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LIMELIGHT - Songs From a Strange Land ★★★★ "This is a gilt-edged performance from The Song Company”

The Song Company’s Songs from a Strange Land pays homage to the enduring brilliance of William Byrd while commemorating the quatercentenary of his death.

The seven voices of the ensemble include Guest Director and tenor Christopher Watson, who curated this program of 11 songs stretching from the Renaissance to the present. Its title derives from the text of Psalm 137 (How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?), set by Byrd as a motet.

Although this piece is not performed, these words are its theme and they do appear in Joseph Twist'seponymous motet performed here. The words contemplate a challenging new world of shifting boundaries, alienation and loss. The historical circumstances which triggered these pieces still resonate today. Byrd, a devout Catholic, faced marginalisation in Protestant England. Further bereft after the death of his mentor Thomas Tallis, his music bookends this program with two mighty motets, the angst-ridden Tristitia et anxietas, and the acclamatory Tribue Domine.Byrd’s madrigal Ye sacred muses,mourning Tallis, sits at its centre.

Byrd was a master of word painting and vocal writing. The Song Company is renowned for its expertise in early music and this concert is no exception. The lower voices are especially pleasing in Tristitia et anxietas, though at times, there is a touch too much vibrato in the upper line. The chant-like repetition in Ye Sacred Muses (“Tallis is dead, and Music dies”) is heart-rending. The entire ensemble gathers for a glorious account of Tribue Domine, one of Byrd’s most admired early pieces.

The rest of the program continues the theme with contemporary compositions. Paul Stanhope is present for his engaging piece Longing; David Lang’s I Want to Live,sung by the three female voices, sopranos Susannah Lawergren, Amy Moore and mezzo-soprano Jessica O’Donoghue, who coil and uncoil the three imitative parts with just seven words and changing metres. They reassemble for a fluent and beautifully controlled rendition of William Cornysh’s dolorous Tudor round Ah Robin, Gentle Robin, a simple theme which is elaborated differently at each iteration.

Twist’s How Shall We Sing in a Strange Land? is a powerful song of searching. He boldly intertwines the Old Testament text with the words of A Song of Hope by Indigenous poet and Quondamooka woman Oodgeroo Noonuccal, uniting the longings of displaced people in different worlds. After a haunting introduction from Lawergren, the English and Latin words are sung simultaneously. Cluster chords and changing metrics course through the music, building to an impassioned climax and fading to nothing in a chorale-like finish.

Kyrie after Byrd is an apt addition to the line-up. Composed by British-Polish composer Rox nna Panufnim (b. 1968), her ideas from Byrd’s five-part mass are evident from the soaring beginning. In a sign of the times, Panufnik says that on receiving this commission, she “immediately went to You Tube” rather than her own archive, to listen to the original.

There are two works by Gabriel Jackson: In All His Works,sung by mezzo-soprano and four male voices, and the wedding anthem I gaze upon you. The cheeky madrigal You and I and Amyas IIby Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen from tenors Timothy Reynolds and Watson and basses Hayden Barrington and James Fox, adds a touch of levity to the collection.

The ensemble performs ‘in the round.’ Some of the voice combinations play with the original scoring. The acoustic is perfect for the repertoire and size of ensemble, adding an extra layer of shimmer to the sound. Lawergren and Reynolds sing with soaring straight-toned blend and beauty as excellent choral soloists.

The flow of music and the cascade of crystalline sound is fragmented by applause and impromptu words after each item. It left me wishing I could be immersed in the music without interruption, with the focus for performers and audience anchored and the continuity of a meticulously rehearsed program – curated for its mood, message, key relationships and musical values – maintained. Words can be consigned to programs, podcasts and pre-concert talks. There is an unhappy trend in Sydney that sees the lecture-recital encroaching on the recital format – one that assumes that audiences need to be educated.

Songs from a Strange Land is a thoughtful program, generous in its philosophy, which demands and receives solid musicianship and ensemble skills. The sound is pure, luminous and mostly well blended. This is a gilt-edged performance from The Song Company. (Shamistha de Soysa)

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CLASSIKON - The Song Company’s moving tribute to William Byrd’s legacy

In their third program for 2023, under the guest direction of early music specialist Christopher Watson, The Song Company pay homage to William Byrd, a man who crafted some of the most exquisite vocal compositions ever conceived. 2023 marks the 400th anniversary of his death.

