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Raising the voices of forgotten artists

15 May 2023

The Giovanni Consort’s Kate McNamara is on a mission to ensure female composers get their due. As she prepares to take listeners on a uniquely meditative journey, the artistic director tells Julie Hosking there is a wealth of material to choose from.

Ever heard of Raffaella Aleotti? You might guess at her Italian roots but if you said she was a 16th century composer, then I want you on my table at the next quiz night. 

For like so many of her era and, let’s face it, many more since the Renaissance, Aleotti’s work has largely been overlooked, not because of its quality but because of her gender. 

It’s a bugbear for Kate McNamara, the conductor and artistic director of Western Australia’s beloved chamber choir, the Giovanni Consort – one she’s refusing to allow to continue on her watch.  

“One of my big passions within the arts is equal representation of female composers,” she says. “I really struggle with the fact that it has become so normalised that we don’t expect equality.”  

Even when programming music from eras dominated by male composers, such as Baroque or the Renaissance, there are female composers worthy of the same exposure if you know where to look – and it’s more galling when it comes to modern programming. 

McNamara, who studied classical voice at WAAPA before realising her passion lay in conducting, says most of the music she performed had always come from male composers. “You have this idea of what’s good, what’s bad, what deserves to be performed, and then there’s this really dark curtain and you think there must be women behind there but we don’t know because we never perform them,” she says. 

“So going in there and really researching and finding these composers and finding this music, I’ve come to realise it’s not unknown because it’s not good and it’s not worthy. It’s just unknown.” 

McNamara is determined to change that. “All of our programs, no matter what era we’re drawing from, feature 50 percent female composers,” she says. “We’ve found this incredible music that for our singers now is starting to feel like standard repertoire, but if we hadn’t gone out and really, really sought it, it would still be obscure.” 

The Giovanni Consort performing ‘Songs for the Soul’ at Government House in May 2022. Photo supplied

The volume of female compositions has surprised her, and not just with more modern composers. “We’ve got a Baroque concert and a very Renaissance heavy program this year and I’m having to cull music there’s so much; it’s just wonderful,” she says. 

In order to help turn the tide, McNamara believes it’s incumbent on arts organisations to program more female composers. “For our next concert, one of the headline pieces is Lamentations of Jeremiah by Thomas Tallis, and it’s absolutely brilliant – people will know it and come for it,” she says. “But it’s not necessarily the best piece we’re performing. So we’re hopefully bringing this music to the fore and making it well known and normalising it.” 

Meditate with Music, at Leederville Town Hall on 20 May, is the first in a more collaborative approach for the 2023 season, this one with local yoga teacher Stephanie Johnson. Yoga and choral music? They are actually a great fit, McNamara says. 

“The mindfulness, meditative state pairs quite beautifully with the sort of feelings you can get when you’re listening to music, so I’m really wanting to take people on a journey of relaxation that will be this heightened, immersive experience,” she explains. 

And no one is expected to twist themselves into any kind of awkward shape to reach that nadir, either. “There will be options such as yoga mats or a modified chair version, but it will be very simple movement with an emphasis on breathing,” McNamara says, though she won’t be surprised if someone in the audience is so relaxed they drift off to sleep. “It’s happened before!” 

It’s here where the aforementioned nun – for most of the composers of Aleotti’s era were in the church – will be given due voice, with the choir singing Miserere mei, Deus and Angelus ad pastores ait. Also on the program are works by Judith Bingham, James Macmillan and C.V. Stanford. 

“We’re really trying to appeal to a new audience with it, so it’s a bit of a wildcard, but I’m really confident that the music we’ve pulled together and the collaboration with Stephanie is going to be something quite special,” she says. 

Kate McNamara (seated, far right) is determined to raise the profile of female composers. Photo supplied

As will the Giovanni Consort’s second collaboration in August, showcasing Baroque music. “Our singers always love that era of music but very little was written a cappella,” McNamara says. “A lot of it was written with instruments and voices, so it’s quite challenging for us to put together because the music needs specialised instruments.” 

Enter Australian Baroque, with its specialised instruments and exquisitely talented musicians to match. While the program is still being finalised, McNamara is excited about the choir’s first collaboration with the West Australian orchestra. 

The consort’s final concert in December has become an annual favourite. “It’s always a lot of fun, a mix of Christmas music and singalong carols – just be nice if it’s not as hot as the past two years!” 

While she is part of the St George’s Cathedral Choir, McNamara sticks to conducting consort performances, tempting though it might be to burst into song. “If I conduct and sing, I conduct badly and sing badly and I would prefer to do one of them well,” she says with a laugh. “Even if for whatever reason we don’t need a conductor in the rehearsal process, if I’m silent and have my brain in conductor mode, I’ll get the best product out of the singers that I can develop and fine tune.” 

The choir tends to perform with 10 singers but has a core group of 24 the artistic director can call on depending on availability. Everyone has other jobs. It’s a juggle all too familiar for those in the arts and one that McNamara, now in her third season at the helm of the Giovanni Consort and wearing the hat of general manager as well, has pondered a lot. 

‘It’s an area of culture that we all celebrate and love … but it’s not necessarily built on something sustainable.’

“It’s a question I don’t really have a solution for, but how do we make our industry more sustainable? I’m not convinced that the funding systems for small organisations work,“ she says. “It’s an area of culture that we all celebrate and love and are reliant on; it makes us feel like a vibrant place and a good place to live but it‘s not necessarily built on something sustainable.”  

For too long, McNamara believes, the industry has been sustained by the sacrifices of individuals, too many artists taking on day jobs so they can afford to perform. The end result is often burnout. 

“It’s a balancing act because everyone wants to do the work but it’s always on top of everything else,” she says. “There’s only so much we can say yes to, and I think it’s an ongoing question how we manage that.”  

McNamara is grateful that the Giovanni Consort, now in its 28th year, has been able to attract and maintain the quality of singers despite everyone’s schedules, because the choir does demand a very high standard. 

“Some of the singers might have been with the choir for 20 years, so we’ve got some very, very experienced, very skilled people and have a bit of a pathway to help upskill younger people,” she says. 

For her part, McNamara couldn’t be happier with a baton. Having been part of Perth Symphony Orchestra’s Women on the Podium program and an emerging artist with the West Australian Symphony Orchestra, she conducted the premiere of children’s opera Our Little Inventor for West Australian Opera last year.  

“I love the detail and the drive to excellence really gets me excited. I love working with a group and knowing where I want them to be and working with people to create this excellent product,” she says. “Singing can be quite lonely – there’s a lot of sitting in a room by yourself – whereas I love working with people and collaborating. It’s really, really satisfying to be part of bringing people on a journey.” 

And that includes introducing them to people like Raffaella Aleotti, and her music, along the way. 

Meditate with Music at Leederville Town Hall on 20 May 2023.

For more on the Giovanni Consort’s 2023 season, see their website.

Pictured top: The Giovanni Consort generally perform with about 10 singers. Photo supplied

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Author —
Julie Hosking

A journalist with more words to her name than she can count, Julie Hosking has worked for newspapers, magazines and online publications in Melbourne and Perth. She has been a news editor, travel editor, features editor, arts editor and, for one terrifying year, business editor, before sanity prevailed and she landed in her happy place - magazines. If pushed (literally), she favours the swing.

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