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Review: M for Murder The Song Company 20, 21 June 1997

  • John Carmody
  • Source: Opera-Opera July 1997

The SongCompany (who, in fact entrepreneured that concert[ Chanticleer ed]) may well have felt a
little on trial, therefore, when they presented an event which they called M for Murder at
the Access Art Gallery in Redfrn three weeks later.
They need not have worried- not because they were on the same exalted technical
level as Chanticleer (it would be unrealistic to claim that) but because, in every sense,
their evening was so much more demanding yet succeeded so well.
The program included three world premieres, two Sydney premieres and another
that was new to me, all cleverly interlarded with pieces (sacred and secular)
by Carlo Gesualdo, the 16th century Prince of Venosa who proved, as he often does, to
be far more modern than all the contemporary "bright young things."

Those Gesualdo pieces had mortal references - to Christ's death and to the poet's
(the composer's?) - but this composer was also there, surely, because of his notoriety
through having murdered his wife (and cousin) Maria d'Avalos and her lover,the
Duke of Andria "in flagrante delicto di fragrante peccato." And he a cardinal's nephew!
He was a secretive individualist whose intensely chromatic
music is still an enormous challenge to perform - not surprisingly the singing
seemed a little tentative: it was at its best when being least emphatic.

Of the new pieces the finest was surely the Lament for Dunblane by the expatriate
Australian, Jennifer Fowler (b. 1939).
This quartet uses two sopranos antiphonally, high in their range, underpinned by
rather lonely sounds of 4ths and 5ths from the two males, It was all reminiscent of mediaeval
Organum and succeeded splendidly as a secular lament with a conflated "text"
of meaningless sounds.

None of the other pieces had (or presumably sought) this profundity or seriousness.
Victor, a ballad by the young Brisbane composer, Victor Field (b. 1963) featured
mezzo, Jo Burton as soloist in a "swing" lyric and mostly used the others as an
accompaniment with much clicking of fingers: its cabaret joke
soon palled.

The bebop approach of Craig Allister Young's (b. 1967) Murder is Hard - an
extended patter-song for baritone Clive Birch - was akin to it in style: whether it was
the writing or the performance I cannot say with certainty but the "accompaniment"
tended to submerge the solo. Matthew Hindson's (b.1968) The Rage Within was a
series of cries and whispers,fast staccato sounds; humming - sometimes wordless,
sometimes repetitions of "I deserve to die through clenched teeth - and developed
a kind of manic ostinato, to which conductor Roland Peelman also contributed
some sounds.

The most amazing (and in its own way, certainly virtuosic) piece of the evening was Fast
talking: The last words of Dutch Schultz
which Andrew Schultz )b.1960 and no acknowledged
relation to the subject) wrote for fellow composer Andrew Ford who did it on this occasion,
certainly following the instruction "to be performed as fast as possible" in a way that left
 the audience breathless, if not Ford himself.

Apparently the New Jersey coppers transcribed the death bed ravings (is this what
is meant by "psycho-babble'?) of the "colorful New Jersey identity" Schultz (i.e.
"Dutch") after his shooting by "Charley the Bug." The piece is a torrent of semiconsciousness,
often deliberately unitelligible. In a neat piece of existential angst,
Ford had said, by way of introduction to this piece of existential exit, "I'd hate you
not to know why I'm doing what I'm doing!"

Perhaps that machine-gun vocal collage was the epitome of a phrase from Woyzeck
which Elena Kats-Chernin (b.1957) wove into her Gone with the Waltz ..Ein
schöner Mord ein guter Mord" ("A lovely murder, a good murder').

This was another piece with cabaret leanings, made of lots of labials and detached
sounds; at one point each singer produced a large carving knife and sharpening steel
for use as percussion insruments.The sang-froid of the audience was impressive at
that point. Even so, I'd better watch what I say; let's just confine it to a feeling that the
texture of the piece is too thick and needs pruning - perhaps thats what the knives
were really for.

Maybe I'd best just get out while the going's good and plead that I've said
enough to placate the Song Company so they won't pull one of those knives on me at
the next concert.