Nestled beneath the grandeur of St Mary’s Cathedral, The Crypt provided an appropriate backdrop for this musical journey, its stone arches and timeless ambiance perfectly complementing the historical significance of the concert. Acoustically, for this type of concert, the space couldn’t be better. As five singers standing in a round produced the first tentative chords of Byrd’s Tristitia et Anxietas, a poignant reflection on inner turmoil, I felt a veil of sorrow lift up to the vaulted ceiling and settle gently, yet heavily, over the audience as the music shrouded us in mourning. Breathtaking.

Watson then introduced the concert, briefly explaining the turbulent backdrop of 16th-century England in which William Byrd’s compositions found their voice. He bore witness to the upheaval and persecution faced by the Catholic community and his music often mirrored these trials. The Catholics worshipped in clandestine chapels, perhaps similar to the Crypt, where Byrd’s compositions likely filled the air, exploring themes of isolation and exile. In the shadows of exile within his homeland, Byrd’s faith remained steadfast. His compositions frequently radiated themes of devotion and praise. Watson elegantly framed this concert with two of Byrd’s monumental works: Tristitia et Anxietas and Tribue Domine (an entreaty to the Almighty for the strength to praise amidst human frailty). As Watson noted, he would take us from ‘the most miserable to the most jolly’ of Byrd’s output.

The themes explored by Byrd resonate universally as modern composers continue to draw inspiration from similar texts. Watson chose for the first half of the concert Longing by Paul Stanhope and How Shall we Sing in a Strange Land by Joseph Twist.  Both overlaid modern poetry against biblical texts of exile and destruction, Stanhope quoting a Palestinian poet and Twist choosing Oogeroo Noonuccal’s A Song of Hope. Both, with their beautiful word painting, were eerily timely considering today’s news and current affairs. Listening to these works I was struck by just how good Australian choral composers are. To use a sporting metaphor, we continue to punch above our weight – as a small Commonwealth nation our choral output is substantial and exceptional thanks to these two composers and their many contemporaries. I believe their music reaches into the Australian psyche, as I am sure Byrd’s did in his own time and place.

That said, my favourite piece was actually New York composer David Lang’s I Want to Live. Five simple words ‘I want to live where you live’, which could be interpreted any way one wished. Was it a love song? A connection to stolen country? The murmured yearnings of exile? An evocation of invasion even? Whatever you imagined, this gentle reflection on a repeated few words was sung hauntingly by the three upper voices (Susannah Lawergren, Amy Moore and Jessica O’Donoghue), progressing from a plaintive hopefulness to a pleading, then despairing crescendo. Later in the program the three women sang the English folk song Ah Robin, again in trio, this time with backs to each other. They deeply know each others’ voices and it shows in their remarkable ability to both blend subtly and let an individual voice ring out as required. A simple but compelling performance – and another highlight.

Squarely set in the middle of the program was the next of Byrd’s works, a lament, Ye sacred muses, dedicated to his friend and mentor, Thomas Tallis, which echoed themes of profound loss. Sung with mournful emotion, “Tallis is dead, the Music dies.”

Then, Roxanna Panufnik’s Kyrie, a contemporary and vaguely jazzy nod to Byrd’s polyphonic Mass for Five Voices, in which you could hear a little bit of Byrd’s melodic material and the mirroring of his harmonic devices throughout.

Pelle Gudmunsen-Holmgreen’s You and I and Amyas II was an opportunity for the male voices to shine, and brightly they did! Timothy Reynolds, Chris Watson, Hayden Barrington and James Fox produced a remarkably tight and clear sound for such a ‘forgiving’ acoustic. The humorous use of the voice to produce instrumental-like glissando sounds gave the impression of town gossips oohing and aahing at the antics of the characters in this old English text which, like so many folk songs, had an underlying ominous tone.

The second half also featured two works by English composer Gabriel Jackson, In all His works and (Song) I Gaze Upon You, both glorious celebrations of life, love and praise, one written for a funeral and one for a wedding. Like many composers of his generation, Jackson has been influenced by Byrd and continues to contribute to the evolving legacy of English choral music.

The final work of the concert was Byrd’s Tribue Domine, a monumental hymn of praise to God, its symbolism deeply intertwined with its religious and historical context, a wide ranging work of extraordinary harmonies sung by an extraordinary ensemble.

Christopher Watson, making his directorial debut with The Song Company, wove the music of contemporary artists with the timeless compositions of William Byrd to create a musical journey that traversed the depths of human emotions, from isolation and sorrow to praise and celebration. The concert was a fitting tribute to one of the greatest masters of the choral tradition. Long may it live! (Pepe Newton)

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