It might sound like a girl group from the 60s. But it isn't. It's a girl group (but not the kind that term usually describes) from the twenty-first century. Not that Josie and The Emeralds plays music from the twenty-first century (well, not that much). Josie Ryan (soprano), Brooke Green (treble viol and director), Fiona Ziegler (tenor viol) and Margo Adelson (bass viol), along with guests Laura Vaughan (treble, tenor and bass viols), Laura Moore (tenor viol) and Rebecca Humphrey (bass viol), playing at St Scholastica's Chapel, Glebe, are more in tune with the sixteenth century; especially the compositions of Orlando Gibbons. Indeed, the augmentation of the group was essential, in order to perform much of the programme, which called for six viols. The presence of the three outsiders, all from Melbourne, made for more of a challenge in performing this delicate, intricate music, but rapport seemed to be acute, making for a very even, note perfect recital.
The concert was part of the twenty-third annual Glebe Music Festival, a three-week event staged between November 9 and December 2. it's something of a well-kept secret; a pity, as it encompasses world, choral, opera, (all manner of) instrumental, solo vocal, jazz, cabaret, burlesque, chamber music and more. This eccentric and eclectic carnival evolved from countless soirees held since the sixties. Its geographical centre is Margaretta Cottage, but there are various satellite venues, of which the aforementioned chapel is but one.
The acoustics of St Scholastica's are close to sublime, even if the pews take their toll on one's posterior. Six viols playing together is not a common encounter; making the premise of the recital rather special, to begging with. Also rare and precious is a performance of the music of Orlando Gibbons. Who? Quite. In the popular imagination, he's hardly Beethoven. But, on hearing his compositions, one is liable to wonder why and reflect on the arbitrary nature of legendary status. The fact is, back in the day, Gibbons was an eminent composer of vocal, keyboard and consort music. The day was circa the early 1600s, but Gibbons started even earlier, as a chorister, while still a pimply teenager, at King's College, Cambridge (of course, it may've helped that his brother, Edward, was master of the choristers). This was slightly traitorous, as he was born a couple of hours away, at Oxford.
But what of Josie & The Emeralds? Well, the group's members are no contemporaries of Gibbons. Brooke Green founded it only eighteen months ago or so; not only to explore baroque, but new music, too. Music written (adapted, or adaptable) for viols and soprano. I know. You're thinking, 'what's a viol, when it's at home?' Think violin, but with a couple of extra strings. It's actually a family of fretted instruments, developed around five-hundred years (if that) before the likes of Gibbons began composing for them. The 'band' is comprised of exceedingly distinguished musicians, including the (aforementioned) versatile Laura Vaughan, whose comfort with the viola da gamba (the viol's more romantic pseudonym, albeit sounding more like an early Portuguese maritime explorer than a musical instrument) encompasses treble, tenor and bass.
The mainstay of the fist half of the programme was Gibbons. Gibbons; Gibbons; Gibbons. (And why not? The savant Canadian pianist, Glenn Gould, for example, has cited him as his favourite composer.) Specifically, his suite of six fantasias; the order of which The Emeralds shuffled slightly, beginning, perversely, with the second. As a set, these fantasias are considered to be a masterpiece. Green speculates there may've been quite some significance to this opus; perhaps in terms of homage to the six strings of the instrument implicated. Indeed, there are more arithmetical convergences, since the pieces are written for an ensemble comprising two treble, two tenor and two bass viols. Also, two of the works are in G; two in D; two in A.
It's especially fitting the second fantasia, played first, should be aired in a church. It's a case of 'how 'bout that serenity?!' But seriously and truthfully, like so much courtly renaissance and baroque music (for his timing has him straddling both), Gibbons seems to have hit upon whatever the musical magic or alchemy is that invokes this elegance and refinement. This piece is notable for its harmony, but it's harmony that teeters, tantalisingly, on the verge of dissonance. In this way, it suits conventional tastes that have an affection for and attachment to 'pretty' music, but also holds something of profound interest to those who fancy themselves as more adventurous lovers of European art music. The viols wrap around each other as lovers, entwined in a sensual dance of melody and meter. The conversation between them is a polite and eloquent one, each pausing to allow the other to speak. Equally, it could be a lament, or requiem, but soon opens up to become something much lighter and brighter. Almost as soon as it has, it settles into a slumber. It's akin to the awakening of a rose, surreptitiously closing as the evening draws in. Sublime. And mercifully restrained, insofar as the ornamentation so often typifying the baroque.
