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LIMELIGHT May 2022 ★★★★ "Antony Pitts leads The Song Company Apprentices through a stirring program of works from Antoine Brumel to Alice Chance."

It was an historic weekend for Sydney as Pier 2/3 at Walsh Bay held its opening festival, revealing The Neilson Theatre, brand new home of the Australian Chamber Orchestra. This state-of-the-art performance space, previously a wool shed, will now serve the city into the 21st century and beyond. In this celebration, The Song Company, resident in the adjacent Pier 4/5, presented its 12 inaugural 2022 SongCo Apprentices from Victoria and New South Wales. Under the watchful direction of Antony Pitts in its 'Underground' series Tremors of Earth, the Apprentices, part of the next generation of ensemble singers, performed a program of grand European Renaissance polyphony by Antoine Brumel and Nicolas Gombert, interleaved with contemporary pieces by Alice Chance and Antony Pitts. The occasion is tinged with grief as Pitts dedicates the performance to countertenor and former member of The Song Company Maximilian Riebl who lost his battle with cancer this weekend, aged just 30.

The program takes us from death to resurrection. At its heart is Antoine Brumel’s brilliant 12-part Missa Et ecce terrae motus ('Earthquake' Mass), based on text from the book of Matthew, which describes the women at the sepulchre, 'And, behold, there was a great earthquake...' Built on the first seven notes of a medieval Easter antiphon, Brumel produced this tour de force, in c.1497, long before Striggio and Tallis wrote their 40-voice masterpieces in 1561 and 1570... The span of the inner voices is unusually demanding and not infrequently, the 12 voices cross each other in range. This substantial undertaking, lasts around 45 minutes and brims with complex polyphony and rhythms for each voice... it is a crucial exercise in technique, musicianship, ensemble skills and in reading early notation, as the singers use 16th-century choirbook manuscripts.

As with any language, when the script is forgotten, its expression dies. It is imperative to maintain the art of reading early music if it is to survive. The singers do ample justice to Brumel’s astonishingly beautiful and richly complex piece of Renaissance choral writing. They use physicalisations to indicate pitch and tactus as well as to indicate points of synchronicity. The lower voices anchor the lengthy notes of the cantus firmus of the Kyrie under shifting harmonies and imitative lacy melodic lines. The Gloria is given a dance-like tempo, but nothing mitigates the glorious shock of the Credo. It is a show-stopper, achieved with tremendously poised singing, exploding with rich textures and a cascade of sound. A clarion-clear inverted pedal point is anchored by the soprano line from Elise Morton as the voices part and meet in sequence and opposition beneath.

The Sanctus is gentler and more contemplative, containing well-matched duets from Elise Morton and alto Stephanie Macindoe. Parts of the Agnus Dei in Brumel’s mass have deteriorated with time. Pitts has filled this void with the 12-part Agnus Dei from the Missa Tempore Paschali by Nicolas Gombert, which pays homage to Brumel by using the plainchant from the Earthquake Mass. Soprano Lily Harper with her luminous soprano tones takes the lead in this movement, creating a glorious ending to this exultant piece. Alice Chance’s Aurora Eora opens the concert, honouring the people of the Eora nation and the dawn. The 12 singers, positioned around the perimeter of the theatre, introduce the melody individually whilst moving to the centre of the performing area. Alto Cassandra Doyle’s solo is exceptionally beautiful. Chance’s second item in the program, Precious Colours (Pallah-Pallah), is another short but imaginative piece which narrates an Indigenous tale within a Western musical idiom.

Both pieces are a testament to Chance’s growing reputation as a thoughtful and gifted composer. Pitts’ Tres Antiphonae Paschae is a very appealing triptych which plays with part-writing, combining voices in different configurations. The Lord is risen, in declamatory style has soprano Lily Harper holding a slow trill soaring above the other voices; Thou knowest my lying down has a distinctive rising chromatic soprano line... and The bread which we break is built on columns of cluster chords... The youthfulness of the apprentices belies their professionalism. Under Pitts’ guidance these exceptionally gifted musicians with fresh and lucent voices, achieve beauty of sound, choral blend and a solid sensitivity to performing as an ensemble." (Shamistha de Soysa)

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.The Song Company brought together their year’s theme Higher Ground with images of rebirth, growth, and renewal in a concert of Renaissance polyphony and new modern compositions. Fittingly, then, the concert also showcased the burgeoning talents of the company’s Apprentice Program, the up and coming voices of Australian music. The central piece of the Tremors of Earth concert program was the Renaissance mass Missa Et ecce terrae motus by Antoine Brumel... the stand out pieces from Tremors of Earth were the two composed by Chance in acknowledgment of the Indigenous traditions and heritage incorporated within the land The Song Company performs on. The first piece of the concert was Aurora Eora which played with the pairing of the words 'Aurora' meaning dawn and 'Eora' representing the Nation of the Gadigal people and 28 other groups from around the greater Sydney area. With the performers lined up along the sides of the Cathedral, their voices rose and echoed above the audience for an encompassing aural experience before they all gathered within the centre to begin the rest of the concert... The voice of soprano Elise Morton stood out in particular with a crystalline resonance which proved a promising introduction to the performers.

The second piece by Chance titled Precious Colours (Pallah-Pallah) was based on the Gamilaraay Dreaming story of Pallah-Pallah, the butterfly, as told by Auntie June Barker. The story is one about the foolishness of youth and explains the creation of the opal as coming from the beautiful colours of Pallah-Pallah’s butterfly wings. The performance was captivating from the opening as the lyrics were rotated through the performers from Emma Warburton to Lily Harper to Morton and to Cassandra Doyle before touching on the other performers, as well. This composition was particularly beautiful for the balance between the solo and multiple voices as they ebbed and flowed before finishing on a solemn hum... Tremors of Earth was a program of great variety in tone and taste but with a consistent interest in themes of new beginnings, which was fitting for the Easter time and aptly represented in the ensemble’s floral attire.

The mix of old and new compositions was a challenging combination but allowed the Apprentices to show off their impressive flexibility of style and demonstrated a promising collaborative avenue for The Song Company and young composers like Chance.

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