For his latest vocal work, composer Mark Isaacs decided to skip the poetics

Though I live in Sydney, I’ve had a string of Brisbane-based projects over the years and that suits me just fine. Late last year, a few days after the premiere of my First Symphony by the QSO, I attended a lovely meeting at the cafe of Queensland Performing Arts Centre with Tania Frazer, oboist and creative director with Southern Cross Soloists. 

I was very happy to write for this distinguished ensemble, and the inclusion of soprano Margaret Schindler was an added dimension after eight years of writing purely instrumental works. 

We settled on a short seven minute piece – a good contrast after a 30-minute symphony! The world of concert commissions (unlike film, TV and theatre) involves being handed a blank canvas, the length of the work and its instrumentation being the only dictated elements. The music’s style, mood, texture, structure and a million other components are entirely at the discretion of the composer. It’s always a luxuriously generous invitation (if rather daunting when the going is tough!) to be asked to do something hopefully beautiful and inspiring in whatever manner you want. What a blessing! 

There were some things to be immediately decided. First was what to do with the voice regarding text. One common approach is to hunt for poetry to set. I bypassed that completely by being inspired to write a “vocalise” – a work that uses wordless singing, the most famous example being by Rachmaninov. As a kind of homage, I titled my piece generically as Vocalise, just as he had. 

Perhaps with a model like Rachmaninov it was inevitable that I would write an unashamedly lyrical work, with long, expressive lines and poignant harmonies. The continuous vocal melody is supported at the core by the piano while the wind and stringed instruments decorate the texture with countermelodies and reinforcing colours. In many ways chamber music is more challenging to arrange than orchestral as everything tends to be a solo and exposed; one does not have the ‘meat and potatoes’ padding of a sectional sound to rest upon. Though cor anglais was an available doubling for oboist Tania Frazer, I decided to use cor anglais exclusively. Its poignancy and range were perfect for my purposes. It’s my vision that this work should be a luscious and haunting embroidery. It was a delight to construct it.

WORK Vocalise 

COMPOSER Mark Isaacs

SCORED FOR Soprano, flute, cor anglais, clarinet, piano, violin and cello

COMMISSIONED BY Southern Cross Soloists

PREMIERE Queensland Performing Arts Centre, June 15

PERFORMERS Southern Cross Soloists with Ilya Konovalov, violin