From Bach to the blues: how daring, eclectic programmes have made The Song Company Australia’s foremost vocal ensemble

This article was originally commissioned for Sinfini Music Australia. It is reproduced here with the permission of Universal Music Group Copyright © 2016 Universal Music Group 

Last June Australia’s pre-eminent acapella ensemble, The Song Company, announced that it would be appointing a new artistic director after an illustrious 25-year journey with the esteemed Belgian-Australian conductor Roland Peelman. With the New Year began The Song Company’s new regime under artistic director Antony Pitts and they are kicking things off in style: with an irresistible selection of Bach, Brahms and Mendelssohn motets and chorales in a programme called Bach & Forward.

Since being founded in 1984, The Song Company has released a number of acclaimed recordings and performs extensively around Australia and internationally. Apart from its high performance standard, what makes the Company stand out is its confidence to put together wildly eclectic programmes. In one season the ensemble can perform anything from Renaissance polyphony to modern blues, to brand new chamber works.

‘For me, it’s the range of repertoire and the freedom to be daring in programming, coupled with an elite team of singers who are given the time to prepare and experiment, that makes The Song Company stand out,’ current artistic director Antony Pitts tells me. ‘It’s a winning combination that has flourished under Roland and I’m honoured to be taking up the baton.’

‘Its more than enough to entice me and my family to move halfway around the world,’ he adds.

2016 is all about legacy and transformation for The Song Company; about taking what’s been achieved over the last 30 years, building on it, and going in some new directions as well. 

‘Our tagline for 2016 is “transfigured voices”,’ Pitts explains. ‘We have a wide range of programmes across the season with both old and brand new music, as well as some hopefully intriguing juxtapositions: early Dutch songs next to Indigenous Australian sounds, Billie Holiday tunes next to new Australian works, and Monteverdi rubbing shoulders with one of my own pieces for Easter.’

Pitts continues: ‘In 2017 we’ll be opening some very different doors onto soundworlds where opposites both attract and clash, from a medieval pageant to refugees from the Middle East, and from 1920s high society to the radical vision of Martin Luther’s 1517 revolution.’

"2016 is all about legacy and transformation for The Song Company"

The Bach & Forward programme Pitts will conduct this month begins with the coupling of  Bach’s Motet BWV 228 ‘Fürchte dich nicht, Ich bin bei dir’ with Mendelssohn’s Motets, Op.69, and contextualises Bach’s music with works by the Romantic composers who helped to revive it.

Bach & Forward is the first of our seven main season programmes in 2016, and comes out of a legacy programme I inherited from Roland,’ Pitts says. ‘Essentially, it’s three of the extraordinary Bach motets interwoven with 19th-century music inspired by Bach’s own legacy. We’ll be joined by two extra singers, Tobias Cole and Andrew Goodwin, and by Daniel Yeadon and Neal Peres Da Costa on cello and organ, both in a continuo role and as a duo.’

Pitts continues: ’Bach himself said “The ultimate end of thoroughbass [bass continuo] should only be the glory of God and the recreation of the mind.” The continuo combined with the eight voices should achieve what Bach’s contemporary Johann Adolf Scheibe described as “A spiritual motet [that] if you perform it with its full potential, creates an extraordinary, heartfelt joy [that] enlivens us and yet makes us thoughtful.”’ The programme looks back to Bach, just as Mendelssohn, Schumann, and Brahms all did, while looking forward to music inspired by his genius.

"Bach just gets it right"

Why Bach’s music and legacy has continued to inspire leading composers and performers over time is a subject as fascinating as it is boundless. Whether its the spontaneity of expression or Bach’s mathematic approach that contribute to his music’s enduring appeal, its not possible to exaggerate the influence it has had on Western music.

‘Bach just gets it right,’ Pitts enthuses. ‘He knows what he’s doing with the notes so that it always adds up both vertically in terms of the harmony and horizontally in terms of the individual lines.  And I think our brains and our minds – and no doubt our spirits – like that sense of order and beauty.’

He continues: ‘Getting it right is not always easy listening, though, and we should remember that some of Bach’s contemporaries complained his music was turgid and confused.’

Bach was all but forgotten in the fifty years that followed his death. In fact it wasn’t until the beginning of the 19th Century, when German musicologist Johann Nikolaus Forkel published a study of Bach’s life, that the revival of Bach’s music really gained momentum. Mendelssohn’s  1829 centenary performance of Bach’s St Matthew Passion, and the subsequent publication of collections of Bach’s complete works, helped cement the composer’s legacy and his reputation in history.

"This is not a man in an ivory tower, however pure and heavenly his music, but someone battling with life and working so hard that his music flowed in a way that now seems totally natural to us."

‘What I find interesting (and relate to very well) is the accounts of how Bach had to deal with the administration surrounding his employment, his family, and the local officials,’ Pitts tells me. ‘This is not a man in an ivory tower, however pure and heavenly his music, but someone battling with life and working so hard that his music flowed in a way that now seems totally natural to us.’

When asked what he’s got planned for The Song Company over the next few years, Pitts reveals that he’s been writing a kind of manifesto for the ensemble.

‘What I find I keep coming back to is the importance, today more than ever, of beauty,’ Pitts explains. ‘I don’t mean simply Shakespeare’s “concord of sweet sounds” or the complex euphony of some of the rich counterpoint we sing, but the beauty of purpose, a higher-order harmony of connections between themes and people, ideas and the expression of those ideas. I really believe that music has a radical power to make a difference in this troubled world, to reshape our minds and to see things more clearly, with more sympathy – and a nourishing ability to open up and distill our restless hearts, resulting in a new appreciation of the possible.’ 

Bach seems as fitting a composer as any to start bringing such a manifesto to life.

The Song Company performs Bach & Forward in venues in and around Sydney from Sunday 21 February to Saturday 27 February. Visit to find out more

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