The Song Company
Melbourne/Australian Digital Concert Hall
Tuesday December 21, 2021
St. Philip’s Church, Sydney
Pretty much everything that has happened to The Song Company over recent years has escaped my notice. The group made several visits to Melbourne during my last years there, performing at the Recital Centre with impressive results; I believe Roland Peelman conducted at a few of these programs, although he resigned from his directorship in 2015, about four years prior to the organization being put into receivership and the unholy mess that followed. All the singers that I saw then have left the ensemble; the octet for Tuesday night’s live-stream program from Sydney’s St Philip’s Church in York Street featured completely new faces/voices, and any efforts to identify them all have met with little success.
This online experience was actually the middle one of five performances presented over three afternoons/nights from St. Philip’s and its companion Garrison Church over the hill in Miller’s Point. A thematically well-ordered program divided into four sections found the Company covering a wide range of repertoire, setting the celebratory ball rolling with O come, o come, Emmanuel pronounced by a male solo in Latin before the rest of the singers joined in to work through all eight verses – which rather threw me because I’d only ever come across seven – variety here catered for through groovy harmonic changes and soprano descants that increased in range and intensity. All of this was handled without the support of organist Kurt Ison; when he and his instrument entered for the last verse, the choral body had slipped slightly in pitch. It’s always a risk, that device, and probably best left on one side or not attempted so blatantly, no matter how secure the singers.
Conductor/associate artistic director Francis Greep was working from two compilations new to me: the Naxos Book of Carols and the Patmos Book of Carols. In fact, 10 of the 18 works heard on this program came from the Naxos collection, 2 from the Patmos, one appeared to be a fusion of both Patmos and Naxos – a sort of Dodecanese-Cycladic melange – and five were original compositions or arrangements by contemporary writers: one-time professional cartoonist Brian Kogler (two carols), indigenous musician Elizabeth Sheppard, Sydney lawyer Rachel Scanlon, and British singer Richard Eteson. This all made for an invigorating experience, as the Oxford Book of Carols and Jacques/Willcocks/Rutter Carols for Choirs compendia were swept aside in a welter of novelty.
Coming from the once-free north, I didn’t know that masks had been instituted (re-instituted?) in Sydney and this twilight audience was hard pressed to participate in the congregational numbers: Hark! the herald angels sing, Silent night, Away in a manger, and O come, all ye faithful – so much so, that the Company proved very powerful in dynamic, unlike the usual experience where people in pews discover lungs and diaphragms that have rested unused all year. Of course, this prominence might also have had something to do with the M/ADCH recording system. Whatever the cause, we heard all Company personnel clearly in whatever was being sung.
A regular at many Christmas services, The Angel Gabriel from the Basque territory here enjoyed new garb with a hummed first statement before the first verse began. Here came some harmonic shifts from the version that we all know, if not love. In less try-hard territory, the singers’ articulation and clarity of notes made a striking impression, particularly for a group that is new to their work. A group of three pieces combined came next – A Song of Joy, Christmas Day, and The Song of Angels – all ascribed to Orlando Gibbons. Well, I knew the last by name but its precedents left me out in the dark, even if the singers’ delivery again impressed for its clarity and balance.
Mendelssohn came upon us with the refreshment of different linear content, a very prominent organ, and a striking descant that would have proved improbably difficult for your common or garden-variety church choir. Moving into the second quarter, as we say in the AFL, The Holly and the Ivy had acquired a new tune from the BBC archives and this novelty was entwined with the regular Cecil Sharp-collected melody which was entrusted to a solo bass, a tenor-and-alto duo, then a soprano-and-bass combination (I think: this vagueness comes from hasty notes scribbled down while trying to find the new tune’s origin) with an impressive fusion in the final verse/chorus.
In another Continental excursion, the Company sang Es ist ein Ros entsprungen, according to Michael Praetorius. As far as I could hear, the first two verses were trios with all in for verse 3 – an arrangement I’ve not come across before – but the intra-linear spatial balance proved to be one of the program’s delights. Back home, we were just settling in to Kogler’s The King of Blis – which presumably used the same text as John Rutter had in 2010 – when it stopped! To be followed by the Silent night feast for the Company, with a solo male voice adding in some passing excrescences to the middle verse while his companions provided a hummed backdrop, the whole capped by a sad glissando on the first ‘born’.
