Tuesday 31 May 2016

The Consort of Melbourne: Playing with Fire

In November last year, I attended the National Gallery's Friday Nights event during its Masterpieces from the Hermitage exhibition. As I wandered through the gallery, I came across a choral performance that had me transfixed and extremely eager to hear more. The group was the Consort of Melbourne, a professional vocal ensemble who champion historic and contemporary chamber vocal repertoire. Since that experience, I have eagerly awaited the opportunity to see (and hear) them perform again, and this month they return to the Melbourne Recital Centre with their Local Heroes season.

"We have presented a regular concert series in the Melbourne Recital Centre for many years and we're always excited to return," Artistic Director of the Consort of Melbourne, Steven Hodgson tells me. "Our Local Heroes season has a 'Fire and Water' theme with the first concert, Flames within being a very exciting and dynamic program centred on explosive vocal music by composers Claudio Monteverdi, Carlo Gesualdo and Luca Marenzio."

"These all link images of fire with human passion, and the texts speak of lovers burning with desire, and hearts being turned to ash in the flame. We are also excited to be premiering Melbourne composer Elliott Gyger's new 8-part version of Fire in the heavens. It was written for us and describes the oppressive power of the noonday sun in the Australian bush. Our second concert, in November, Voices over the water pays homage to a long and varied tradition of water songs, from ancient Gregorian chant to Jonathan Willcocks’ light-hearted arrangement of Drunken Sailor. This is a much more meditative experience, where the audience can drift away and let our a capella harmonies lap over them."

While the group consists of eight core singers, the numbers can fluctuate, depending on the demands of the repertoire. With Flames within, the Consort is joined by Ensemble 642's Hannah Lane and Nick Pollock, to add some plucked-string sparkle to the vocal fireworks on display. "Hannah and Nick are continuo players, and are able to improvise beautiful and detailed accompaniments from a very basic written bass line," Hodgson says. "This requires a dazzling musical imagination and expert knowledge of the style you are working in, so they really breathe life into this repertoire in a way that creates a lot of energy and excitement."

Hodgson is well aware of the barriers and preconceived judgements people have towards classical music, but he hopes audiences to their shows will leave with those thoughts quashed. "I think classical music in general suffers from the perception that it is for some kind of 'cultural elite', that people worry they might feel uncomfortable or might not understand what's going on," he explains. "Of course, this is completely at odds with what we aim to do as musicians, which is to make a profound connection to the people listening to us and create extraordinary experiences for everyone in the room."

"As an eight-group ensemble, one of the things that really sets us apart from your average choir is that our audiences get to know the voice of each performer and we feel that our concerts are a much more intimate experience for this. We also take pride in being an extremely versatile group: we're equally comfortable performing beautiful sacred renaissance polyphony, avant-garde contemporary music or even as back-up singers to The Rolling Stones!" 

"The Consort of Melbourne is made up of highly trained singers capable of incredibly dynamic and agile performances. We hope to show audiences what a colourful and versatile instrument the human voice can be," Hodgson concludes. "We're always searching for a deeper and deeper connection to the music we're singing, and it's when we manage to share that connection in performance that the real magic happens."

Steven Hodgson will be directing the Consort of Melbourne and Ensemble 642 at the Melbourne Recital Centre for their program Flames within on Wednesday 15th June, 6pm.

Ticket prices begin from $29 and are available through the Melbourne Recital Centre, or save by purchasing a season ticket to Flames within and Voices over the water.

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