The Song Company’s ex-pat director is planning Bach, birdsong and Billie Holiday for 2016.

Australia’s leading professional vocal ensemble has been a fixture on the nation’s concert programmes for over 30 years now since Charles Colman headed up the Sydney Philharmonia’s bright new idea for a small-scale vocal ensemble embracing repertoire from Buxtehude to Berio back in 1984. For 25 of those years Roland Peelman was the conductor at the helm, but 2016 sees the group embracing their first major change since 1990 under the leadership of British choral scholar, conductor and composer Antony Pitts.

So will the New Year bring a new direction or will it be ‘business a usual’? “The theme is legacy and transformation, so I guess it’s a bit of both,” says Pitts whose commitment will see him relocating to Sydney to manage the ensemble. “I’m very conscious of the heritage that Roland [Peelman] is leaving behind, and plan to revisit some of the many treasures in the archive. But I’ll also be ploughing my own furrow artistically, and exploring repertoire and types of collaboration that the Company hasn’t done before.”

Pitts, who comes from a family of composers and has had a long and successful career in the UK as teacher, scholar, conductor and BBC producer certainly intends to bring all of that experience to his new company down under. “With my British ensemble TONUS PEREGRINUS I’ve had over two decades of writing for specific voices and combination of voices (and instruments), and that is a very special kind of relationship which I hope to develop with The Song Company,” he explains. “What I compose exactly will depend on the context of the programmes and any particular commissions that come along.”

A proud believer and pronounced Christian (he resigned from the BBC so he would be free to speak out against the corporation’s proposed broadcast of the controversial Jerry Springer, the Opera back in 2005), Pitts will be including plenty of religious music in the season, from Monteverdi to Sweelinck and beyond. Part of the ‘business as usual’ aspect of next year’s offering will be a programme exploring Bach in the context of the 19th-century revival of interest in his work. Just how important an influence was JSB, I ask? And why did he appeal, say, to Brahms and not, say to Debussy? “There’s actually a great quote from Debussy,” says Pitts, gently putting me right. “He says, ‘if we look at the works of JS Bach… on each page we discover things that we thought were only born yesterday, from delightful arabesques to an overflowing of religious feeling greater than anything we have since discovered’. Bach’s music has inspired pretty much every generation since, but for those 19th-century composers that we’re featuring he was a kind of rock in the middle of the swirling torrents of Romanticism. Even if you can’t hear his influence on the surface, it’s there – in Debussy, Stravinsky, Pärt, and my own music too.”

As in any Song Company season, alongside the old there’s a healthy dose of the new. A celebration of the death of Shakespeare promises both ‘old’ and ‘new’ settings of the Bard. “We’re launching a Call for Scores,” explains Pitts who admits to having been impressed by what he’s seen and heard of Australian composition so far. “I’ve already been able to meet a number of younger and more established composers from around the country, so I hope to be able to include some settings that you won’t have heard before. The settings from Shakespeare’s time are by a range of names from Byrd at the well-known end to Banister at the other, and Giles Farnaby in the middle (a composer I rate highly).” And in an intriguing teaser he mentions that they will going for an ‘authentic’ sound, not just with pronunciation of text itself, but in terms of original gesture as well!

The Song Company

It was Messiaen who described birds as the “greatest musicians on the planet” and in a fascinating sounding programme Sydney-based composer and ornithologist Hollis Taylor has composed a “suite of dialogues with the Australian Pied Butcherbird” to run alongside a piece of collaborative/participatory sound art by A.M. Self in which we are told “the audience is free to take flight…” Should we be afraid? “I think every performance, particularly a great one, involves the audience at a visceral level,” Pitts says, reassuringly. “Getting the audience to make sounds deliberately is another level of interaction, and should be fun – not scary. Hollis’s suite involves actual recordings of birdsong and varying musical responses to them. I’ve heard the singers create their own kind of dawn chorus as part of that tapestry.”

Not everything unfamiliar is new either and Pitts, who has an enviable discography of early music recordings on Naxos in particular, is keen to bring a little more attention to bear on some byways of the Renaissance. The Dutch composer Sweelinck and his contemporaries, for example, have often been underrated. “Sweelinck is surprisingly little performed, given what he produced,” explains Pitts who is programming him with a mix of complementary contemporary and Indigenous Australian work. “The idea of this programme is to present the long view, bringing together sounds that Dirk Hartog might have been aware of back in The Netherlands 400 years ago and the sounds of Indigenous Australians, many of which are unbroken traditions from that same time and longer ago. But as well as this deliberate juxtaposition, we’ll be coming bang up-to-date with works that draw on what is now a shared history.”

Finally, the season has something original and perhaps not what everyone expects from the Song Company: a tribute to the great American blues legend, Billie Holiday in the form of choral arrangements of some of her greatest hits. Pitts musicological brain will be put to the test in a wide-ranging look at the tradition from Holiday’s time to the present. “As well as contemporary versions of some of her repertoire and other blues – from the rawest end to the Gershwins’ sophisticated take – I’m hoping to draw on the expertise of those who’ve arranged for the Swingle Singers and the King’s Singers, including my friend and colleague in TP, Alexander L’Estrange,” he explains. And it’s that kind of eclectic thinking that suggests the Song Company’s future is probably not going to be ‘business as usual’ after all. Watch this space…

Full details of the Song Company’s 2016 season, subscriptions and tickets available now.