Vocalise for soprano and mixed chamber ensemble (2014)

by Mark Isaacs

This article is also published in Limelight Magazine

Though I live in Sydney, I’ve had a string of Brisbane-based projects over some years and that suits me just fine. Late last year, a few days after the premiere of my first symphony by the QSO, I attended a lovely meeting at the cafe of Queensland Performing Arts Centre with Tania Frazer, oboist and creative director with Southern Cross Soloists, and manager Jodie Rottle.

I was very happy to be commissioned to write for this distinguished ensemble, and the inclusion of soprano Margaret Schindler was an added dimension after eight years of writing purely instrumental works.

We settled on a short piece of 7 minutes duration (a good contrast after a thirty-minute symphony!). The world of concert commissions (unlike film/TV and theatre composition) involves being handed a blank canvas, the length of the work and its instrumentation being the only dictated elements. The music’s style, mood, texture, structure and a million other components are entirely at the discretion of the composer. It’s always a luxuriously generous invitation (if rather daunting when the going is tough!) to be asked to do something hopefully beautiful and inspiring in whatever manner you want. What a blessing!

There were some things to be immediately decided. First was what to do with the voice regarding text. One common approach is to hunt for poetry to set. I bypassed that completely in being inspired to write a “vocalise” – a work that uses wordless singing, the most famous example being by Rachmaninov. As a kind of homage, I titled my piece generically as “Vocalise”, just as he had.

Perhaps with such a model as Rachmaninov it was inevitable that I would write an unashamedly lyrical work, with long, expressive lines and very poignant harmonies. The continuous vocal melody is supported at the core by the piano while the wind and stringed instruments decorate the texture with countermelodies and reinforcing colours. In many ways chamber music is more challenging to arrange than orchestral as everything tends to be a solo and exposed; one does not have the “meat and potatoes” padding of a sectional sound to rest upon. Though cor anglais was an available doubling for oboist Tania Frazer, I decided to use cor anglais exclusively. Its poignancy and range were perfect for my purposes.

It was my vision that this work should be a luscious and haunting embroidery. It was a delight to construct it.