New space, new sound


La Compania

Deakin Edge, Federation Square

Saturday March 19, 2016

La Compania (
                                                                                    La Compania 

After a fair stretch of time working out of the Recital Centre’s Salon, this expert period music ensemble has moved its performance venue across Swanston Street Bridge to the Deakin Edge.   One immediate advantage is that patrons now have unimpeded visual access to the group’s performance: they’re all exposed, head to toe.  And, thanks to the space’s natural light, you can see the labour involved in the players’ work.  Another incidental benefit is that the need for two sittings of the same program on the same day has disappeared and, by yesterday’s showing, La Compania has largely retained its audience.

A disadvantage comes in the Edge’s acoustic properties.  While they can flatter a chamber orchestra, a small set of players like La Compania’s septet can become imbalanced, given the large air space.  Worth investigating is the solution put into practice by Kathryn Selby which is a back screen of panels that bounces sound out into the audience; this reflection works very well for piano trio recitals and might do much to lift the audible profile of Victoria Watts on viola da gamba and Rosemary Hodgson‘s vihuela and small guitar/chittarino, both of which tended to disappear in the sonic complex except when used percussively or when the wind components fell silent.

Opening the new season in a new room, Danny Lucin led his players and two singers in a program concentrated on Mateo Flecha the Elder, the early 16th century Aragonese composer attributed by some musicologists with the composition of that well-known Chistmas villancico, Riu riu.   But this program consisted entirely of the composer’s ensaladas – salads indeed, mixing languages and metres in a cleverly unified whole; to my mind, more like a mixed grill because of the emphatic if changing rhythms and the clear melodic definition, some stimulated taste-buds removed from lettuce leaves and cucumber.  Three of these involved singers, soprano Cristina Russo and tenor Timothy Reynolds: La negrina, La guerra and the substantial El fuego.   Interwoven came three instrumental transcriptions: La bomba and two brief extracts from another ensalada, El jubilate: O que bonita cancion and La girigonca.

Pretty much all of these, sung or played, have a religious basis: some connected to the birth of Christ, others like La guerra concerned with the inevitable triumph of the Son of David over Lucifer or the necessity to follow the strait and narrow path rather than succumbing to the tempting fires, depicted in El fuego (of course), that can seduce mankind into wrong-doing in this temporal realm.   All very laudable and, if you have to endure moral-enforcing strictures, they could hardly be more agreable than these buoyant and optimistic miscellanies, written for the Christmas-time delectation of Spanish aristocrats.

In this new operating ambience, Cristina Russo’s projection impressed more than the last time I heard her in the Salon.  From the confident opening to La negrina, her projection emerged clearly from a considerate instrumental backing, a fair match for Reynolds’ always-lucid tenor.  In fact, this ensalada offered the most obvious examples of internal variety, its parts glued together in a rapid-moving miscellany, while the later stages of La guerra held some cleverly constructed and just-long-enough onomatopoeic passages where the singers mimicked the sounds of battle.   In addition, both Russo’s and Reynolds’ articulation in these instantly perceptible right-or-wrong conditions remained finished and accurate and their diction impressed consistently, given the rapidity with which several stretches of the texts had to be pronounced.

Lucin’s cornetto is as supple as ever, never strident but sinking to a gentle piano when escorting the singers, even if some of his ornamentation work sounded over-rushed; too many notes, as Mozart’s emperor said.  When Brock Imison took up his bass dulcian, the instrument’s penetrating force gave the ensemble’s output an added weight, matching Mitchell Cross‘s penetrating tenor dulcian while Glenn Bardwell‘s sackbut presented a discreet line throughout the program.  In fact, the streamlined shape of the company, with Christine Baker‘s percussion offering plenty of colour in her chameleonic supporting role, gave this celebratory music an attractive leanness that only came unstuck at the start of O que bonita cancion which began with a solo from Hodgson that sounded tentative, possibly because the notes fell awkwardly for the player’s left hand.   But it was a small blemish, forgotten when the other instrumentalists entered into this particularly enjoyable ensalada party.

