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LIMELIGHT – Arms of Love ★★★★½ "The Song Company’s Arms of Love is a revelation in musical programming, breaking all the rules of performing old music and arriving somewhere truly exhilarating"

In this new program in its MainStage series, The Song Company performs Dietrich Buxtehude’s seven-part oratorio Membra Jesu nostri patientis sanctissima (1680), interwoven with a world première of Chris Williams’s I pray the sea, and staged with choreography by Thomas E.S. Kelly (Karul Projects) performed by dancer Neville Williams Boney. The Song Company is not the only group to juxtapose new Australian composition alongside key works from the European musical canon, and to introduce extra-musical components to its programming.

But here the works were not just placed side by side, rather they were entwined in unexpected ways that highlighted their inter-relationships and placed us in the here and now. The Song Company’s collaboration on this project also brought in Jenny Eriksson from The Marais Project and Hylton Mowday from We Love Jam. With their involvement, the continuo part that would routinely be played by a few string players and a Baroque keyboard instrument was here rendered by soprano saxophone and electric viola da gamba, with Musical Director Antony Pitts exploring the timbral possibilities of a Rhodes keyboard.

It felt radical, but also not wrong, like playing Buxtehude this way could reveal something different than we might normally hear. Mowday’s clear vibrato-less tone in the opening movements of the Buxtehude could have fooled the listener that it was some kind of Baroque woodwind instrument that one couldn’t quite put one’s finger upon. His playing gradually bloomed throughout the program into the vibrato and portamento-inflected sound that we might be more inclined to expect from that instrument. It was partly the concept and overall design of the program that made all of this possible. In his introduction to the concert, Director and ensemble tenor Robert Macfarlane suggested that the movements of Williams’s new piece would “lap at the shores” of Buxtehude’s cantatas, rather than be evenly interspersed... Williams Boney’s compellingly lithe and sensuous dancing shifted between foreground and background as the music alternately drew attention from his movement-scape, and then the choreography drawing on mime, character work, and contemporary and classical Aboriginal dance practices drew the eye... Not just the programming, but also the performances made sense of this unusual ensemble and of the transitions between the sounds of different centuries and distant continents. The singers relished the dissonances in Buxtehude’s oratorio in ways that led seamlessly into Williams’s exciting new work.

In its movements too, I pray the sea grew from sustained sections echoing the Buxtehude into more rhythmic movements driven by text and percussion. The sounds of Williams Boney’s feet and breath moving through the space that punctuated the first three Buxtehude cantatas prepared us for this new sound world too – for the variety of percussion played by Mowday and Pitts, and for the singers’ percussive breath and vocal effects. This was not a concert of hushed silence in reverence for high art (though not a pin drop was heard from the audience), but rather one intended to make us think and engage with ideas as well as sound and movement. Williams’s new work draws primarily on text by Behrouz Boochani from his award-winning No Friend But the Mountains – written while Boochani was incarcerated on Manus Island as a result of Australian government policy and in spite of his legitimate legal claim to asylum. The programming of the two musical works along with Williams Boney’s performance, which he began by introducing himself as a Wiradjuri dancer and questioning what Country this is, placed these varied works in relationship to place and time.

The singers (Amy Moore, Brianna Louwen, Stephanie Dillon, Robert Macfarlane and Thomas Flint) were in excellent voice as usual. Secure pitch and the kind of blend that allows each of the five voices to be heard in their individual clarity and beauty, while never undermining the coherence of the whole are trademarks of The Song Company. Soprano Brianna Louwen was a stunning newcomer to the group, with almost improbable bell-like clarity in her upper range that cut through and filled the space all at once, while still blending with the ensemble. The singers were also lightly choreographed, operating lights which illuminated different parts of the singing, dancing and playing bodies throughout the performance... This was the kind of concert that can make us sit up and take notice, in which many stories can be interwoven. The fluidity between centuries, continents, art forms and senses made new resonances of each of the program’s parts – inviting the audience to hear old works anew and placing the program in relationship to the place we are in and the Country we are on." (Amanda Harris)

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THE AGE – Arms of Love ★★★★ "A powerful blend of persecution narratives"

"Interweaving baroque and contemporary music with dance, The Song Company’s Arms of Love seeks to explore resonances between three powerful narratives: the plight of Kurdish-Iranian asylum seeker Behrouz Boochani, the feeling that First Nations people are refugees in their own country, and the passion of Jesus Christ. Buxtehude’s seven-part oratorio paying homage to Jesus’ suffering limbs Membra Jesu Nostri provides a framework into which a specially commissioned work I Pray the Sea by Chris Williams (based on Boochani’s memoir No Friend But the Mountains) is interleaved.

Wiradjuri dancer Neville Williams Boney realizes choreography developed by Thomas E.S. Kelly from Indigenous dance company Karul Projects. Accompanied by an unusual ensemble of saxophone, Rhodes keyboard, and electric viola da gamba, the Buxtehude assumes a gentle, surreal aspect while Williams Boney’s fluid, expressive movements explore parts of the body referenced in its seven cantatas: feet, knees, hands, side, chest, heart, and face. Singers and dancer interact sporadically, each using portable lights, attempting to illuminate what seems beyond sight.

