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Vocal Detour – Sydney’s Newest Ensemble Goes Exploring

There is a new a capella vocal ensemble in Sydney. Calling themselves ‘Vocal Detour’ this quintet of elite singers plans to take its audiences and collaborators on a journey through roads less travelled, alongside the familiar classics.

SoundsLikeSydney spoke to baritone Mark Donnelly, the accomplished ensemble singer and soloist, well-known in Sydney and around the country. He explains: “The ensemble is everything to do with vocals and the word ‘detour’ came about as a divergence from the mainstream and our plan to take audiences, singers, composers and instrumentalists on this journey with us.”

Vocal Detour has a core of singers comprising soprano Anna Fraser, mezzo-soprano Hannah Fraser, tenor Andrei Laptev, Donnelly and bass-baritone Andrew O’Connor. Around this nucleus, Vocal Detour will retain its flexibility, says Donnelly. “Recently we took part in the New Voices weekend workshop hosted by the Orange Conservatorium. Most of our singers are quite busy, fortunately, so we had two guest singers, Anna Sandstrom and Brooke Shelley who stepped in, travelling to Orange, presenting a few pieces and workshopping with some of the singers and young composers there.”

With its mission to entertain, engage and educate, the idea for Vocal Detour was seeded in late 2019 as a trio, made-up of a soprano, an alto and a bass. Their aim was to run educational workshops in schools, but specifically in high schools. “The reason for the three voices,” says Donnelly, “was that often in high school, there are a large number of female voices, but it can be more challenging to get some of the younger men involved in singing. As well, their voices are changing and they may not yet have the range of a tenor or a bass. With three-part writing we are hoping to inspire schools with new repertoire and have a program that is tailored to the vocal talent that is in the school at the time. We will have the program for 3 voices which can be extended to 4- and 5-part programs as well. We can also tailor what we offer to the specific needs of the school, given that some school music programs are not necessarily well funded.”

The (de)tours planned by the ensemble for 2020 were shelved, but reinvigorated in February 2021 when music production house Musica Viva approached them to perform in their ‘Sessions’ concert, For the Beauty of the Earth. Set against the backdrop of The Calyx in Sydney’s Royal Botanic Gardens, the quintet of voices performed a sell-out program of a capella music which included songs by Lassus and Schütz, right through to Finzi, Hindemith and Wesley-Smith; even Johnny Mercer’s Autumn Leaves, illustrating the broad range of music that the ensemble intends to perform and at which it excels.

Nonetheless, Vocal Detour will still travel the well-trodden paths since its members are noted exponents of established old and new masters. Says Donnelly “There’s certain repertoire which we love going back to. One of my most wonderful memories is of a collaboration with Neal Peres Da Costa and Danny Yeadon and that’s something that we’ve been planning. Vocal Detour would love to join them again, perhaps in a concert of Bach motets – but always having the opportunity to deviate a little bit.”

“I think that to keep all of us singers and our audiences interested and engaged we need to cross over into different styles and genres. For a 5-voice classically trained vocal ensemble, the great masters will always be there – Tallis, Byrd, Monteverdi, Schütz, Lassus – we won’t abandon them but we don’t intend to concentrate on one composer or style either” observes Donnelly.

I asked Mark Donnelly how the music of the old masters can be kept relevant to 21st century Australia and its audiences. As an example, he quotes Vocal Detour’s recent Musica Viva Sessions concert. “The title For the beauty of the earth was very relevant because for the last 12 months our work and travel have been restricted, which has allowed us to reconnect with nature – with planet earth and take the time to understand what is happening. The relevance was the opportunity to reflect on how we as humans perceived and interacted with nature centuries ago and how we evaluate that relationship in the present day. How have those relationships changed? That idea will be across our concerts.”

The quintet’s expertise straddles varying styles. Recently, Anna Fraser gave a recital of contemporary Australian art song; tenor Andrei Laptev’s background is in Russian Orthodox church music, and he performs regularly as a soloist and ensemble singer with Cantillation, The Brandenburg Choir, Sydney Chamber Choir, the Singers of St Laurence and other choral collectives in Sydney as well as the Opera Australia extra chorus; four members of Vocal Detour – O’Connor, Hannah Fraser, Donnelly and Anna Fraser travelled to Canberra to perform in Katie Abbott’s Hidden Thoughts at the Canberra international Music Festival and there is also heavy involvement with Pinchgut Opera’s schedule for 2021. “So there’s already quite a lot happening in everyone’s career which is wonderful, but we are always open to requests for workshops or weekend singing retreats. I’ve always wanted to do a mini choral festival weekend at Bundanon … but that may be more 2022” Donnelly adds cautiously.

Vocal Detour has plans to become a national presence, although the present uncertainties surrounding travel and the high cost of cancellations have dictated that the singers remain in Sydney and regional New South Wales for the moment. Already, it has proved its resilience and adaptability surviving 2020 when so many other operations became unviable. “We all pursued individual avenues – some of us taught singing, others went online and created digital resources for choral groups like Gondwana Choirs and Moorambilla Voices. It did make me think that a digital resource is something that we could look at putting together – but that is a large undertaking and we would need to find the resources to make it happen,” says Donnelly.

Unusually, Vocal Detour has no director. “Not a concern” says Donnelly assuredly. Most of the members of Vocal Detour have sung together for many years, having met as members of the highly regarded ensemble The Song Company. Donnelly comments that experience has put them in good stead. “We’ve been singing together for so many years that the ensemble is very tight and cohesive and we breathe together instinctively. The general dynamic in rehearsal of not having a director or a conductor means that we do have to work as a unit and interact well together. We’ve worked together for so long that much of the groundwork that goes into ensemble singing has already been worked out.”

Even repertoire decisions are a happily democratic process. Donnelly was the point of contact for the booking by Musica Viva and was handed the mandate by the ensemble to decide the program. “I did ask for some suggestions and included a few of those. I wanted to do pieces that I hadn’t performed a lot and finding these after performing with The Song Company for 23 years was quite difficult. There were a couple of lovely pieces where we performed just 1 or 2 movements, like  Hindemith’s Six Chansons or Finzi’s Seven Part Songs. This was an opportunity to perform these in their entirety. It was good to do something that was fresh not just for me, but for the others as well. We all have lists of programs that we’d love to perform that we’ve put together over the years. We just the need the opportunity!”

Shamistha de Soysa for SoundsLikeSydney©

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