Out one door and in another


La Compania

Salon, Melbourne Recital Centre

November 14, 2015

Giving its last recital at the MRC before moving next year to the glass-and-wood complex of Federation Square’s Deakin Edge, this estimable period-music ensemble  opted for an all-Hispanic program,  one that continually shot off in southern colonial directions. Director Danny Lucin‘s cornetto and an instrumental septet played a few instruments-only pieces but much of Saturday evening’s recital consisted of sung material in which La Compania supported soprano Cristina Russo.

                                                             La Compañia (image:

This was a mini-tour in 14 segments, some of them quite short, of Spanish music at home and in the American colonies which stretched from religious music of the early 16th century to Peruvian dances constructed close to the start of the 19th.  Of course, the physical provenance of the works was reflected in their categorization, religious and secular, with a fair mixture of both.  To all of it, the Companians gave their best with crisp attack and a rousing realization of this music’s rhythmic vehemence.

To begin, the players worked through some diferencias on an anonymous theme called Las Vacas; basically, a ground bass with elaborations on top  or around its progression which gave a sample of the sound-colours on offer: Lucin’s rapid bright line, Mitchell Cross’s all-purpose dulcian (a precursor of the bassoon), the supple sackbut ((early trombone) of Glen Bardwell, David Irving‘s refined violin, and two supports in the gamba of Victoria Watts and Rosemary Hodgson‘s alternating vihuela and guitar.  Icing on this particular cake came from percussionists Denis Close and Christine Baker, both prominent contributors throughout with drums, tambours, gourds, and eventually the inevitable castanets.

Russo’s pure timbre soon became a single strand in an anonymous Dennos lecencia senores, a cachua or round dance from Peru where the whole ensemble participated, not aggressively but making enough of a sonorous edifice to background all but a powerfully projected voice.  This overpowering also took place in a villancico by Antonio de Salazar, Seville-born but a Mexican composer.   His Tarara tarara qui yo soy Antoniyo continued the Christmas theme that ran through the program but, with both sackbut and dulcian out of the mix, Russo enjoyed more exposure, her clear timbre taking prime focus and the text became decipherable.

Two pieces by Gaspar Fernandes – born in Portugal but moved to Mexico and Guatemala – showed a lively invention, if also presenting the players with a real challenge in A belen me llego, tio with its punctuating syncopations that did not quite succeed in their effectiveness when essayed by an ensemble like this one with widely differing dynamic possibilities; from what I’ve heard, the piece works much better when singers – either individual or several to a line – are involved.

A brace of Francisco Guerrero pieces succeeded more satisfactorily, Russo enjoying the backing of Hodgson alone for the opening to Virgen Sancta, another Christmas villancico with a surprisingly mobile melody line.  Moving back to Peru c. 1780, the anonymous El Congo brought to mind a late Baroque mariachi band with bright triplets and an arrangement rich in upper reeds seasoned with a catchy percussion support.

Fernandes appeared further down the program with an Assumption song, Vaya, la princesa, vaya, which might have enjoyed more impact if the vocal line had not been doubled, as was the case in No hay mas dulce alegria where three instruments took on that duty in turn.   A return to the ambience of the night’s opening, Santiago de Murcia’s Los Imposibles is a passacalle which seems to follow the same bass as the Las Vacas tune.   More familiar to me in a guitar solo setting, this made comfortable listening thanks to some deft interwoven solos.   And to conclude, the company played yet one more Peruvian anonymity: Nino il mijor, another cachua of infectious if restrained jubilation at the presence of the Christ child.

Once more, La Compania here unveiled some treasures to which it brought a distinctive approach.  If the soprano was treated as just one thread in the group’s complex, at least she remained audible, even under some assertive, full-bore output from her colleagues.   Nevertheless, many factors generate delight when hearing this company, the most significant being its unique combination of finesse and spirit, especially when the ensemble girds up its loins for one last variant.  Now for a new home and three nights of further discoveries in 2016.