Sheppard’s Mary, gentle Mother brought about a change in position for the singers but what actually came across was predictable and Anglican-sweet with an orthodox harmonization, although the composer displayed a deft realization of texture in her moves from homophony to part-writing. Baby Jesus, hush! now sleep was the Rocking Carol of Czech origin, notable for a brisk harmonic surprise in bar 2. Again, the ensemble’s carefully applied equanimity impressed, even when the linear texture increased in complexity. Britten made the Balulalow text inseparable from his A Ceremony of Carols setting, although a few composers have made their own versions, including Brisbane’s own Colin Brumby. Rachel Scanlan’s version suffered from an unclear women’s contribution at the beginning, but the work improves when it starts at Oh my dear heart and captures attention for its insightful response to the Wedderburn brothers’ words and for an unexpectedly brisk conclusion.
Part the Third’s finishing mark, Away in a manger, found the tenors riding the blast across Verse 1 in a Naxos arrangement that seemed to put off the congregation. In the choir-only Verse 2, something odd happened at the end of line 2, a move that I couldn’t put my finger on although it left the sense of an unflattering flattening. Whoever improved on William J. Kirkpatrick’s original was still aiming to keep the tenors on the qui vive in the final stanza.
Into the final phase and we encountered It came upon the midnight clear by Jonathan Pitts, a relative of Song Company artistic director Antony Pitts. An organ fanfare led into a monolinear opening strain, followed by a harmonized stanza, before reverting to the opening’s atmosphere of hushed excitement at going nowhere. And still they came: an alto solo leading to stately chorale sounds and a return to a sort of neo-syncopation at For lo! the days are hastening on, and an under-emphatic organ at the conclusion. Kogler emerged again with an aphoristic contribution in Gaudete. I heard the pendant Christus est natus/Ex Maria virgine,/gaudete! lines, even if the composer was livening things up by having his singers clap to punctuate their single line. It’s a lively piece, welcome in this context but – as with Kogler’s previous The King of Blis – it didn’t stick around long enough to make a lasting impression.
Eteson has used the tune Gallants Come Away as the basis for his version of A Jolly Wassel-Bowl, which has twelve stanzas because it was to be performed on Twelfth Night. The combinations offer variety – males, females, male duet, female duet, monolinear, rich harmonization, mixed duet, change of metre, full choir with descant. But it wears out its welcome – how could it be otherwise? – like Tchaikovsky’s employment of folk-song; a little dressing-up doesn’t take you very far. Nearing the end, the Company’s reading of In dulci jubilo boasted a line of sources: Praetorius, Bach and Stainer – the lot arranged by Antony Pitts. This might have worked to better effect with more variety of dynamic but little stuck out from the clever arrangements beyond an unexpected simplicity at Nova cantica and In regis curia. Good King Wenceslas from the Naxos collection again offered some sophisticated harmonic alterations but I found the organ contributions to be the main point of interest in this well-worn classic.
Full time. Here the lack of congregational input sounded most apparent. A vox populi presence was allowed in Verse 2 – the words were printed in the program – but, by this stage, it seemed as if the St. Philip’s turba was following the practice in many other churches where the experts are left alone at this point. Verse 3 employed a descant in canon, which seemed a trifle attention-grabbing; something similar happened with the grating chords at Word of the Father.
Nevertheless, this evergreen concluded a ceremony-of-sorts that removed decades of verdigris. Not all of it was congenial, especially to listeners heavy with preconceptions and expectations of a familiar experience; with respect and congratulations to the Patmos/Naxos innovations, I’m unsure what future these new interpretations will have outside professionally distinguished choirs like this ensemble. Still, I found cause for gratification in the continued existence of the Song Company and appreciate the efforts by Greep and Pitts to persevere in shaping a future for the ensemble: still one of the more impressive and meritorious blooms in Sydney’s serious music chaplet.