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Reviews/Music

Vanguards bring poetry to vocal music

20 June 2022

Armchair poets become legends in their own lunchtimes in Vanguard Consort’s imaginative Saturday Night Poetry, writes Claire Coleman.

Saturday Night Poetry, Vanguard Consort ·
Old Customs House, 18 June 22 ·

Hip young artistic types meander around draughty Old Customs House, offering a warm welcome to audience members arriving for Vanguard Consort’s Saturday Night Poetry.

“Have you brought anything to read at Poetry Club? No? Oh. Not to worry, there’s still time to write a haiku.”

Pens are proffered, and we’re encouraged to compose poems which are collected before the concert begins. Mine, alas, is in invisible ink, but others are read or spontaneously sung during the course of the evening.

Our hip hosts turn out to be the Consort’s ten members. Most hail from UWA’s music department and compose, arrange or conduct alongside their performance practice, but all are avid and indiscriminate participants in Perth’s choral and vocal scenes. Vanguard Consort and sister choir, Voyces, are brought together under the banner of The Choral Collective, headed up by Managing Director Luke Donohoe and Artistic Director Dr Robert Braham OAM.

Poetry Night’s first half brings together seven short works under the conceit that songs can be poems too. Predominantly Australian premieres, and with a majority of compositions by women, these pieces are as fresh and vibrant as the Consort themselves. The opening world premiere, commissioned for tonight, is composed by Consort member Lydia Gardiner, whose other recent work “The Whale and I” was premiered at the 2021 Perth Festival.

Titled after tonight’s event, Gardiner’s “Saturday Night Poetry” is a setting of short verses by Trashfire Poetry, a Melbourne/Naarm based Instagram poet whose writing magnifies the peculiarity of modern life and digital trends. Gardiner’s writing uses dissonance as a kind of question mark, underscoring the playful absurdity of its libretto. While it’s hard to know whether a piece that feels so intrinsically bound to a one-off event will find future performance in other contexts, as an introduction to the evening’s voice-and-text works it can’t be topped. It’s clear that Gardiner is a composer to watch.

The Consort presents this and other works in the first half with superb and subtle characterisation. Eric Whitacre’s “A Boy and a Girl” feels languorous, Anna Clyne’s “Pocket Book” more earnest.

Threat and ridicule coexist fittingly in the Consort’s presentation of “SORTED” by Shruthi Rajasekar, whose text incites London Underground passengers to dob one another in to the British Transport Police.

The Consort’s five female voices bring to life an unsettling story of dementia in “my son my one” by Molly Pease, with reverberating drones, echoes, shared breath, unison and polyphony.

Jaakko Mäntyjärvi’s “Profane and profaner: The lusty smith” closes the first half and is played for the laughs it deserves. The Consort strikes a delicate balance, hamming up its suggestive content subtly enough that something is left to the audience’s imagination.

The second half of the program claims to offer prose rather than poetry, and more or less drops the Poetry Night ruse in favour of a more traditional classical performance set up.

It is here that Vanguard Consort’s superlative skill comes to the fore. Singing David Lang’s “The Little Match Girl Passion,” a Pulitzer Prize winning work that superimposes Hans Christian Anderson’s fable over the structure of an Easter passion, the Consort first induces goosebumps as it entreats us delicately to “come closer”, then slaps us with the rest of the tragic tale.

Alternating between part and full ensemble, the work is by turns lush and cold. The story’s compassionless lack of humanity is enhanced by the inclusion of icy percussive elements such as glockenspiel, bells and bass drum, which are also played by members of the Consort. The performance is achingly devastating.

Saturday Night Poetry demonstrates how experimentation with traditional forms can succeed, via thoughtful programming coupled with proficient presentation.

Vanguard Ensemble’s next concert Studio 2022 is 15 October 2022.

Pictured top: the singers from Vanguard Consort. Photo: Nik Babic @ Artshoot Media

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Author —
Claire Coleman

Dr Claire Coleman is a pop musicologist, choral conductor and musician. She trained classically in piano, but wrote her doctorate on nostalgia in indie folk, and continues to lecture remotely in pop music studies in Berlin and London. Claire compares the high of bullying strangers into singing to doing hypothetical illicit drugs, so watch out or you might end up an unwitting participant in one of her choral adventures.

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