Sydney has a new vocal ensemble Castalia, which makes its debut this week. This exciting line-up of voices has every intention of living up to its name. A source of poetic inspiration for Apollo and the Muses, according to Greek mythology, Castalia was a nymph who threw herself into the Castalian spring in Delphi, transforming herself into a spring to evade Apollo. In fact, the Muses are also known as the Castalides.
Speaking to SoundsLikeSydney, soprano Amy Moore and her joint artistic director of Castalia, alto Stephanie Dillon have been working on this project for a number of years, interrupted by COVID. “I think is a fortunate name to end up with because the spring is where the muses got their inspiration and we’re hoping to use that idea of inspiring musicians and artists of all kinds.”
Castalia’s first concert features music from early composers Strozzi, Monteverdi and Gesualdo, to Finnissy, Caroline Shaw and Sciarrino. “It’s that repertoire at the two ends of the time-line that we want to broadly encompass,” says Moore. “The reality of vocal music is that it is most rich at either end. There’s a lot of stuff in the middle but in terms of small vocal ensembles you really struggle to better Renaissance, Early and the high Baroque. They are such rich times to pick from but there is also great contemporary music being performed.”
Moore acknowledges “It will be challenging for us and for audiences as we are looking to do music that includes the avant-garde and is more experimental. I’ve performed a lot of music in my career that is quite experimental and I find it to be an exciting and visceral experience. We’d like to take our audiences on a journey – to gather them up in an experiential sweep in our concerts and see if we can open them up to some of that music that isn’t performed quite so much at the moment.”
Comprising just 6 voices – sopranos Chloe Lankshear and Moore herself, alto Dillon, tenors Christopher Watson and Louis Hurley and bass Philip Murray – the self-directed Castalia will operate without a conductor which presents a few additional challenges, especially in performing more complex music with multiple rhythms and time changes. The singers though, are no strangers to each other and have a wealth of experience, from performing together in various projects over the years. Says Moore “Castalia offers that lovely consort experience where the singers learn to trust each other as an ensemble. It is music-making at its most collaborative where you don’t have someone up front but you’re looking at each other for the musical cues. It creates a more intimate music-making space.”
Joint artistic-directors, Moore and Dillon will together curate the programs and they have in store, ideas for mixed repertoire as in their upcoming performance. Future programs, they hope, will include collaborations with small instrumental ensembles although selections will be mostly a capella in style.
Explains Moore, “A lot of the early repertoire offers the possibility of including continuo instruments, so for our debut concert, we have Simon Martyn-Ellis on theorbo who will accompany some of the pieces. An instrumental collaboration gives us a few more options especially with women composers of that time. We’re really keen to program music by women, not as a nod, doing one piece here and there, but to have as much as we can include. It takes a lot more searching, but increasingly, people are excited to hear those discoveries. A lot of the music written by women were songs where they accompanied themselves, or by a small instrumental ensemble. Having a continuo line opens up a lot of choices and we’re thrilled to have Simon with us because he has a particular interest in vocal music as well and it will be a really nice collaboration.”
Curating programs, Moore has found ample repertoire by women composers but not all of it sufficiently attention-grabbing for a short program. Asked about balancing merit with affirmative action for women composers, Moore observes “In Australia now there is a lot of support for contemporary women composers. It’s fantastic that this support is there because historically, women have had to fight a little harder for recognition.”
Castalia welcomes a broad audience. Moore notes the die-hard fans and serial concert-goers, familiar faces when looking out from the stage but says “We also want to draw in younger audiences who are maybe not so familiar with going to classical concerts or vocal music concerts and find a little excitement for them. Additionally, looking at the musical tapestry as a whole, we want to provide work for young, up-and-coming singers in the way that I experienced when I was coming through the ranks in my early singing days in London, where there were 10 to 20 vocal ensembles and choirs I could audition for and I sang with many of them. So, we’d like to provide opportunity, aspiration and development for those coming through alongside more experienced artists and we hope that they will bring some audience with them.”
Moore has had her hands full with a young family, managing and promoting Castalia as well as being joint-artistic director, but is looking forward to switching hats to being a pure performer come her time on stage. “That’s what I love about performing” she says, “and on a personal note that’s why I love performing contemporary music that’s a challenge because it is a wonderful feeling to not worry about anything else. You’re in the moment and you have an exciting visceral, difficult, moving piece of music to sing. It takes you out of yourself and that’s what we’re aiming for.”
Competition for audiences in Sydney is fierce and Moore admits that it is important to stand out in the field. She says “Castalia will be a much more underground pop-up outfit. We look at the music that we’re excited about doing and we look at spaces we’re excited to sing in and we’re trying to create something which is just a little different and that we don’t see being done much. Hopefully that positions us to pop-up here and there, do something different and then return to our other collaborations with our amazing ensembles and the rest of our lives. We are looking forward to performing these sometimes-hair-raising moments of experimental music without fear and trusting our audience who are knowledgeable, intelligent and interested concert-goers. I’ve been really thrilled that there has been such a positive response in speaking to people about the project and I hope we can find a little place in the landscape.’
Shamistha de Soysa for SoundsLikeSydney©