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Q&A/Music

New harmonies

2 March 2020

Introducing Perth’s newest music ensemble Harmonia Australis, who will be tackling one of the big issues in classical music on International Women’s Day.

Harmonia Australis is a Perth’s newest orchestra with a vision to do things differently. Soprano Jessica Taylor and horn player Brooke Prendergast chat with Rosalind Appleby about their concert on International Women’s Day.

Rosalind Appleby: Orchestras have been run the same way for hundreds of years – tell us about the way you are doing things differently at Harmonia Australis.

Jessica Taylor: We’re Perth’s newest professional orchestra, chorale and chamber music collective. We’re different because we’re run by our members and we’re here to challenge the status quo.

The musicians of Harmonia Australis don’t just rehearse and perform at our concerts – we also take on all the behind-the-scenes roles, such marketing, project management and venue liaison. As freelance and self-employed musicians, developing all these extra skills is really important.

Brooke Prendergast: Not only do we broaden our skillset, we also have the opportunity to propose and direct our own concert programs, and collaborate with like-minded musicians who want to shake things up in the classical music world.

RA: You are both on the planning committee that dreamed up the idea of “Out of His Shadow”, a concert for International Women’s Day. Why did you choose to give the platform exclusively to women composers and performers?

JT: When you think of your favourite classical music composers, what names initially come to mind? Let’s be honest – Bach, Beethoven, Brahms: the 3 B’s of classical music are household names to every music enthusiast. All great, but all men.

Today in Australia, around 25% of composers are women. While this statistic is much better than in the past and more promising than in many other countries, it’s still so important to take opportunities like International Women’s Day to actively redress the balance. A similar gender imbalance has also been present in the other musical disciplines such as conducting and orchestral playing. Many women have helped colour the vibrant landscape of classical music, but have been mostly left out of the history books until relatively recently.

BP: Our International Women’s Day concert is all about breaking down old boundaries and continuing to shift the status quo. We want to celebrate women in music to help build a richer and more inclusive classical music scene for future generations.

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RA: It’s great to see the names of some great women from the past (Clara Schumann, Fanny Mendelssohn, Lili Boulanger, Amy Beach) on the program, alongside some contemporary composers. Jess tell us a little more about Rachel Bruerville and how her piece Strength For All came to be commissioned by Harmonia Australis?

JT: I first met Rachel when we were both singing with the National Youth Choir of Australia. I had the opportunity to sing one of her compositions with NYCA, and she has stuck in my mind because of her distinctive, fun music. She’s a multi-talented cellist, singer, and composer, and I’ve really enjoyed reading her articles for CutCommon. When Harmonia Australis first started discussing a female Australian composer to collaborate with, I couldn’t think of anyone I’d rather ask.

Rachel and I found the text for Strength For All together. It’s based on the poem “Work” by Emma Lazarus, the same poet who wrote the text inscribed at the foot of the Statue of Liberty. There’s something so intensely and inherently powerful about the opportunity to sing this text about female strength with Bonnie de la Hunty and Lucy Schneider, two of my favourite colleagues, in this concert entirely run and performed by women. I am so grateful to Rachel for this beautiful centrepiece.

RA: Brooke how did you come across American composer Amanda Harberg’s Suite for Wind Quintet?

BP: When it comes to playing chamber music, the wind quintet is one of my favourite combinations of instruments to work with. This concert provided an opportunity for me to perform with a wind quintet, but even though I’m someone who really loves wind quintet music, I couldn’t think of a single wind quintet piece by a female composer – which I think really highlights the issue at hand!

I’m so grateful that International Women’s Day is a thing, because if it wasn’t, who knows whether I would have ever done the Google search to find wind quintets composed by women!?

I discovered numerous wind quintets by women that I had no idea about, but when I came across a recording of Harberg’s Suite for Wind Quintet on YouTube, I immediately knew this was the one. It was only composed in 2017, and it’s already winning awards. I suspect it will quickly become part of the standard wind quintet repertoire, so I’m very honoured to be delivering what I believe is the first performance in Perth (and maybe even Australia).

RA: Your opening season in 2019 was built around large orchestral and choral works, but this concert is entirely chamber music. What do you hope the audience will experience?

JT: In a big orchestra, there’s a kind of homogeny that’s both incredible and overwhelming – both visually and to listen to. I feel the audience experiences an orchestra as one giant entity, while chamber music groups allow for more focus on each individual involved. Chamber music invites the audience to connect more intimately with the musicians, as well getting to know the colours and characters of each instrument more deeply.

BP: I hope each member of the audience will leave with a greater appreciation for some lesser-known composers, but I also hope everyone learns something new about music – regardless of what their current level of musical knowledge is.

RA: What else does Harmonia Australis have planned for this year?

BP: We have another chamber music concert coming up in June that’s entirely Beethoven for the composer’s 250th anniversary, but before that we have a performance of the Poulenc Organ Concerto and Handel’s Dixit Dominus in May. It’s a really busy year after that. In fact, from May we have a program every month for the rest of the year! We’re doing a Christmas in July programme; a concert of the music of Beethoven’s Childhood in August; an soiree of operatic repertoire in September; a fun Oktoberfest programme in October; a liturgical performance of Durufle’s Requiem in partnership with St Mary’s South Perth in November; and in December Berlioz’s Infancy of Christ, and finally Mozart’s Coronation Mass in partnership with St Mary’s South Perth.

JT: We aim to do three performances of each programme – usually two in Perth and one down south in Bunbury or Albany. In future years we hope to expand our regional reach with more extensive touring throughout Western Australia!

Harmonia Australis perform ‘Out of His Shadow’ on International Women’s Day, 8 March 2020 at St Mary’s Anglican Church, South Perth.

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Author —
Rosalind Appleby

Rosalind Appleby is an arts journalist, author and speaker. She is co-editor of Seesaw Magazine, author of Women of Note, and has written for The West Australian, The Guardian, The Australian, Limelight magazine and Opera magazine. She loves the percussion instruments which can be found in the uber cool parks.

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