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20 February 2024

Close to Home: A personal connection to Australian Art Song

Artwork of Australian landscape Image: Artwork of Australian landscape  
© Supplied by authors

On February 2024, Flametree will be presenting Close to Home, the first in an all-Australian art song series.

Flametree is soprano Nicole Thomson, mezzo-soprano Jenny Duck-Chong, and pianist Jo Allan. Together, we have decades of experience championing and performing Australian compositions, working alongside living composers from around the country and researching their work and music.

There has been a wealth of fantastic vocal music written in this country. With Close to Home, we hope to dispel some of the myths we've heard over the years from people who think that contemporary Australian music can be inaccessible and challenging. In our experience, the music written in Australia is richly varied, as are the texts that inspire. While there are many songs in the program that contemplate nature or the environment (the sun and moon, birds, bees, forests, and the like) or the classic subjects (love and lullabies), there are a surprising number which focus on the minutiae of life: the tread of a cat, urban objects, and even the joys of making up a bed with a nice clean sheet.

Art song has the powerful ability to meld the work of two art forms: poetry and music. As song interpreters, we investigate both elements and share these discoveries with the audience in concert. The preparation for every performance gives us the opportunity to discover more about the works and the composers. And, despite many years of experience, we ourselves are continually learning more whenever we reconnect with works as we explore their creative processes. Furthermore, as a collaborative trio, we are constantly delving into the detail of individual songs to bring them to life together.

We wanted to begin this series with works that were, for us, "close to home"; featuring the works of composers who we have had first-hand experience working with, and with whom we have developed personal connections. Music is, at heart, relational. It is developed through the connections, both chance and sought out, that happen across a lifetime. Some of these relationships are decades old, some are much more recent.

Nicole was first introduced to Martin Wesley-Smith (and his twin brother Peter) through many years performing with The Song Company. Outside of that space, they enjoyed a long friendship around music, food, the extended Wesley-Smith family, and nature, with weekends spent together in Kangaroo Valley. There were many performances of his works, with concerts for voice and cello, with Rachel Scott of Bach in the Dark fame, other singers (the Song Smiths in August 2019 is particularly poignant) and, of course, voice and piano, performing with artists Jo Allan, Roland Peelman AM (winner of the 2023 Art Music Awards National Luminary Award), and Judith Brown AM in various iterations. This has culminated in her submission of a Masters degree focusing on the Australian Music Centre's publication Ten Songs for Soprano and Piano, a song album interpreting these wonderful pieces of music.

Jenny has sung the work of Ross Edwards since her earliest days at Sydney University, and has performed all of his solo vocal works within her range, as well as many vocal ensemble works. She worked alongside him in preparation of many of these. Ross is a featured composer in her In Conversation With... series of composer interviews. While many are more familiar with his maninya works, which feature a created language, Jenny is particularly drawn to the sensitive way he responds to poetry in his song cycles. His most recent cycle, Five Senses, features on Halcyon's Waves IV recording.

Nicole and Jenny met Katy Abbott when she was a young composer in 2003 in Song Company's MODART03 where they sang one of her earliest vocal works. Years later they have continued collaborating on many programs, recordings and pieces and converse beyond compositions to the roles of artists and the impact that artists have within their sphere of influence.

There are several eminent Australian composers whose songs deserve to be better known: Margaret Sutherland, Don Banks, and Nigel Butterley. There are others to whom we have a more oblique connection. Dulcie Holland and William Lovelock are better known for their work in music education than for their songwriting. Alan Tregaskis was also an educator (and curiously, Jenny's husband's school music teacher). This is an opportunity to introduce their vocal works to audiences who may not yet know them.

Both of us have also had working relationships with Andrew Schultz, Andrew Ford, Sally Whitwell, Ruth McCall, Kate Reid, Claire Jordan, Peter Sculthorpe, and Peter Dart - all of whom also feature on the Close to Home program.

In our role as teachers, we have introduced our students to this repertoire just as our teachers did for us. Conversations with colleagues over the years have shown us that many are not as confident as we are in seeking out new Australian works. To further assist teachers and students looking for pointers to find suitable pieces, we began work on the Australian Art Song Resource.

Close to Home is the first in a series of Australian art song programs that Flametree is preparing. This series will provide more opportunities for people to hear these works in performance and to learn a little more about the composers who created them.

Flametree and the Australian Art Song Resource present Close to Home at Church St Studios, Camperdown, on Saturday 24 February, 1pm. More information.

Jenny Duck-Chong is a highly skilled interpreter, generous teacher and lifelong learner. As a performer, artistic director and educator she has forged a career by delving into the corners of her art form. She dusts off the rarely heard, rediscovers lost gems, juxtaposes pieces in surprising ways, and breathes life into new works, encouraging audiences and students alike to listen to music with fresh ears.

With a performance career spanning more than 30 years, mezzo-soprano Jenny Duck-Chong has established herself as a versatile and intelligent musician with extensive experience in a broad range of classical repertoire and a large output of recordings. Also a passionate educator and keen to engage with the next generation of musicians, for more than two decades Jenny has performed in concerts, presented classes on Australian and international works and workshopped student compositions in educational institutions in Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra. She runs a private singing studio and a consultation service for composers keen to hone their skills in vocal writing.

Alongside her solo work and teaching roles, she is the artistic director of Halcyon and co-founder of Flametree.

Nicole Thomson is an international performer and pedagogue working alongside artists across all genres and spheres of influence, and is a champion of quality music education within an environment of musical and theatrical excellence.

She is co-founder of The Culture Exchange (TCX), a creative initiative with international conductor Kevin Field, which encourages the creation of new works and collaborations across a global stage. As a member of the chamber ensemble Flametree, with mezzo-soprano Jenny Duck-Chong and pianist Jo Allan, Nicole performs boutique recitals in intimate settings. Flametree is currently presenting Close to Home, the first program in a performance series featuring Australian Art Song. With Jenny, Nicole is also undertaking research to develop the Australian Art Song Resource, an online database of compositions for voice and piano, to help teachers in singing studios find appropriate repertoire for their students at any stage of development.

Growing up in the vibrant and diverse cultural scene of the Whitsundays, this musically rich environment has provided inspiration and stimulation for Nicole to develop her unique musical qualities, where she continues her study and performance of contemporary classical works.


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