there is a limit to the variety that an ensemble of only six can
achieve. Even so, if the performers had demonstrated a greater technical assurance and
if fuller attention had been paid to exploiting the variety which the various scores
offered, the result would have remained longer in the memory.

All of the music concerned night and sleep in some way. Draw on, sweet night
(John Wilbye, 15741-1638) and, Retire, my troubled soul (John Ward, 1571-1638)
needed more spirit and cohesion - and, really, more voices: the sound was neither
strong nor secure enough.

Noche Oscura (Geoffrey Burgon; b. l94l) sets a text by St John of the Cross; Burgon has,
with The Life of Brìan and Brideshead Revisited, a reputation as a film composer and this
music persuaded me that he should stick to films.

Stephen Cronin's (b. l960) Bright and Black Blood is an example of the axiom that good art
needs more than good intentions.  It is a tribute to those who have died of AIDS: a solo alto
sings a text by the American Leon Waller, while others hum or declaim a list of victim's names.

It often sounded like a conversation over a bad phone line and seemed of only very moderate
musical interest.  I found Stephen Leek's(b. 1959) Great Southern Spirits much the same.  It is,
to quote from the text it sets, of "balmy emptiness": incessant repetition of phrases which
cannot withstand such exposure,lots of glissandi and glibness.

The group had an interesting idea in their treatment of the Five Lullabies by the New Zealand
composer, Jack Body (b.1944). The pieces themrselves are for 2, 3 and 4 singers and the company
interlarded them as sub-ensembles amongst the other five works in the first half
of the program. Overall I found these short lullabies rather conventional and in need of
more variety-in the writing as well as the perfomance.

Nigel Butterley's Sleep (1992) is so short as to be a nap, so after the interval the burden of
the real interest in this concert fell on works by Poulenc, Haydn Reeder and Elliott Gyger (the
evening's conductor who is currently Musician-in-Residence with the Song Company).

Poulenc's short unaccompanied Un Soir de Neige (1944) is in characteristic style. The winter is a
metaphor for the German occupation of France, but its four movements required a better flow,
clearer shaping and crisper diction to make an ideal effect.

Understandably, perhaps,  Elliot Gyger seemed to have got the best from the choir in his own
atmospheric piece Silence. This music makes much of the onomatopoeia of Thomas Hood's sonnet, the
tone was strong when required and the soft dissonance and the closing morendo - on the phrase
"self-conscious and alone" - was achieved well.

Reeder's (b.1944) The City, the River, the Elm, the Stone was (with its text from Joyce's
Finnegan's Wake) the most interesting and lively piece of the evening; no going to sleep here!

It calls for a diversity of vocal techniques - "lip trills", whispers, glissandi, sibilants - but avoids
caricature; at times it recalls Orlando Gibbon's street Cryes.  At last - whatever the difficulties
involved - the company sounded as if they were enjoying themselves; and so did we.

Part of the message of the evening was that composers - no less than the rest of us - need to avoid
being self-conscious or they will end up alone.