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Reviews/Music

A daring debut from Perth’s newest vocal ensemble

21 June 2021

The Vanguard Consort performed incredibly challenging music at their debut concert, and Bourby Webster says while nerves made for a cautious performance, the stage is set for an impressive future.

‘Launch concert’, Vanguard Consort ·
Pakenham Street Arts Space (PSAS), 20 June 2021 ·

The last review I wrote for Seesaw was of the Giovanni Consort, and here I am reviewing yet another elite a capella vocal ensemble just a few weeks later. The Vanguard Consort, a new ensemble from The Choral Collective, is run, managed and overseen by the impressive team of Luke Donohoe and Dr Robert Braham. So why another ensemble?

Donohoe, a powerhouse administrator in Perth’s choral scene explained to me that group is different. The Vanguard Consort is artist-led (the musicians choose the repertoire), artist-presented (the musicians host the concerts), and, from the get-go, a fully professional ensemble with all members paid full rates for rehearsals and performance.

To sustain itself, the ensemble will need to have a robust business model, a secure funding stream, a brilliant marketing team, strong patron, donor and sponsor appeal, and a clear point of difference in the market.

Rows of audience members in a dimly lit room watch ten singers arrayed in a semi-circle with music stands
The Vanguard Consort’s debut performance in the rustic space at Packenham Street Arts Space. Photo: Nik Babic

With this massive challenge ahead, I joined a capacity audience at PSAS for the ensemble’s debut. Ten, suave young singers formed a semi-circle behind their music stands in the softly-lit warehouse setting, and burst out into a fabulously executed house-keeping announcement in 10-part harmony (written by composer Jaakko Mäntyärvi). I sat up in my seat and took notice.

Then into the program proper which featured one world premiere, three Australian premieres, and five WA premieres. Here, clearly, is their point of difference – this ensemble is bravely setting out to bring chamber choral music to Perth that has never been heard before.

The first half was full of incredibly difficult harmony, rhythm and diction in works by Sarah Kirkland Snider, Caroline Shaw and Wally Gunn (whose work featured the rock steady rhythm of guest musician, drummer Ben Shelley). Whilst hugely impressive in parts, there was a sense of caution and nerves as the ensemble settled in. The brilliant, funny, and well sung house-keeping announcements continued to punctuate the spaces between works, giving the audience a moment to relax, and clearly serving the same much-needed purpose for the singers too. Their inclusion was a stroke of genius.

The first half concluded with a song by UK recording artist and composer Laura Mvula, Sing to the Moon. This was the first work performed without music and you could feel a difference. The homogenous passages were stunning with spine-tingling volume control showing the real potential of this ensemble.

The second half opened with an untitled work by Sydney-based Australian composer Sarah Elise Thompson who was in attendance. The work, written for The Song Company, a professional ensemble in Sydney, was, to this writer, a massive statement that we were witnessing the Western Australian equivalent being birthed.

Mieliteko by Jukka Linkola, was an exciting discovery. The series of five songs from Finnish folk music is based on words that are completely onomatopoeic, forcing the notes from the singer with such vitality, rhythm and joy. This work was a delight, and I began to understand why this ensemble has made its mission to challenge its audience’s perception of what contemporary classical choral music can be.

The program concluded with NZ singer-songwriter Kimbra’s hit song, Settle Down, cleverly arranged by ensemble member, Stefan Pugliese. The ensemble grew ten percent in every direction at this point – their power, energy, charisma, musicality – creating an engaging finale.

This was a daring debut. The repertoire was musically and technically incredibly challenging, and whilst nerves made for a cautious performance, the stage is set for an impressive future. I recommend checking out this new group on the Perth scene: if they can build on this impressive beginning, they’ll be a leading ensemble in WA of which we can all be proud.

Vanguard Ensemble will next perform with Voyces in ‘Love’ 11 September 2021.

Pictured top: Vanguard Consort are L-R: Stefan Pugliese, Kira O’Dell, Georgia Crowe, Kieran Lynch, Jack Kay, Alex Wheeler, Curtis Novacsek, Maduvanthi Venkatesan, Lydia Gardiner and Gabrielle Scheggia. Photo by Nik Babic

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Author —
Bourby Webster

Bourby Webster is the Founder and CEO of Perth Symphony Orchestra one of WA’s newest and fastest growing arts companies. She is a graduate of Oxford University in Music and the Royal College of Music and is a professional violist, lecturer, presenter, and producer. She can’t even look at a playground as she suffers chronic motion sickness.

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