From Vienna to a sunburnt land
Vienna Boys Choir. Picture: Supplied.

Composer Elena Kats-Chernin's favourite landscape is the Australian bush with its contrasting textures of grass and trees. She has vivid memories of her impressions of the Blue Mountains shortly after arriving in New South Wales as a teenage Russian migrant.

"The mountains were scary; they were so high and I closed my eyes as we were driving because the walls seemed so close," she says.

The "sunburnt country" has since become her beloved home and it is fitting that Kats-Chernin has been commissioned to set to music the iconic Dorothea MacKellar poem My Country.

"I love the poem and I'm touched that I was asked as I wasn't born here. But I feel at home here and it is part of my heart to be in this country."

The piece will be premiered by the Vienna Boys Choir on their national tour which visits WA from September 22. The 24 choristers - aged between 10 and 14 - may not be able to identify with the "sapphire-misted mountains/ The hot gold hush of noon" in MacKellar's poem, but Kats-Chernin found plenty in common when she visited them in Vienna earlier this year.

"The boys are great, they are so fun and alive. They have a big range and they sing wonderfully in tune. Their sound is more silvery than girls. It feels like they have a thickness to the timbre. We workshopped some ideas together and they are smart, they learn so fast."

Last seen in Perth in 2005, the Vienna Boys Choir (or Wiener Sangerknaben) has cemented a reputation as one of the world's most active ensembles since its formation in 1498. It performs more than 300 concerts a year while providing the music for the Sunday Mass in Vienna's Imperial Chapel.

Over the course of its long and illustrious history, the choir has worked with conductors including Claudio Abbado, Leonard Bernstein, Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Sir George Solti, and performed the works of Fux, Salieri, Haydn and Bruckner. Composer Frank Schubert and conductor Hans Richter were themselves choristers

"I love the clarity and agility of those voices," Kats-Chernin says. "They can be bird-like as well as earthy, depending on the registers, and there is much vocal colour to inspire a composer. The perfection of their singing is second to none and I feel free to write challenging textures."

Initially it seemed impossible to add music to words already so powerfully and beautifully conceived in MacKellar's poem.

Instead of attempting to evoke landscape in the music ("Other composers write bird and insect sounds but that is not what I do, it would sound contrived"), she chose an irregular time-signature with five beats in a bar and opted for a non-sentimental tribute.

Within a few weeks she had written Land of Sweeping Plains, accompanied by piano, layering favourite phrases from the poem to create contrasting textures much like the bush landscape she loves. "I love a sunburnt country" and "opal-hearted country" are repeated by altos and then sopranos and "core of my heart, my country!" is declared with a sweeping melody line.

The composer says Land of Sweeping Plains' combination of an ancient landscape and new music is well suited to the Vienna Boys Choir, who will also sing Viennese classics by Schubert, Mozart and Strauss on their Australian tour.

"This is a world-class choir, an unbelievably great choir. It is a very old tradition but very young voices, I think it is amazing. They make a special sound. It is so pure, so angelic and very direct, it moves you to tears."

Kats-Chernin's music typically bubbles with enthusiasm, driven by buoyant rhythms and colourful melodies. It is also intensely autobiographical and mostly written in minor keys, gently laced with melancholy. Land of Sweeping Plains is one of the few works Kats-Chernin has set in a major key signature.

"This is not a piece for a minor key, it is too positive, too optimistic. I chose F major and G major which are keys of fun for me, sunny yellow and orange colours."

Kats-Chernin's effervescent music has won her fans around the world. The subject of multiple television documentaries, she is regularly asked to write works for the world's leading orchestras. The song Eliza's Aria from her Wild Swans ballet made it to number one on the UK Classical Charts and has been remixed by several DJs.

Most recently Kats-Chernin has been residing in Berlin working on a commission from the Komische Opera to arrange Monteverdi's operas Orpheus, Odysseus and Poppea. The complete 12-hour trilogy, to involve 200 performers, will be premiered on September 16 to mark the beginning of Australian director Barrie Kosky at the helm of the Komishe Opera.

Travel is becoming increasingly difficult for the composer, who is suffering from a slipped disk.

When possible, she prefers to be composing at her piano in the Sydney suburb of Coogee. Not far from her house is the "jewel-sea" described in MacKellar's poem. "Her beauty and her terror/The wide brown land for me!"

The Vienna Boys Choir performs at the Perth Concert Hall on September 22 and the Mandurah Performing Arts Centre on September 23.

The West Australian

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