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LIMELIGHT - ★★★ ½ "Superbloom is a sterling test of ensemble skill, versatility and musicianship – and of the listener's appetite for challenge."

The Song Company celebrates 40 years with Superbloom, a program curated by American-Australian soprano and Guest Director, Jane Sheldon.

The title refers to that natural phenomenon in which desert flowers bloom in an abundant riot of colour and diversity when rains follow a period of drought. In her programming, Sheldon aims to express the contrasting themes of “aridness and lushness” with new and ancient works in which text and texture, harmony, melody and extended vocal techniques, along with percussion, illustrate these ideas in music.

Sheldon directs and at times, joins the unaccompanied six-voiced ensemble of sopranos Susannah Lawergren and Amy Moore, mezzo-soprano Jessica O’Donoghue, tenor Timothy Reynolds, baritone Hayden Barrington and bass-baritone Andrew O’Connor – some of the finest ensemble and solo singers on the scene.

Paying homage to the early specialist repertoire of the ensemble, the curtain-raiser,Flos Regalis (Royal Flower), is a charming motet for three female voices written by an unknown composer. Lawergren, Moore and O’Donoghue transport us back to the 14th century with this whirling, uplifting piece, in which sparse open harmonies alternate with the melody tossed from one voice to another.

From the ensemble’s more recent history, we hear Michael Whiticker’s triptych As Water Bears Salt, first performed in 1989, by the Sydney University Chamber Choir under Nicholas Routley, who was strongly associated with this ensemble. In this 1990 arrangement for six singers and percussion, voices emerge and recede in sighs, drones, clicks, whispers and cluster chords. First performed by The Song Company in a program of new works in 1992, there is little record of further performances until this outing.

If Katharine Balch’s forgetting(2021) were a painting, it would be Dali’s The Persistence of Memory. Craggy shapes flank limpid colours and melting objects, like moment of lucidity amid whirring mental machinations, some laboured, some lighting fast, trying hard to remember. The Australian premiere of this piece brings extended vocal techniques from whispers to grating vocal fry and growls, a full spectrum of dynamics and glottal sounds. Wrist cranks represent the ratcheting of memory; cluster chords alternate with an atonal brave new world of sound, compositional structure, notation and instrumentation.

With Gesualdo’s two secular madrigals, Io parto’ e non più dissi and Ecco, moriró dunque, the ensemble slips into more familiar and expert territory. Just as we might be shocked by some of the new sounds we hear today, so were audiences who heard Gesualdo’s rebellious crunching, chromatic dissonances, pivoting, ambivalent harmonies and aching suspensions. Here is an opportunity to hear the voices in their full lyrical beauty, blend, technical virtuosity and subtlety of colour elaborated with the rhythmic tricks typical of Gesualdo’s disruptive style.

There are two golden moments in the performance. One is in the stillness that pervades the room between the two pieces by Gesualdo. No chatter; no applause. Just hushed silence; a moment of meditation.

In the second moment, the penultimate piece by Hildegard von Bingen, O nobilissima viriditas,morphs seamlessly into Sheldon’s own 2024 composition, Flowermuscle, which has its world premiere as the closing piece of the evening. This is apt vocal writing and a pleasing soundscape. If only we knew more about the piece.

There are times in this performance when I feel like a tourist in a new city with no map to tell me where the city begins and ends, its topography, its contours and highlights. Full text and translations are provided but there is little information about composers and pieces. For a first-time listener without a listening guide, score or program notes, it is hard to discern a structure beyond a collection of vocalisations.

One aspect of this minimal approach is to savour the performance with a clean slate and no preconceptions. On the flip side, it is a missed opportunity to champion these works and explain their merit (though not in a didactic style that interrupts the carefully curated continuity of sequence and mood).

The programming begs the broader question: do we want music for escape, to entertain, to be beautiful and lyrical, or can we accept that it should also challenge, innovate, niggle and even be ugly?

Superbloom is a sterling test of ensemble skills, versatility of style and musicianship. The singers of The Song Company are masters of the diverse repertoire that they present, be it medieval or modern. If it is the case that its succession of guest directors represents a search for future direction, then it needs to finely juggle commercial viability with broad appeal and the need to innovate. (Shamistha de Soysa)

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CLASSIKON - Song Company’s Superbloom ‘a form of worship in song’ superbly performed

Superbloom describes the miraculous blooming of the desert after unusual rain – there is an extreme contrast between the arid and the lush. Guest Director Jane Sheldon embraced this concept to create an exciting program of contrasts, where some works are ‘arid’ in their sounds, while others have lush harmonies or text that describes floral lushness. There were also contrasts in the age of the music, ranging from the 12th century to the present day – from Medieval to ultra modern.

The Utzon Room at the Sydney Opera House was filled to capacity as the Song Company strode in. Timothy Reynolds (tenor), Hayden Barrington (baritone) and Andrew O’Connor (bass-baritone) went off stage, leaving Susannah Lawergren (soprano), Amy Moore (soprano) and Jessica O’Donoghue (mezzo-soprano) to sweetly sing Flos Regalis, an anonymous 14th century “Lady Mass” honouring the Virgin Mary in terms of flowers.