After the third cantata, Williams’s edgy, elegiac music begins, its expressive and technical challenges well negotiated by the singers under director Antony Pitts... Hylton Mowday’s saxophones take on a more flexible jazz-like character, percussion accompanies Boochani’s harrowing description of young lives lost at sea, and the tension rises between the dancing with its Indigenous references and the Western music it accompanies. Taking a cue from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, a final question is posed: “What country, friends, is this?” Directed by Robert Macfarlane, Arms of Love is certainly thought-provoking – sometimes moving, sometimes quirky..." (Tony Way)

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The Song Company has embraced a more theatrical presentation of vocal music for this production, adding three instrumentalists, lighting effects, and dance to the usual small group of singers. This performance interwove Dietrich Buxtehude’s Membra Jesu nostri patientis sanctissima from the 17th century with I Pray the Sea by Australian composer Chris Williams... The performance took place on a low, two-level stage in front of a white screen in the fairly bleak main hall of the Ainslie Arts Centre.

Variably coloured lights lit the performers from in front and below casting shadows on the white background and the side walls. Dancer Neville Williams Boney used the front and sides of the stage with the singers sometimes using hand-held lights on him for extra effects. The two quite different pieces of music fitted together well... The Buxtehude was accompanied by the trio of Antony Pitts on a Rhodes electric piano, Hylton Mowday playing saxophones and Jenny Eriksson with an electric viola da gamba. The sound of the Rhodes is somewhere between a portative organ and a harpsichord and blends with the slightly electric edge of the viol and soprano sax taking the part originally scored for violin.

The combination of the three blend remarkably well and sound entirely appropriate for the music... As we have come to expect from The Song Company, the singing was a delight. Sopranos Amy Moore and Brianna Louwen, mezzo Stephanie Dillon, tenor Robert Macfarlane and bass Thomas Flint worked as a unit with Pitts leading and directing from the keyboard... (Graham McDonald)

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THE SYDNEY MORNING HERALD – Arms of Love "Love conquers all in this diverse musical offering..."

Arms of Love, directed by tenor Robert Macfarlane and musical director Antony Pitts, wove together four strands in a counterpoint of difference to make a statement about the dehumanisation of those seeking refuge.

The first strand was the early Baroque set of seven cantatas for voices and instruments by Dietrich Buxtehude, Membra Jesu Nostri... the music is, notwithstanding their adventurousness, The Song Company’s home ground. The choruses had clear balance and gleaming surface, while the arias revealed rich grain in the wonderful intimate acoustic of Sydney’s new performance venue, The Nielson... This stood in contrast to the second strand, a new work by Chris Williams, I pray the sea, using, among others, words from Kurdish Iranian writer Behrouz Boochani’s No Friend But the Mountains, which document Boochani’s detention by Australia on Manus Island... mixing chromatic and atonal harmonies, hocket rhythms, microtonal and polytonal dissonance and, in the fifth movement, the warmth of minor mode harmonies like fresh mist rising after a storm...

The third strand was a danced commentary by Neville Williams Boney from Thomas E.S. Kelly’s contemporary Indigenous dance company Karul Projects. Boney’s dance interpreted Buxtehude’s images in the context of an Indigenous man who is a refugee in his own country – the sixth cantata Ad Cor saw him with pulsing red danger lamp beneath his shirt. Singers delivered their arias before him in confrontational settings while his face and body expressed surprise and dismay, denial and dignity....

The fourth strand was the stylistically polyglot trio – electric keyboard (Pitts), electric viola da gamba (Jenny Eriksson) and jazz saxophones (Hylton Mowday)... it prompted a wish to hear each on their home ground. (Peter McCallum)

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This complex, multi-layered performance by The Song Company was filmed at the Cell Block Theatre, Sydney and streamed by the Australian Digital Concert Hall, as part of their national tour. Directed by Robert Macfarlane and Antony Pitts, it was strong and powerful, blending the music and dance. There were some exciting special lighting effects. In some ways it could be read as an acknowledgement of Indigenous Peoples, their suffering and links to Country. Or, another way of viewing it is how you possibly can be a refugee in your own country... In Buxtehude’s Membra Jesu Nostri, his profound Baroque gathering of seven cantatas for voices and instruments, he contemplates various parts of Christ’s crucified body as a paradox for His suffering and grace.

Each of the cantatas consists of ensembles, arias, chorus and instrumental pieces. The seven cantatas manifest both the spiritual and physical layers of the Crucifixion, representing Christ’s suffering and reminding us that suffering is included in our lives and our bodies and minds can slowly wear out. At times the music surged, flowed and resonated. The chorus was finely burnished with smooth equilibrium and the arias were vibrant. Mention must be made of a special trio accompanying the Buxtehude – namely electric keyboard (Pitts), electric viola da gamba (Jenny Eriksson) and jazz saxophones (Hylton Mowday). 

I Pray the Sea, by Chris Williams, included text from Kurdish Iranian writer Behrouz Boochani’s No Friend But the Mountains, chronicling his detention by Australia on Manus Island. The five movements of Williams’ piece, short fragments and a larger section, were fast, bubbling and spiky and given an animated, energetic performance that at times crackled and popped. Choroegraphed by Thomas E.S.Kelly of Karul Projects, barefoot dancer Neville Williams Boney, a Wiradjuri man, prowls through the audience and also interacts with the Company, at times performing in front of them, other times directly beside/behind them.

With sinuous swoops, swirls, and striking poses the dance blended Contemporary dance with traditional Indigenous dance. Williams Boney also draws on a piece of paper placed on an easel at the side of the stage then later furiously tears it up... in the sixth cantata wears a red lamp that pulsates and throbs close to his heart – a symbol of his love of Country? It also reinforces the idea of dislocation. The singers sang their arias as if opposing him, while he expressed self–respect, contradiction, consternation, and bewilderment. A compelling, thought-provoking, challenging performance." (Lynne Lancaster)

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