When Jonathan Larson's Pulitzer Prize and three-time Tony Award-winning Rent opened on Broadway in 1996, just hours after he had died after suffering an aortic dissection, Act Two's opening number, 'Seasons of Love' was bumped to the start of the show, in tearful tribute of Larson's memory. It immediately became a stand-alone 'hit' of modern musical theatre, and owing to the HIV status of the show's characters, an anthem for HIV-AIDS awareness.
Opening with a distinctive piano and bass vamp, the entire cast moves downstage in a single line and sings:
Five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutes.
How do you measure, measure a year?
In daylights, in sunsets? In midnights, in cups of coffee? In inches, in miles, in laughter, in strife?
In five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutes...
How do you measure, a year in the life?
As I reflect on my first year with The Song Company, I am drawn to these words. And so, I have to ask myself: What encapsulates all of the amazing experiences I have shared with my colleagues this year? How do you measure a year in the life of The Song Company?
When I packed up my life in Perth, and jumped in a car with my best friend to make my one way trip over the Nullarbor and the Great Ocean Road, we had a clear measurement of the journey.
- 12 Days
- 5 Campsites
- 3 Hotels
- 2 Family Homes
- 58 ½ hours in the car
- 5061.1km on the odometer
The drive was, as expected, spectacular. But of course (to use the old cliché) it was the journey (and all the memories shared along the way) that would define the experience. The hours of in-car banter and GoPro situation reports; dusting off our swags each morning when packing the car; turning each new corner along the Great Ocean Road and exclaiming 'Wow!'; camping on the beach during a catastrophic gale-force weather warning; getting 'lost' momentarily halfway between the Eyre Highway and Fowler's Bay; spending the night in a converted church with a bathtub in place of the altar. We loved it so much, we plan on doing a Sydney > Cooktown, QLD drive in July!
If I wanted, I could measure my first year with the Song Company in a similar fashion.
- 27 Subscription Concerts
- 20 Festival Performances
- 24 School Shows / Education Workshops
- 4 Multi-Day Education Residencies
- 10 Collaborative Performances
- 2 Days of Studio Recording
- 2 Appearances on ABC RN's Music Show
- 6 Live-Recorded Concert Broadcasts
- 33 Venues (16 Regional)
- A tower of scores on my piano, 51cm high.
It is true that 2015 was a huge year -- a year of firsts. A year of personal and artistic growth like none other. Debuts in some of Australia's most iconic performing arts venues: the Sydney Opera House, Melbourne Recital Centre, and City Recital Hall. Twelve domestic flights and hundreds of kilometres covered by car across four states. But is this how I measure my year with the Song Company? Of course not.
Like the journey that brought me to Sydney, my first year with the Song Company is full of precious memories. I like to divide the work we do as ensemble into three categories: Performance, Education, and Collaboration. Each is vitally important to our working life and relevance as an ensemble.
It's my task to try and wade through some of the highlights. Of the many unique performances we have given this year (culminating in the extraordinary programming of twelve new Australian commissions for our all-Leunig Song Almanac) I must say that one of the most moving was Roland Peelman's Point Final -- a dedication to his 25 extraordinary years of music-making and artistic leadership. The concert was a melting pot of Franco-Flemish, Armenian, and Australian music spanning several hundred years. To my mind, this programme encapsulates the versatility of the ensemble to a tee -- as happy singing pop and jazz arrangements, as it is a reconstruction of a medieval part song.
Coming from a professional background in music education (vocal coaching and choral conducting) I know first-hand the benefits of the Song Company's education package, and it's ability to inspire children and teachers alike. Our school shows, in partnership with Musica Viva in Schools, are full of laughter, and the simple joy of singing. Children teach us much about performing. A gym-ful of K - Y3 students is a tougher audience than most adult audiences! I would often leave our three-show school days totally exhausted, but with a grin plastered on my face.
The third pillar of our work is collaboration. In a way, one could argue that everything we do, as six solo voices working together in an ensemble context, is collaborative. This year alone, we have performed with some extraordinary artists; the New Zealand String Quartet, Andrea Keller, William Barton, Australian Haydn Ensemble, Simone Vallerotonda, Oguz Mulayim, Amelia Farrugia, and the Acacia Quartet. There were so many incredible performances this year -- whether it was hearing the reverberations of the Turkish Ney amidst the polyphony of Robert White's Lamentations in the Crypt of St Mary's Cathedral; performing Jack Body's final piece, Cries from the Border just hours before his death with the New Zealand String Quartet; performing Haydn's Seven Last Words with the Australian Haydn Ensemble in the grungy, near-dark, exposed stonework of Cell Block Theatre, only illuminated by the light of coloured projections and a myriad of Edison globe lightbulbs; or hearing the deep and unmistakably Australian echoes of William Barton's didgeridoo in St James, King Street. Collaboration allows us to explore new ground with our singing, and adds a new dimension to our performances.
