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The Crypt, St Mary's Cathedral, Sydney
April 14, 2015
How do you commemorate an event of unimaginable horror? It’s a question many arts organisations have been pondering in recent months as the centenary of the ANZAC campaign at Gallipoli approaches. Some, such as the ACO’s Reflections of Gallipoli for example, have opted for unflinching historical accuracy, confronting the audience with the magnitude of the death and suffering experienced in those Turkish trenches one hundred years ago. This approach is strikingly effective, not to mention affecting, but there is another tact, such as that explored in the Song Company’s Lamentations for a Soldier, staged in the crypt of St Mary’s Cathedral.
Rather than attempting to take an audience back in time to relive and remember the senseless destruction of the Dardanelles campaign, Artistic Director Roland Peelman has adopted a more serene, spiritually cleansing, and ultimately uplifting programme in tribute to this pivotal moment in our Nation’s history. The hopeful, forward-facing message of this commemorative programme, delivered with subtlety and deeply moving poignancy, is one of peace and multi-cultural acceptance.
The most conspicuous connection to the ANZAC centenary is the acknowledgement of the two cultural identities that a century ago clashed during the bloody Gallipoli campaign. Throughout the programme, in a beautifully poetic display of reconciliation, music from Turkish antiquity, performed by Oguz Mülayim on the ney (a Turkish, wooden flute) is woven in and out of ancient music of the Christian faith, representing in music the historical and cultural roots of the two armies who fought and died during the battles on the Turkish peninsula.
Binding these two radically different aesthetics together were the works of three contemporary composers, whose carefully curated roles allowed a cohesive thread to run from start to finish through this diverse evening of music. This is typically savvy programming by Peelman, who is an expert at delivering pathos laced with a healthy dose of cerebral stimulation.
The breathy, spectrally ethereal tone of the ney, resonant within the welcoming acoustic of St Mary’s crypt, yet nonetheless incongruous in its exoticness, introduced the first of five short pieces by Turkish-Australian composer Ekrem Mülayim, Some Echo Still, in its world premiere performance. These short movements, dotted throughout the programme, were inspired by the writings of Sufi mystic, Rumi, although not conventional settings of these texts as such. Small fragments of vocalised sounds, spoken phrases, and chromatically serpentine melodies pass between the six singers of the Song Company, arranged in a circle at the centre of the crypt. The swirling vortex of fractured repetition evokes the furious spinning of the whirling dervishes, but also cycles of the universe, orbits of planets and galaxies, and the movements of atomic particles. An exhaustively thorough amount of academic preparation (as outlined in the programme) was used to fathom out the implied rotational relationships at work within the music, and this rigour occasionally make these pieces feel overly sterile. However when Mülayim allows the music to connect with a more instinctual, emotionally rich language, its impact is immediate and powerful.
Of the English Renaissance music offered, which included two different settings of When David Heard by Thomas Tomkins and Thomas Weelkes respectively, Robert White’s Lamentations for six voices yielded the most compelling performances. Breaking down into trios and duets, before revelling again in the complexity of six-part polyphony, this richly spiritual music not only showcased the superb blend and musicianship of the Song Company (particular praise should go the ensemble’s newest member, Bass Andrew O’Connor, who was a faultless foundation throughout the evening), but also made full use of the gloriously generous acoustic of St Mary’s Crypt.
Kim Cunio’s setting of Psalm 57, the second of the evening’s three contemporary works, also took full advantage of the rich acoustic setting, with thick, pleasingly dissonant harmonies mixed with hand percussion that at once made reference to both the secular medieval tradition of central Europe and the ethnic musical heritage of the Turkish ney.
For the final piece of the evening, Arvo Pärt’s Da Pacem Domine, the ensemble processed to the distant end of the crypt, allowing the remoteness of the performance to make room for a moment of personal reflection. Composed in 2004 in memory of the victims of the Madrid train bombings, Pärt’s simple yet devastatingly beautiful piece is a tranquil anthem of peace and remembrance; a perfect summation of everything this tribute concert endeavours to honour.
The Song Company present Lamentations for a Soldier, on tour until April 32.