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Canberra Today 3°/6° | Monday, May 20, 2024 | Digital Edition | Crossword & Sudoku

CIMF / Ford’s song cycle debut proves poetry in motion

Composer Andrew Ford enjoys the applause… on stage with sopranos Veronica Milroy and Rachel Mink. Photo: Peter Hislop.

Canberra International Music Festival / Concert 5, Red Dirt Hymns, Luminescence Chamber Singers. At the National Museum of Australia, May 2. Reviewed by SARAH BYRNE.

“This,” confided a friendly CIMF volunteer as I took my seat, “is going to be an absolute banger”.

She was not wrong. Luminescence Chamber Singers’ world-premiere performance of Andrew Ford’s new song cycle Red Dirt Hymns was one of the most purely enjoyable hours of music it’s been my pleasure to experience.

In 2020, much-loved Australian composer and broadcaster Ford commissioned several noteworthy Australian poets for lyrics “about the sorts of things that hymns are about – praise, awe, struggle, acceptance, love, hope and forgiveness; that the lyrics be strophic, with a strong sense of metre and the odd rhyme”. 

He has been repaid with diverse and rewarding texts celebrating all aspects of Australian life and nature, from poets such as Jordie Albiston and Ellen van Neerven. 

The music Ford has composed for each is just as diverse and rewarding, responding to the style and spirit of each work, while maintaining the coherence of the theme throughout. 

Influences ranged from country/gospel, ’70s prog rock, metal to madrigal (perhaps even a bit of barbershop). A spare, pianissimo setting of Erik Jansen’s The Shape of a Vase, beautifully performed by soprano Veronica Milroy, evoked John Cage, somehow magnifying every ambient sound. 

“The crystalline voices of the six Luminescence singers, in groups and as soloists, are world class.” Photo: Peter Hislop

The entertaining Hymn of the Garden, by John Kinsella, reminded me of Gian Slater’s Invenio Ensemble in the vocalists’ use of innovative percussion (I know I recently said I was looking forward to more from tenor Dan Walker; I did not expect it would be on tin whistle and garden pot).

My favourite piece for the evening was Ford’s setting of My Octopus Teacher by Alison Flett, which started out a bit Beach Boys and wound up a bit Flanders & Swann/King’s Singers. 

All of the works were anchored by remarkable musicianship from accompanists Hilary Geddes, whose guitar ranged from Hendrix to Kenny Burrell to Richie Sambora and John Denver, and Freya Schack-Arnott, who coaxed from her cello sublime tones as well as frank and trenchant sound effects unknown to Boccherini.

The crystalline voices of the six Luminescence singers, in groups and as soloists, are world class, and were beautifully responsive to Ford’s nuanced melodies and gorgeous harmonies. 

They were well-served by the acoustics of the NMA’s Gandel Hall, the ideal acoustic choice for this work – in my experience it is magnificent for small ensembles and especially vocals (less so for large ensembles and big crowds). The performance was enhanced by Sammy Hawker’s subtly complementary artwork, evoking cross-sections of native trees and rock formations. 

I’m not one for evangelism, but music has always been the best part of any religion, and in Red Dirt Hymns Ford has earned himself a new worshipper.

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