Needles to say, no doubt, for anyone who's ever heard The Emeralds, this work was played adoringly: not merely with precision and finesse, but a palpable and abiding admiration. I'm not so very au fait (more's the pity, I'm reminded) with Gibbons' work, let alone his thirty-odd fantasias in particular, but I have heard both Phantasm's and Concordia's recorded renditions of this piece and would rate The Emeralds' even more highly.
Second cab off the rank was the first of Gibbons' fantasias for a half-dozen viols, accompanied by text written by Sir Walter Raleigh, by way of Virgil (nimium ne crede colori), entitled Trust not too much, fair youth, unto thy feature which, clearly, preceded the saving graces of botox, tummy tucks and other cosmetic procedures. This, of course, featured Josie as well as The Emeralds (who were, incidentally, attired in fitting hues). Ryan is upright in posture and finds both clarity and accuracy. Personal style wasn't so much valued, as I understand it, in seventeenth-century vocal music: it was about the song, not the singer. Accordingly, Ryan obliges, in being faithful to text and tune. At the same time, her vocals strike a highly attractive, perhaps more modern balance between 'plein air' and warmth. And Virgil's cynical, pre-Christian counsel to trust not in appearances could hardly hold more water than in our own time.
Fantasia number three changes the key from G to D and demands much from the players as, even while merrily skipping along in duple time, the piece will suddenly segue to treble time and, just as suddenly, revert. Better to be a listener than player, methinks. This third fantasia is a stately piece, almost swaggering. One can well imagine puffy-shirted gentleman with meticulously-trimmed beards holding aloft the dainty hands of buxom, bouffant, hoop-skirted maidens, in a swirling, dizzying circular trace of movement. Meanwhile, indolent royals sip tea and scoff cream cakes. There seems to be something of a folk tune at the heart of this piece, whose character hints at lands and cultures well beyond the British; but, like a rustic almond refined to marzipan, or a common servant girl elevated to high society, it is wrought with the adornment of trills and finery. Again, The Emeralds refuse to betray their obvious excellence and discipline.
Number four is a natural successor to the third fantasia. And not only numerically. It is in the same key and, structurally, very much in the same place, though rather more solitary and reflective in mood. It is as lovely and listenable as anything you're ever likely to encounter. An antidote to all the extraneous noise that pollutes out lives.
The collection of fantasias was briefly interrupted by Gibbons' The Silver Swan, a madrigal for five viols that's considered an essential piece in his canon. A madrigal, of course, implies polyphony and, usually a number of human voices. In Green's arrangement, the viols take most of the parts, since Ryan is the sole vocalist. The lyric, in this case, is by Gibbons and, as in Virgil, is patently philosophical, by way of parable: more geese than swans now live, more fools than wise. The melody is as patient and graceful as its fine-feathered subject, Ryan's vocals clarion, yet superbly controlled, defined and refined, with no shrill or sharp edges. The composite effect is achingly sad and regretful; there is a palpable sigh of disillusionment.
The placement of The Silver Swan(ne) proves well-judged, since the sixth fantasia, that follows, shares a sense of the solitary and soul-searching, with its tonal emphasis on bass viols. As Green points to in her extensive, informative and colourful programme notes, it's worth knowing about renaissance theories of humors, which even had impact on musical composition. Of course, these theories go back well beyond the renaissance, to ancient Greece; specifically, to Hippocratic medicine. Humors, in our terms, translate to temperaments and were defined as hot, cold, wet and dry or, to put it another way, fire, water, air and earth, respectively. Back in the day, it was believed the body coursed with four fundamental fluids and all disease stemmed from a deficiency or surfeit of one or other. Presumably, the musical impact was in terms of striking a balance between the quartet of corresponding temperaments: (so-called) sanguine, or blindly optimistic, with its sybaritic connotation; the unbridled energy and assertiveness of the choleric; the reserved introspection of the melancholic; the easy, go-with-the-flow character of the phlegmatic. The terms are hardly poetic, but at least the musical outcomes tend to be. The skill of the composer may be measured in his ability to counterpoint these distinct moods and segue from one to another without seeming to noticeably do so: an aural gift for the listener and profound challenge for the musician.
