Dubbed Australia’s premier queer arts and cultural festival, Melbourne’s Midsumma Festival is now in full swing. Among the host of activities on offer, Divisi Chamber Singers’ concert at the Melbourne Recital Centre’s Primrose Potter Salon was one of the hottest tickets in town, accompanied – at long last – by some authentically summer weather.
Presenting their first major program in May 2019, Divisi has made its mark as an ensemble that commands increasing attention beyond what might be regarded as their primary target audience of the LGBTQ+ community and supporters, due to the exceptionally high quality of their performances. The program presented in the Melbourne Recital Centre’s Primrose Potter Salon was part of a stated “special interest in initiatives that elevate local LGBTQ+ artists”. Divisi not only strives to develop the career of its members, but, in seeking to break down established norms of classical music, has also launched a professional development program, Compose Queer, that has commissioned four young queer composers to write for Divisi.
This concert comprised a mixture of new and older works. Divisi’s core performers: singers Alex Gorbatov, Bailey Montgomerie, Alex Ritter, Anish Nair, Marjorie Butcher and Monica Harris, and pianist Coady Green performed three song cycles, each around 20 minutes long – substantial, complex works for six voices and piano.
Following a short welcome by Divisi director Alex Gorbatov, who characterised the evening as being both a celebration and a consideration of some “harsh realities”, Sally Whitwell’s Spectrum opened the concert on a celebratory note with a cycle of five songs: Red; Orange (Torch Song); Yellow; Green; Blue. As a synaesthetic, Whitwell was inspired to set Monique Duval’s text in D major as it sounded like the colour yellow to her. The other colours followed, reflecting the colurs of the rainbow pride flag, although the subject matter of Duval’s and her own poems are not LGBTQ+ themed. Red, with its cascading piano runs of coursing blood, made for a lively opening, but it soon became apparent that listeners would have to work hard to understand what was being sung.
The program only listed the performers, composers, some notes about Divisi, and titles that gave the briefest indication of what the text contained. Often, the piano overwhelmed the generally clear articulation of the singers so that interesting ideas sometimes became submerged despite the frequent use of word and phrase repetitions by all three composers. Meta’s work suffered the least from overload, as the keyboard was less in competition with the voices, with many solo and ensemble passages sung a cappella – a style in which Divisi excels. Precise blending of parts, even at the most demandingly close intervals, plus the bright purity of steady upper voices and the resonance of the lower voices impressed throughout.
Nevertheless, all composers created a distinctive atmosphere for each part of their song cycles. You could hear the presence of a slinky femme fatale in Whitwell’s Orange (Torch Song) with its initial hum, slow piano chords and laid back melody. The text was clearer too with solos from lower voices interspersed and ending the piece. In Yellow, we heard sparkling rain swallow the sky with sweeping piano runs that finally subsided to a tinkle – Gorbatov ensuring that the strong rhythmic beat was maintained with some unobtrusive conducting. The natural wonders of Green were heard in sighs of “Ah!”, the piano sparser among solos from the upper voices. A gently flowing Blue evoked the undulating waves of Coogee Beach.
The central work, a premiere performance of Connor D’Netto’s Stove Photography, was introduced as a work that “hits you in the heart”. More disturbing in content and musical expression than what had gone before, it is based on a touching personal story by Bastian Fox Phelan, adapted by D’Netto. The four-movement song cycle begins with the arresting before I leave the house – slow, soft dissonant piano chords leading to a solo soprano voice begins the account. Faster, perkier music marks taking in the view, then I wanted to be a writer, the stately chords of chorale-like piano passages interspersed with sung verses reminiscent of Psalm verses building to faster chaotic passages and ending with people make you pay a toll. As with all works, singers and pianist performed with concentrated attention to detail and fluent dynamism. It is a pity more of this striking text could not be heard more clearly.
The title work by Meta Cohen, a love is a love is a love – a queer song cycle, was commissioned by ABC Classic, and recorded by Divisi for digital release in 2022. In a program order change, it was performed last rather than first, acting as a culmination of what was a fascinating exploration of difference. Cohen calls their work “a love letter to queerness and the LGBTQIA+ community”. The title itself pays homage to Gertrude Stein, referencing her famous “rose” poem concerning identity. Cohen’s cycle, exploring different kinds of love, is four parts: you; they; she; we. They are settings of poems by four queer Australian poets: Nikki Viveca, Vi Hu, Savanna Wegman and Leona Cohen, specifically commissioned for the project.
A quiet piano rumble, an “ah” from the lower voices, repeated sensuous rhythmic patterns and recurring fragments of Viveca’s poem for you, concluded with a singer tapping the piano briefly – evoking the click of a keyboard inherent in the online relationships and the special kind of intimacy depicted. Cohen’s score is marked “with a feeling of 3am magic”; “[crotchet] = 69 approx.” – an unusually effective pointer to mood. The setting of Vi Hu’s poem for they begins with a contrasting almost jazzy piano bass thump as the theme of nighttime encounters is described in more urgent syncopations. “she” begins and ends with the sound of breathing – a key element in Wegman’s poem celebrating intimacy. Scattered piano notes and chords and sweeping upward scales are scattered through an atmosphere of gentle rhythmic undulations. It was a highlight of the song cycle and the concert. The setting of Leona Cohen’s poem about the importance of being truly seen featured echoing phrases and ended with a high chord of joyous affirmation – the perfect way to end the evening.
The prolonged standing ovation accorded both performers and creative talents – so good to have them in the audience – was well deserved. Divisi is an important young ensemble that you can’t help but embrace for their energy, skill and initiative.
Heather Leviston reviewed “a love is a love is a love”, performed as part of Melbourne’s Midsuuma Festival by Divisi at the Melbourne Recital Centre on February 3, 2023.