I sing as a bass with the Melbourne Bach Choir, an organisation with the Bach Passions as its core repertoire. We were invited to join with Zelman Symphony in a performance, jointly presented with the Victorian Arts Centre and the Wheeler Centre, of a new work entitled No Friend but the Mountains. Zelman Symphony had commissioned the Australian composer Luke Styles to write this symphonic song cycle, inspired by and based on the book of the same name by Behrouz Boochani. Rick Prakhoff is Artistic Director of both Zelman Symphony and the Melbourne Bach Choir, and the two organisations have collaborated previously in a performance of the Verdi Requiem, a work within our normal comfort zone.
No Friend but the Mountains was a unique opportunity – to perform a work based on a contemporary autobiography with the support and involvement of the author, in an advocacy role for a cause that is still current. Behrouz Boochani expressed it well as “resistance”.
We felt the weight of responsibility to fulfil the hopes of the composer and authors. We were also apprehensive – we realised it would be a challenge, taking us way out of our usual repertoire, and committing us to the category of “difficult” modern classical music. Some of the text is an affront to how we like to see our country, and some parts are indeed confronting – such as where the choir sings of “the depth of the slit” cut by a razor in an incident of self-harm.
Some of those fears materialised when we first encountered the score – a very unfamiliar and often dissonant musical language. The choir contributions are quite disjointed and mostly brief – providing short commentary, sound effects or a change of texture to support the bass-baritone. So it was a challenge to rehearse these choral fragments with a piano reduction that cannot translate the full sound palette of the orchestra, and without the soloist whom the choir often complements.
On top of that there were the COVID spacing restrictions for choir and orchestra members in rehearsal and performance. Some of the choir rehearsals took place in the stalls of Hamer Hall with choir members separated by a vacant row and within the row leaving three vacant seats between choristers. Most of us felt that we were singing alone, an uncomfortable feeling for typical choir members who enjoy the support of hearing and sensing the singers around them.
It made more sense when we came together for the tutti rehearsals although again the COVID restrictions made it difficult. We appreciated the complex and sustained orchestral work of Zelman Symphony and of course we all admired the herculean performance by Adrian Tamburini.
We also admired the committed audience that came despite the continuous rain.
It was a very worthy venture. I am not sure the music can stand on its own without the overlay of commitment to that worthy cause. It is essentially a song cycle for orchestra and soloist so is suited to orchestras with an added choir rather than to choral societies. However, we were all grateful for the chance to use the art form we have chosen in an advocacy role, even knowing that a modern piece of classical music would appeal to only a small minority.
It reminded me of the concert in late 2001 by a combination of Melbourne musical groups, conducted by the late Richard Gill. The concert was held as a protest against the demonisation of asylum seekers in the wake of the Tampa affair. Among other appropriate musical works the combined choirs sang the second verse of the national anthem with gusto – ironically using the national anthem as a protest song. Recalling the year of that concert (2001) is a sobering reminder that this harsh treatment of asylum seekers has been going on for 20 years.