As the country burned and the pandemic made its way to our shores in early 2020, Rachael Dease – 2020 Prelude Composer-in-Residence at Gallop House (courtesy of the Bundanon Trust) and esteemed multi-hyphenate performer – started piecing together what would become Hymn for End Times as she sat with her newborn son. Dease wrote that she was “nursing a baby and thinking about how it was all going to end. How we were going to end. I sang lullabies to one of the last little boys. I began to write them down”. As our city emerged from lockdown and began to recover from our own fires (The Betoota Advocate cheekily reported that Perth was “currently receiving a condensed version of last year”), the chilling premise for Hymns for End Times was felt even more acutely before the performance had even begun.
Rachael Dease and the West Australian Symphony Orchestra. Photograph © Daniel Grant
That’s not to say that the collaboration between Dease, the West Australian Symphony Orchestra and Voyces on Hymns for End Times – commissioned by Perth Festival and presented in association with Tura New Music – was all nihilistic doom-and-gloom. If anything, the performance was a glamorously affirming exploration of an impending end, and what we can do as we confront it head on. Right from the outset, Dease’s music – arranged by Alice Humphries, Kathy Potter and Musical Director Mia Brine – formed a dark, moody soundscape of lush warmth that dominated the hour-long performance. If at first the stylistic and sonic unity of the songs seemed somewhat repetitive (a blurring of pieces facilitated by the way in which songs bled into one another via instrumental interludes), the way the audience was eased into and kept in the soundworld made the subtle changes and deviations between songs all the more effective. The arrangements themselves were gorgeous, drawing expertly from the growling depths of the orchestra to bring an edge to the texture. WASO did an excellent job bringing these edges to life, with players seemingly savouring the flashes of dissonance and crunch in the score. Less effective was the use of piano in some songs, with the continual doubling of the choral lines rendering a handful of numbers répétiteur-esque. However, the multi-tasking Brine deserves all the praise for juggling both the music direction and the piano part; her performance in The Children Danced was particularly moving.
The orchestra was by no means merely accompaniment, but the singing was particularly excellent. Dease was less of a storyteller and more of a direct conduit for the state of the times. Her warm, clear vocals and serene stage presence rendered her sonically and visually enthralling; I felt as if the audience would have easily followed her through to the end of days, pied-piper style. Voyces too were a wonderful asset to the performance, bringing a thoroughly dynamic form of spookiness to the mix (though a smidge more confidence on a couple of tricky-sounding entries wouldn’t have gone amiss.) Dease and the choir bounced off each other beautifully; the sharp shush-like interjections of the choir and Dease’s haunting melody in In Our Place was particularly effective.
Moving, haunting, dark, and ultimately unshakeable, I’ll be adding Hymns for End Times to my apocalypse playlist.