But perhaps my favourite memory of the year -- and one that threads together performance, education, and collaboration -- is Song Company's time with the Moorambilla MAXed out Company and Moorambilla Voices. Michelle Leonard's remarkable education programme saw us act as mentors to approximately forty young adults (Y7-Y12) from Central and Western NSW for a week in August, participating in a indigenous cultural immersion, and interacting with choreographers and composers to create a hybrid work of music, theatre, and dance. For this, their 10th Anniversary year, we worked with Jacob Williams (Queensland Ballet), Andrew Howes (Composer), Alice Chance (Composer), Anton Lock (Composer, Dancer), some of Sydney's finest chamber musicians, and TaikOz to create a work representing the Narran Lakes -- an ancient home and nesting ground of migratory waterbirds. We belong to a continent whose first peoples passed on traditional knowledge and culture through songlines. It was a very moving, and dare I say, a uniquely Song Company experience to share the stage a month later in September, with 200+ children and share part of this country's great story. As we rehearsed together in indigenous language: speaking of underground waterways, rocks, trees, rivers, ancestors, birds, and the black sands of Narran Lakes, I regularly found myself with tears in my eyes.
Beyond rehearsals and performances I have also (naturally) developed fond memories with my colleagues -- Susannah, Anna, Hannah, Mark, and Richard. It is not easy to jump into an ensemble with such history as the Song Company, performing much of our contemporary and jazz arrangements from memory, as well as our schools programme, and many other pieces in our early music repertoire. They have been endlessly warm, kind, patient, and supportive. I cannot thank them enough. My thanks too, must go to the Song Company board, and the entire office team -- in particular Alicia, Emma, Irene, and now Andrew -- who keep us all on task and allow us to bring the joy of music to our audiences. It goes without saying that I must also thank Roland Peelman for his inspiring musicianship and artistic leadership, and for taking a chance on a young-ish bass from Perth and offering him a job that I love coming to, every single day.
We are all very excited about what the 2016 season holds, as we welcome Antony Pitts (UK) as our new Artistic Director. We were lucky enough to have Antony join us at the Moorambilla Festival in September. Not only did we throw him in the deep end and ask him to conduct us with less than 24 hours notice, but we spent time rehearsing music for the 2016 Season Launch. I have a favourite memory of this time -- one that sums up the friendship our singers share. It was a Sunday afternoon. After a week in the crystal-clear night skies of Baradine, and three performances with Moorambilla Voices, and the Leichardt Espresso Chorus -- we settled in for lunch at the Pastoral Hotel in Dubbo. With several hours to burn before our return flight to Sydney, and with babies Patrick and Horatio at our feet, we decided to continue rehearsing. Taking turns to babysit young Horatio, juggling scores, baby bottles, wine glasses, and with a crawling one-year-old Patrick roaming around -- we rehearsed music from Monterverdi to Kats-Chernin to an unsuspecting 'publican' audience. It was a genuinely hilarious experience, but managed to be one of the most productive rehearsals we'd had all year!
And so, after that brief trip down memory lane I return to my original question: How do you measure a year in the life of the Song Company? Beyond the cups of coffee, the miles we travel, and the laughs we share, 'Seasons of Love' suggests that we should measure year in love. Happily, at the Song Company, each of us love to bring music from all times and places to our audiences: whether it's a classroom of children, one of our many regional venues, or our home audience in some of Sydney's most recognisable cultural landmarks.
I cannot wait to get back to work in 2016, as we embark on another year of incredible music, and begin a new chapter of music-making with Antony Pitts at the helm.
PS - Until then, there is much Christmas music to be performed! Richard, Susannah, and I will be performing at a private function with the SSO Quartet next week; I perform music of Michael Praetorius with Australian Baroque Brass on the 10th December at St James, King St; more Christmas music with Sydney Antiphony (also features former Song Company Young Artists Sonya Holowell, Owen Elsley, and Rob Hansen) on the 18th December in Rushcutter's Bay; and one of the Weihnachtskantaten (Christmas Cantatas) of J.S Bach on the 23rd December, again at St James, King St. You will find more details for all of these in your Song Company newsletter.