J S Bach is a poster boy for the power of limitations. A devout Protestant, his music was restrained within strict rules of counterpoint and an even stricter schedule of liturgical deadlines. But in spite of writing to order, using ancient texts, formal techniques and existing melodies, his motets unfold with a degree of invention that is, frankly, mind-blowing. Take, for example, the extraordinary Jesu, meine Freude BWV227, where Johann Cruger’s chorale is laid out, taken apart, transformed, across six verses, but never losing sight of the original melody. Or Komm, Jesu, komm, its intricate antiphonal writing equally affecting and energising, even as it conforms to its solemn statement of faith.
The Song Company’s latest tour, Forward & Bach, takes three of Bach’s Motets as pillars around which to arrange a clutch of new works commissioned from five Australian composers all starting, like Bach, from the chorale melodies of Martin Luther. The result is five works which duck and weave through the rich baggage of the liturgy, five highly individual voices which add new layers to an ongoing tradition.
Matthew Hindson embraces the broad theme of musical limitations most overtly. His Saviour of the Heathens, dedicated to outgoing Chair of the Song Company, Penny Le Couteur, experiments with a musical algorithm as groundwork for a spare, slightly ghostly meditation. Paul Stanhope‘s De profundis is a more muscular work, carving out great chunks of vocal sound interspersed with passages using the mathematical transformations of Bach and before to create a slick and fascinating mini-drama. In Ein Feste Burg Brett McKern also references the tricks and tools of baroque counterpoint, but then, starting with a slippery basso continuo, subverts their assumed predictability, sliding into new sound worlds.
Ella Macens Stavi Stivi, Ozolin and Andrew Batt-Rowden’s Out of the Deep step a little further from the tree. Although they both start from Martin Luther’s “Out of the Deep I Cry to thee”, Macens adopts a new text, adapted from a Latvian folk verse. Stave Stivi, Ozolin describes a great oak tree which stands, unflinching, accepting, as a great storm threatens, arrives, then passes, leaving the tree still there. First developed at the Gondwana National Choral School earlier this year (led by Paul Stanhope), it is an exquisite, assured piece of choral writing which reveals an exciting new voice. By contrast, Andrew Batt-Rowden‘s Out of the Deep is perhaps the least assured, but that’s not to say it’s any less effective. Batt-Rowden comes to the text as an outsider, a non-believer, and a contemporary sound artist living in a relentlessly chilling modern world. As such, he strips away the comforting homophonies and predictable patterns, winding long, tense, strung out melodies and frantic cries into a strange, beautiful and deeply personal new thing.
The five new works and three motets are interpersed with works from the International Orgelbuchlein Project, organist William Whitehead’s collaborative homage to Bach’s unfinished Orgelbuchlein (Little Organ Book).
Of course, none of this could work without the performers. The Song Company, along with guests Tobias Cole, Richard Butler, Jessica O’Donoghue, Neal Peres da Costa and Daniel Yeadon, dive fearlessly into new musical realms and deal with the intricacies of Bach with commitment and intelligence. Meanwhile, Antony Pitts directs with a calm, ‘less is more’ approach to the mind-boggling complexities, exuding faith in the skill and wisdom of his extraordinary team of musicians.
You can catch the Song Company in Forward and Bach at Deakin Edge, Federation Square in Melbourne on 13 June, Christ Church Cathedral, Newcastle on 15 June, the Independent Theatre, Sydney on 17 June, St James’ Church, Sydney on 22 June and the Wesley Uniting Church, Canberra on 23 June.
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