The Australian Voices Celebrates 20 Years in style.

Ian Hanger Recital Hall, Queensland Conservatorium, Brisbane

December 13, 2013

If ever there was a reason to keep a village healer on standby, it might be for “contemporary Australian acapella choral music”. Like climbing Mount Everest, or dining in a Nepalese restaurant without an English menu, so much could go so wrong. Extra credit then must go to The Australian Voices, masters of this sub-genre who perform – as conductor Gordon Hamilton calls it – “extreme choral singing”. They’ve been getting it right for so long that 2013 marked an admirable 20-year milestone. And to celebrate, they took to the stage at the Queensland Conservatorium (at which they are Ensemble-in-Residence) for a concert of old favourites and new commissions.

“Extreme” aptly described the repertoire, and for an ensemble so inspired by Australian landscapes and history, could it be anything but? Hard consonants were flung like stones across the stage and interval leaps reached from desert sands to stars. Alumni joined the current lineup for Stephen Leek’s dramatic Wirindji, where whispers grew to yelling; and chattering and chanting (plus some of the best harmonic singing I’ve ever heard) made for evocative textures. In the wrong hands, such a complicated work may have become a lantana-strangled mess, but TAV controlled it with power and vibrancy.

Intonation in general was impressive – the stratospheric soprano lines in Paul Stanhope’s Explorer’s Journal were skillfully sung but at times could have benefited from more precision. It was the lower-pitched, minimalist moments of the night which were most transcendental. The world premiere of Callum Kennedy’s solemn Cicada’s Cry with its simple melodies and strong Japanese vowels was sublime.

Six Miniatures, a collection of extremely short travel-inspired pieces (12 seconds or so) was a novelty work, but showed off TAV’s luscious blend of voices. William Barton’s Kalkadunga Yurdu, a choral impersonation of a didjeridoo, also had party-trick-potential but had enough harmonic substance and rhythmic funk to be hugely satisfying.

It’s these types of risks and dedication to contemporary Australian music that makes TAV such a unique ensemble. If future performances continue to be as passionate and refreshing as this one, then here’s to another 20 years!