Reviews/Music/Perth Festival

An invigorating ride

15 February 2020

Tiffany Ha is blown away by The Gesualdo Six in ‘Ancient Voices’ – especially when there’s a didge involved.

Review: The Gesualdo Six with The Giovanni Consort, Voyces and William Barton, ‘Ancient Voices’ ·
Winthrop Hall, University of Western Australia, 14 February 2020 ·
Review by Tiffany Ha ·

When The Gesualdo Six – a consort of young male singers from Trinity College, Cambridge – stepped on stage and began singing William Byrd’s “Miserere Mihi Domine”, it felt as though time had stopped. The purity of their voices, the smoothness of their ensemble. They were bathed in a warm, yellow glow that seemed to descend from heaven itself while the audience surrounded them in darkness. It really was miraculous – a woman sitting across from me had her mouth agape in wonder for a good two minutes.

The program was mostly liturgical songs with some contemporary choral, folk song and art song. The Gesualdo Six – director and bass Owain Park, countertenor Guy James, tenors Joseph Wicks and Josh Cooter, baritone Michael Craddock and bass Samuel Mitchell – performed several songs on their own as well as collaborating with local ensembles The Giovanni Consort and Voyces. The different combinations of singers and choirs showcased interesting textures in the music and made for unique listening experiences.

Two of the standout pieces of the night were written for 40 parts: an awe-inspiring rendition of Thomas Tallis’s awe-inspiring Renaissance motet Spem in alium’ (fervently conducted by Park) and the world premiere of Perth-based composer – and Voyces member – Cara Zydor Fesjian’s ‘Ode to Ode’. Fesjian’s piece, commissioned in celebration of what would be Beethoven’s 250th birthday this year, is an homage to the fourth movement of his Ninth Symphony. The piece is stunningly crafted. When writing for 40 individual singers the parts can all too easily become lost or muddied, but Fesjian’s piece demonstrates a remarkable balance of restraint and joyous abandon. She mixes slower atmospheric textures with frenzied animated passages, otherworldly cluster chords, old-world harmonies and text in three different languages. ‘Ode to Ode’ is a joy from start to finish – in millennial terms (Fesjian was born in 1993): an absolute banger.

But what really blew me away was renowned Queensland didgeridoo player and composer William Barton’s “Kalkadunga Yurdu”, arranged for choir by Gordon Hamilton. What an exhilarating, invigorating ride – taking us away from the cool, quiet, candlelit churches of Western Europe back to humid Perth nights by the river, where the air feels almost electric amid the murmur of insects, birds, and festival-goers.

Barton announced our arrival – on that which always has been, always will be Aboriginal land – with one hell of an entrance, singing in language above the assembled choirs as he walked from the back of the hall to the central stage. He filled the hall with his astonishingly powerful voice, underscored by the combined choirs’ soundscape of overtone singing – a kind of chanting or throat-singing in which singers alter the shapes of their mouths to change the frequency of their voices, in a sense, harmonising with themselves.

This was a brilliant prelude to what we were all waiting for – Barton’s didgeridoo playing. A true master, he made it look and sound effortless. The other singers broke out into more rhythmic accompanying material, the basses blending with the didge’s woody, low drone and the sopranos echoing Barton’s uncannily evocative, exuberant bird calls.

After this sensational finale, the rapturous crowd gave Barton a standing ovation, but the crowd was hungry for more. The Gesualdo Six returned to the stage, though at this point, I had no idea what they could do to provide a fitting encore – I wished they’d let us go out on a high. But they gave us one more, another Thomas Tallis number, “Glory to Thee, My God, This Night”, which was sung well but felt, stilted, limp and anticlimactic after “Kalkadunga Yurdu”.

The Gesualdo Six are youthful, energetic, joyous performers, balanced by an immaculate English politeness. A bit more warmth and acknowledgement of the audience would have been nice, but given the excellent quality of their music, I don’t think anyone’s complaining. Suffice to say: You can take the choirboy out of Cambridge …”

Pictured top: The Gesualdo Six, a vocal consort from Cambridge, UK, in concert in Winthrop Hall. Photo: J. Wyld

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Author —
Tiffany Ha

Tiffany Ha is a pianist, composer, arranger, music educator and vocalist with a soft spot for anything a cappella. She has degrees in Music (Composition) and Arts (English) from UWA and works as a freelance musician. Her favourite playground equipment is anything that involves climbing and balance: monkey bars, rope towers, trees, human pyramids!

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