Australian Voices Focuses on Music From Home
It was hard to know what to admire most in the New York debut of the Australian Voices on Wednesday evening, the music itself often being the least of it. Six singers, representing the larger group based in Brisbane, performed at West Park Presbyterian Church in the Center at West Park program, conducted and sometimes joined by their artistic director, Gordon Hamilton, in a fast-paced concert with a heavy representation of Australian and new music, some with the pages barely dry.
Most of the new music and arrangements were written by members of the group or composers close to it, back home and in New York, with an obvious ear to the overall beauty of the voices and the specific talents of individual singers. The music played to their abilities — one singer using throat-singing, evoking the grumbly didgeridoo; another, overtone singing to produce two pitches at once, one of them an eerie but lovely whistling sound — and to the virtuosity of all.
Not least remarkable was that the performances were done from memory: this in works that had nonsensical texts or that set mere initials and numbers, as in Mr. Hamilton’s “Toy Story 3 = Awesome!” and “Initialize.” And some of the music had been finished just days before.
One composer, Ralph Farris, the violist of the string quartet Ethel, played in several pieces, including his own “Inner Landscape,” along with Dorothy Lawson, Ethel’s cellist. Another, Joseph Twist, an Australian living in New York, sang along in three numbers.
A segment of folk songs arranged by members of the choir included “Shenandoah,” a nod to America, segueing into “Waltzing Matilda,” a genuflection to Australia. Here, as everywhere, the performances were captivating, but the music was somewhat overarranged and somewhat denatured, the earthy tunes awash in ethereal counterpoint.
For the rest, the music was mostly entertaining on some level and occasionally edifying. But the evening rose to a different plane altogether at the end, with the glorious “Ave Maria” by the 20th-century German composer Franz Biebl.
Even here things were tricked up a bit, with a companion piece from Mr. Twist, “Ave Madonna,” setting fragments from Madonna’s “Like a Virgin.” But when it led into the Biebl, it was as if the gates of heaven had opened.
And after this, you thought, no encore could possibly measure up. The Australian Voices proved differently with an equally stunning account of “Bogoroditse Devo” (“Rejoice, O Virgin”) from Rachmaninoff’s “Vespers.”
The group’s Web site (theaustralianvoices.com) is rich in performance videos, including one of the Rachmaninoff. Prominent there also is Mr. Hamilton’s “Nine Cutest Things That Ever Happened,” an Internet sensation built on another, Jack Shepherd’s photo essay on BuzzFeed, “The 50 Cutest Things That Ever Happened.”
With this group, it seems, for a little sublime, you get a lot of ridiculous.