It is not often that humility and inclusion are so genuinely expressed on the concert stage. On Saturday evening, however, they beamed via Divisi Chamber Singers in a program lasting just over an hour as part of Midsumma 2024, in collaboration with Melbourne Recital Centre.
Like myself, for those new to Divisi (soon to be rebranded as such) suffice to say, their warmth and geniality combine with an array of striking individual talent and an evocative collective style to create a winning mix.
A small, youth-led, not-for-profit organisation supporting early-career creative artists, the group was established in 2018 by Alex Gorbatov and Bailey Montgomerie during their years as voice students at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music. And at its commendable core is the championing of innovative works with an emphasis on initiatives that promote local LGBTQ+ artists.
In the chic and lofty ambience of the intimate Primrose Potter Salon and clearly delighted by the 100-plus audience, Alex introduced the program of three works – Sally Whitwell’s Spectrum, Meta Cohen’s a love is a love is a love and a world premiere, Connor D’Netto’s 5-part Stove Photography.
Unique in their own ways there was, nonetheless, a sense of unified style with each of the works bursting with everything from introspection to exuberance. And none eschewed challenging the voices’ propensity for all kinds of sound-making.
Alongside Alex’s fireside warmth and Bailey’s muscular richness, Alex Ritter’s angelic finery, Anish Nair’s assured resonance, Marjorie Butcher’s glowing charms and Monika Harris’ penetrating radiance made up the ensemble of six, each one a remarkable instrument of vocal flexibility and interpretation. For all three works, Coady Green provided exquisite and sensitively calibrated piano accompaniment.
The concert began with 5 movements of Whitwell’s Spectrum, first performed by the group in 2021 and characterised by great diversity of absorbing and approachable musicality and a skilfully structured framework.
It starts with the peppy Red movement but transforms into many moods and colours – Orange, Yellow, Green and Blue – with an underlying sense of jazz and melody threading its course. It’s a marvellous work, an anthem of sorts celebrating and reflecting varying shades of the queer experience.
D’Netto shows great promise with his premiere work, Stove Photography – a 4-part song-cycle based on a story by queer writer Bastian Fox-Phelan. D’Netto has created a seemingly compact musical storybook full of depth, emotion and a solid measure of creativity and quirkiness.
At times, however, the work felt fragmented and it didn’t help that some of the rapid-fire enunciations weren’t altogether seamlessly executed. Its first movement, before I leave the house, in particular, offered intriguing paths into boundless territory while the third movement, I wanted to be a writer – my favourite – burned with especially striking poignancy.
Finishing with Cohen’s a love is a love is a love, poetry by four queer Australian poets – Nikki Viveca, Vi Hu, Savanna Wegman and Leona Cohen – was employed to explore queer connections on all different levels from purely platonic to sexual desire and binding romantic. As a winning entry in the 2021 ABC Composer Commissioning Award, this 4-part cycle bristles with a rich tapestry of evocative music-making.
Each movement is titled with a single pronoun – you, they, she, and we – insightfully traversing a spectrum of everyday queerness. It received a lovingly embracing performance, each vocalist acting as a precious part of a refined chain with confidence and joy in abundance. That joy was contagious. And comforting.
But one issue remained at hand in all three works. While the musicality excelled, much of the text often slipped into frustrating uncertainty. As pleasurable as the performance was, it was the underlying current of the text that the listener ached to find attachment to.
In that regard, it would have helped enormously if the text formed part of the printed program, or be available online prior to the performance. After all, if there’s something to say, it needs to be given the best possible chance.
Nevertheless, Divisi have an incredibly special voice, and they’re using it for the benefit of all artists and the public alike. They have also just released a ground-breaking debut album, Spectrum, the first classical record in Australian history exclusively devoted to LGBTQIA+ composers. And they’re sure to attract a new wave of supporters, whether coming out or not.
Divisi Chamber Singers – a love is a love is a love
Primrose Potter Salon – Melbourne Recital Centre, Southbank Blvd, Southbank
Performance: Saturday 3 February 2024
Information: www.melbournerecital.com.au or www.divisichamber.com
Image: Divisi Chamber Singers – photo by Paul Selar
Review: Paul Selar