Jane Sheldon introduced, then conducted the next work: Michael Whiticker’s As Water Bears Salt, first performed by the Song Company in 1992. There were three movements with words based loosely on three plays by Federico Garcia. The singers occasionally accompanied themselves with bells and chimes and often made interesting vocalisations. They sang in close harmonies, expressing the different moods engendered by the songs,

Katherine Balch’s Forgetting was unforgettable! This tragic and slightly disturbing work seemed to imply the onset of Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, with arid sounds reflecting a blank, confused mind intercepted by lucid moments sung to the words of Katie Ford from her 2020 poem Estrangement. Jane Sheldon conducted from within the ensemble, while she and Susannah Lawergren sang in pure astringent harmonies, expressing the anguish of forgetting. The “arid” moments were emphasised with subtle percussion, ending with a finalé of them all spinning ratchets (as used in football matches before they were banned) in loud protest of forgetting.

A complete contrast to this contemporary work was provided by two madrigals for five voices by Carlo Gesualdo: lo parto’ e non piu disi (“I am leaving” I said) and Ecco, moriró dunque (So then die I will). Although composed in the late 16th century, these displayed daringly lush harmonies, 3 centuries ahead of their time. It is said that Gesualdo’s music was infused by the guilt and remorse he felt after being instrumental in the murder of his wife and her lover. The singing was was accordingly passionate.

This segued smoothly into James Weeks’ 2009 composition, Veni in hortum meum. It sounded not too dissimilar to Gesualdo’s work, but was about a fecund garden, with words from the Song of Songs.

We were again challenged with a contrasting ‘arid’ piece with Rebecca Saunders’ Soliloquy written in 2007 for six voices. The sound was very sparse with silence being an integral part of the work. The mysterious harmonies and dissonances were almost like desert wind. There were occasional surprise shouts interspersed with forlorn voices. The effect was very dramatic. Rebecca Saunders wrote, “For me, what’s really important is enabling the listener to feel the magical physicality of sound, the timbre, the colour, the mass, the weight, of sound. That’s what I feel I’m working with, almost like a sculptor works with different materials.” The Song Company certainly certainly did this piece justice!

Jane Sheldon then introduced Hildegard von Bingen’s O noblissima viriditas (O noblest greenness) speaking about her as an old friend. This beautiful performance sounded quite different to what we usually expect from Hildegard’s music, as it was sung by 6 individuals, rather than a larger choir. The words were in praise of Nature – a form of worship in song.

This mood continued as they performed Jane’s own composition, the world premiere of Flower Muscle, which she conducted from within the ensemble whilst singing. It was sung in German, the text being Rilke’s poem Blumenmuskel, about an anemone opening by day and closing at night within the realms of Nature and that we too should be open to the beauty of nature. They sang this in sweet harmonies that ended softly, giving a peaceful ending to this wonderful concert.

After a hushed silence, the audience burst out in raucous applause with whistles and bellows expressing their appreciation of a truly exciting and superbly performed program of contrasts. (Heidi Hereth)

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SYDNEY MORNING HERALD - ★★★½ "An intimate experience of their immaculate control, close attention to minute musical detail and glowing balance."

A superbloom occurs when arid deserts burst riotously into flower after a rare combination of dryness, rain, warmth and conditions favourable to normally dormant seeds. Singer/composer Jane Sheldon saw one in Death Valley, California in 2016 and parked the impression as a potential musical idea.
That seed finally germinated in this concert, which explores the idea of aridity and lushness in connection with the creative mind, where ideas can lie fallow for years before blossoming, sometimes developing austere strength and sharp clarity in the process.

The concert begins with an unmistakeable flower, a beautifully balanced and buoyant performance by Susannah Lawergren, Amy Moore and Jessica O’Donoghue of an anonymous English 13th- century conductus, Flos regalis virginalis.

By contrast, As Water Bears Salt (1990) by Australian Michael Whiticker created a sense of alienated strangeness using three poems by Federico Garcia Lorca in crystalline, delicately fragile textures for voice and murmuring percussion, with suppressed eroticism just below the surface.

In the Song Company’s 40th year, this was a work from the archives that has stood the test of time.

Forgetting, by American composer Katherine Balch, also combined voices and percussion, and began with stopped utterances and sounds in a state of almost silent inarticulateness and hesitancy. The sonic fabric gradually melted into warm chords, the singers cleverly sliding from one to the other in new-found freedom.

Two madrigals by 16th-century composer Gesualdo explored the lush, almost meretricious, side of chromatic harmonic expression in luminous flowing, expertly pitched performances. Veni in Hortum Meum by UK-based composer James Weeks explored mellifluous polyphonic vocal lines that alighted on delicate dissonances like blown flowers on dry earth.

In Soliloquy, composer Rebecca Saunders, using gnomic text by Samuel Beckett, moved back to the arid end of the spectrum for an extended (slightly overextended) work built on single sustained notes from O’Donoghue as though “attempting speech, failing and going to song”

In the medieval hymn O nobilissima viriditas by Hildegard of Bingen, bass-baritone Andrew O’Connor provided a falsetto drone that was progressively passed down to baritone Hayden Barrington and tenor Timothy Reynolds until it morphed into a background texture, resembling undulating water, for Sheldon’s work Blumenmuskel.

The words, by Rainer Maria Rilke, describe the “flower-muscle” of the sea anemone, opening the organism to light and fullness as a metaphor for fecundity.
With glass walls and wooden floor, the Opera House’s Utzon Room provided a splendid resonance chamber for the Song Company, giving the listener an intimate experience of their immaculate control, close attention to minute musical detail and glowing balance. (Peter McCallum)