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The breath sung and seen

Keith Gallasch

Peter & Martin Wesley Smith Peter & Martin Wesley Smith
In a richly realised thematic program titled Drawing Breath and built around the subject of breathing, the Song Company excelled. The choice of often demanding material from across the last millenium requires fearless vocal virtuosity. Under the direction of Roland Peelman the company displayed it amply. In a host of short works in the first half of the concert, the ensemble performed against the background, aurally and visually, of media artist George Khut’s interactive video as it responded to his breathing (members of the audience tried it themselves in the interval), heightening awareness of our conscious and unconscious relationship with a biological fundamental.

The songs were not only about breathing, for example in its metaphorical connections with spirit, but frequently exploited its character—short, long, breathless, staccato, lost—and the conditions which transform it—drunkenness, love, worship, anger, halitosis and pollution. One of the bonuses of the program was in the opening trio of songs where the voices took on instrumental qualities: Philippe de Monte’s Bonjour Mon Coeur, Claude Lejeune’s Revecy venir du Printans and the Pink Floyd/Jean-Michel Jarre Breathe/Oxygène IV arrangement. The effortless continuum the company achieved in Guillaume de Machaut’s De souspirant/Tous corps/Suspiro left me breathless, while the The Violence of Work (Stephen Cronin to a poem by Geoff Goodfellow) was effectively stressful—punctuated as it was with sharp breaths and disturbing, vocally produced industrial noises. The glides in Hin-yan Chan’s Liquor Mania not only evoked a decline into drunkenness, accompanied by variously pitched hiccupings, but also the magical voices and instruments that are the breath of Beijing opera.

The second half of the concert featured substantial works of the heavy breathing variety—sensual laments, operatic soarings and outbursts. The vocal variety of the program expanded rapidly in Giulio Castagnoli’s Madrigali guerriero e amoroso and Frank Nuyt’s Ai da verde (from Racine’s Britannicus). Where Castagnoli introduces whistling, warbling and weeping in his Monterverdi-inspired meditation, Nuyt’s bracing 2003 work begins with hums and whispers and turns on the drama with rushes of breath, rolled r’s, stamps and claps in a grim 17th century vision that corresponds with our own dark times, closing on a spoken voice against a single, tireless, enveloping chord. A great concert bordering on the overly generous, but at the same time a wonderful opportunity to review the Song Company repertoire, inlcuding many works they have commissioned.

On June 11, in Kangaroo Valley, NSW, and on June 15 in The Studio at the Sydney Opera House, the Song Company presented Brothers in Crime, a celebration of the 60th birthday of Martin and Peter Wesley Smith (the valley is their home). What the concert brought home is not only the affection and respect for the brothers in the musical community, but the totality of their vision—accessible, direct, sometimes satirical, often overtly political works drawing on popular musical idioms and pushing them to new levels of complexity. The first half of the concert came from their powerful 1994 music theatre work, Quito, not only an indictment of Australia’s mishandling of East Timorese refugees in the 80s and 90s but prophetic of our government’s subsequent cruelties to refugees from other countries. The remainder of the concert included a range of works new and old that entertained and enlightened with their gentle wit, whimsy and droll barbs, all done justice by the Song Company.

The Song Company, Drawing Breath, Sydney Conservatorium of Music, Aug 28; Brothers in Crime, A 60th Birthday Concert for Martin & Peter Wesley-Smith, The Studio, Sydney Opera House, June 15

RealTime issue #69 Oct-Nov 2005 pg. 44

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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