An intimate, funny and at times deeply moving evening of song.

Concert Hall, Sydney Grammar School
October 8, 2014

The solemn liturgy of the Catholic Mass is a sacred ritual that one might reasonably assume is an overtly austere and earnest occasion. Not exactly the obvious choice for a birthday party. However this was the inspired idea behind the expertly executed program for the 30th anniversary concert of Australia’s most accomplished and longest running close harmony a cappella group, The Song Company. The Mass isn’t simply a religious ceremony. It is an act of reflection, of celebration, of devotion and ultimately an expression of gratitude, and it was these entirely apt sentiments that made Artistic Director and Conductor Roland Peelman’s selection for the evening so appropriate. 

Eight pieces, each selected from separate settings of the traditional Latin Mass were interspersed with speeches by the Song Company’s closest friends and advocates including the Song Company’s flamboyant and entertaining General Manager Eugene Ragghianti and acclaimed photographer and installationist William Yang who spoke passionately about the power and versatility of the human voice. Former Song Company Soprano Ruth McCall’s hysterical, semi-sung stream of consciousness delivery about life in the group (she was the high soprano in the Song Company for 15 years) had the audience shrieking with laughter, as did Penny Biggins’ candid insights into the group’s foray into cabaret and their over ambitious attempts at saucy choreography.

The occasion also marked the end of the group’s longest serving member’s tenure, bass Clive Birch, who has been a permanent fixture in the ensemble for 27 years. The atmosphere in the Sydney Grammar School’s stunning concert hall (which also happens to have the finest acoustic in the city) was disarmingly warm, friendly and inviting without being overly casual. As the concert progressed the volume of admiration and sheer love expressed for The Song Company and its achievements over the past three decades made it clear that this anniversary celebration was a family affair and everyone assembled were sharing in something very intimate.

The program, which was comprised entirely from works composed in the 20th and 21st centuries, had music by familiar composers alongside pieces from the ensemble’s extensive catalogue of contemporary repertoire, including two premieres specially commissioned for the evening. Poulanc’s mischievous Gloria from the Mass in G  was deftly negotiated with percussive diction and impressive control over its irreverent leaps in register. Frank Martin’s beautifully meditative Credo was the perfect showcase for The Song Company’s flawless blending, dynamic control and agility through this demanding piece’s contrapuntal sections. The precision of the groups balance was especially evident in Rachmaninov’s Alleluia. The sound of church bells from St Mary’s Cathedral in the distance, punctuating the organ-like resonance and mesmerisingly smooth delivery of this powerfully evocative piece, seemed so apt it was hard to believe it wasn’t intentional. The raptured silence that held the audience after the final note only acted to highlight the profundity of the moment.

The Song Company have cemented their reputation as one of the most committed champions of new Australian works in the country over the span of their three decade history, and so it was no surprise that the standout moments in this 30th anniversary concert were the works written most recently. 

Photo: Peter Hislop

Stephen Cronin’s Ave Maria Sancta Margarita, the first of the evening’s two premieres was a quirky reimagining of the traditional devotional setting, juxtaposing the familiar Latin text with the mundane and wasted everyday prayers that are absent mindedly offered up while in search of car keys and other first world problems. The humour of the text didn’t overwhelm the skill of Cronin’s setting, which terraced fearlessly quiet, almost inaudibly delicate passages with suddenly powerful moments, all underpinned by a driving tempo and impeccable diction from the ensemble.

Dan Walker’s Sanctus, the evening’s other premiere, was an elegant but simple setting which saw Roland Peelman impressively multi-tasking, playing crotales in addition to conducting. This inventive choice of accompaniment, which pricked through the sonorous texture like pin points of celestial light, was a perfect contrast for the beautiful purity of The Song Company’s tone.

Agnus Dei by Ross Edwards was another opportunity for the group to demonstrate their seamlessly sympathetic blending. It was only Graeme Koehne’s In Paradisum, with its 1930’s barbershop pastiche that fell a little behind in an otherwise perfectly crafted program, although to their credit, the Song Company’s execution was excellent.

I have, as the saying goes, kept the best for last, which ironically was the first item in the program. There are many elements that can contribiute to a truly transformative musical experience: the setting; the acoustic; the quality of the performance; the surprise of discovering something new, and all of these elements seemed to balance in perfect equilibrium for Gerard Brophy’s Kyrie. The only guest artist for the evening, didgeridooist William Barton’s thickly resonant and expertly nuanced drone seemed to saturate the hall with a primordial and intoxicating fug of sound. The hall, with its dramatic intrusion of bed-rock, and the rich ochres of its wooden panelling seemed to be a mirror for the Australian desert’s red earth. Its soaring mental beams like a vaulted cathedral built directly into the stone heart of the country was a poetically apt backdrop for a piece which sought to merge two ancient soundworlds from opposite sides of the world.  Brophy’s combination of renaissance-esque polyphony which melted seamlessly into more dissonance harmonies, infused with the fluctuating purr of the didgeridoo was truly revelatory. A profound and moving marriage of two cultures that in the expert hands of The Song Company was a beautiful demonstration of the voice’s ability to be a conduit for the full spectrum of human emotion.