The sixth fantasia, as with the fifth (that followed), is in A, harmonically sublime, an icon of orchestration, a restorative balm for the world-wearied soul and clearly sets Gibbons apart and in stark relief to his contemporaries, at least in my view, as the leading master of Tudor church music. It is technically and aesthetically nonpareil; a feat of the most eloquent and gracious elocution. I suppose, taxonomically, it would easily fall under the heading of melancholy, yet devoid of the desolation that typically implies. Here, one finds some new ray of hope.
Fantasia number five is, perhaps, more difficult to classify: it seems, almost at once, impossibly restless and placid; like Jacob wrestling with the invisible stranger, a brief, intense dialectic between the cantankerous and calm sides of one's own nature. It makes for more challenging playing and listening and rewards both, in buckets.
Fair Is The Rose, Yet Fades With Heat Or Cold, from Gibbons' First Set of Madrigals and Motets of Five Parts, Apt for Viols and Voices, 1612 (phew!) intervened the surfeit of instrumental music, once again bringing Josie to the fore, with a sung text penned by Sir Christopher Hatton. Hatton was (no pun intended) a wearer of many hats, being a pollie, Lord Chancellor (responsible for the functioning and independence of the judiciary) and something of a pet to QE1. Perhaps not the first name that springs to mind as a poet. Not, by pedigree, the Tim Rice of his time. Yet, at some point, he endowed literary history with this treasure, with its reflection that violets may be sweet, but soon grow old. Gibbons secular song echoes the sentiment of fast-fading beauty. The piece hovers between D minor and major and, by any trained ear, will be recognised and appreciated as a polyphonic exemplar.
Pavan is a six-part opus that exemplifies every characteristic of the stately dance after which it's named: one can almost smell the rustic perfumes, feel the constriction of the heavy fabrics that passed for high style at the time; fashion that led back the instinct and impetus for breakdancing for some time to come. The pomp, affectation and etiquette of the era is palpable; the sound as opulent as the circumstances which afforded its contrivance. This suite has much more of a baroque air than much of Gibbons' other work; (or lack of air, since that form, from that epoch, is so densely ornamented, as richly embroidered as the garments of courtiers). This is akin, aesthetically, to the appreciation one feels for the controlled explosion of fondant on an expertly-decorated, decadent, wedding cake; the minarets of Moscow (St. Basil's); the curvaceous chrome of a '55 Buick. Yes, I exaggerate, of course. In truth, while Gibbons has indulged the polyphonic sophistication of the genre, he seems to studiously and successfully eschew the excesses and eccentricities of the period and style in question, while obeying the doctrine of mood: Pavan is consistently, unrelievedly and contagiously upbeat.
Galliard, which succeeded it and concluded the first half of the programme, makes for a superb companion piece to Pavan; also in six parts. It is, arguably, of a more gentle and subtle disposition than Pavan but, like those short pieces, shares a propulsive sprightliness that's emblematic of Gibbons' reputation. Both suites point to the stark contrast in Gibbons' approach to instrumental, versus vocal, music: while the latter is oft accompanied by a pervasive solemnity, the former skips merrily through fields of wildflowers. Speaking of skipping, the (no pun intended) countless jumps between double and triple time seem deviously designed and destined to flummox even the most conscientious of dancers, as much as players. In both (and, indeed, all) cases, however, the ensemble allows us to savour Gibbons' talents without distraction, since its members communicate his compositions not merely flawlessly, but resplendently.
After an indulgent afternoon tea involving more than one piece of chocolate cake, Gibbons, via The Emeralds, proposed 'What Is Our Life?', as if to shake us from a momentary lapse (if only) into hedonism. This is Sir Walter Raleigh in a rather sombre mood, contending our life is a play of passion; our mirth, the music of division. Do I detect a preoccupation with decay? Perhaps the gentry had too much time on their hands and looked rarely past their own navels. Of course, as history tells it, Sir Walt had cause to worry: he was beheaded by James 1, by reason of treason, and this poem was written while he awaited his fate, in the tower, where he spent years. Raleigh saw the axe that would top him as 'a sharp medicine', but others, since, have seen his punishment as a rather blunt instrument: his role in the intrigue seems to have been based on hearsay, rather than hard evidence, let alone testimony. Nevertheless, he went out on a high note, if only thanks to Gibbons' embrace of his contemptus mundi, which he happily subverts into something rather more melancholic than mean. Josie's vocal floats on a cushion of sonorous air.
In Nomine (No. 1) followed. It is, especially in the loving hands of The Emeralds, the musical embodiment of serenity and harmony. In Nomine, as a title, of course, is something of a generic, since quite a number of polyphonic pieces from the 1500s on were so endowed. In fact, the name is synonymous with early consort music. But said pieces can be dramatically divergent in flavour: Mr In Nomine, Christopher Tye, the most prolific exponent of the form by far, has even interpolated the urgent character of street life in at least one of his settings.
'Ah, dear heart' concluded the mainstay of the programme. The text is at least attributed to John Donne, that most influential of all the metaphysical poets. Samuel Johnson's somewhat arbitrary term, however, is at odds with the rather more straightforward lyricism evident in this poem, which abides the not quite temperate sensuality for which Donne was renowned: 'the light that shines comes from thine eyes; the day breaks not, it is my heart'. The song is also a surpassing showcase for Ms Ryan, whose soprano probably lies in the lirico-spinto range (but I'm no expert), which seems most apt for this music. A delicate note on which to farewell Gibbons, with viols and voice sounding as if in aural homage to the luminance of a stained-glass cathedral window.
Ross Edwards' Miniatures (Rain; Lullaby; Choreola; Dorian Pipes) is a long way from Orlando Gibbons. These succinct compositions are, in fact, arrangements by Green of certain of Edwards' piano works. She was no Lee Harvey Oswald, acting alone, however; rather, the eloquence of the pieces does credit in proportional measure to both composer and orchestrator.
Elena Kats-Chernin is another Australian contemporary composer (Uzbekistani-born), far removed in time from the likes of Gibbons, but, arguably, not so very distant with respect to her gift for toying with one's heartstrings. The Eliza Aria is from her ballet score, Wild Swans, and is a tune that, if it sounds familiar, you'll probably recognise as the longstanding theme introducing Phillip Adams' Late Night Live, on Radio National. Though originally conceived and composed for soprano and orchestra and deeply affecting as a solo piano piece as performed by the composer, its transition to viol ensemble renders it more intimately and accessibly, surrendering its essentially haunting nature to a saltier sadness. In any guise it can't help but be beautiful and it's especially fitting Green should adapt it, as she produced its original recording.
In Edwards and Kats-Chernin we've two of our finest treasures, but another came to the fore in this concert, in the eccentric and daring compositional skills of Green herself. Spirits and Dreams rivals the mercurial Gibbons at least inasmuch as it manages to ford the musical stream bridged at one end by demure renaissance inflections and at the other by the unselfconscious conceits of baroque.
Graceful Ghost is every bit as intriguing, given its relationship (albeit in name only) to Bolcom's Graceful Ghost Rag. The truth is it seems to capture something of the benign presence of the rag, so I suppose you'll forgive me for saying Bolcom is there in spirit and is one with which Green is aesthetically kindred.
My Mind To Me A Kingdom Is interpolates Sir Edward Dyer's defiant textual assertion of intellectual independence. Not to be confused with the Indian brewer that's his namesake, the distinguished courtier and poet clearly found solace in the life of the mind ('such present joys therein I find') and respect among his peers, though, tragically precious little of his alchemy of vocabulary survives. As it is, there's even a shadow of doubt cast over his authorship of this piece. Regardless, Green has transformed the author's musings into a stately dance.
It might be said Green and colleagues, indeed, transform the performance of music, old and new, into high art. This shouldn't be construed as grandiloquence: despite its sophistication, the atmosphere could hardly be more egalitarian or classless. The odd upturned nose might be spotted behind the scenes, but not on the performance floor. To borrow again from lyrics attributed to Dyer, 'no princely pomp', but there most assuredly is 'a wealthy store' of music to spellbind a sensitive soul for the duration of a lazy spring afternoon.
Josie and The Emeralds
Venue: St Scholastica’s Chapel, Arcadia Rd, Glebe
Date: Sunday 18 November, 3pm