Forty Years On And Ye Olde Pop Music Is Still Top Of The Rustic Charts
Sydney Morning Herald
Monday June 5, 2006
The 30th Runymede Pop Festival will be held tomorrow and Wednesday in the Great Hall at Sydney University.Period instruments and melodies are this group's delight, writes Judy Adamson.IT'S almost by accident that I discover Winsome Evans is a one-woman orchestra. She's discussing the early history of the Renaissance Players - the group celebrates its 40th birthday this year - then mentions in passing her decision, in 1966, to learn a new instrument every year.I'm almost afraid to ask the question, but Evans laughs when I do and admits to the extraordinary figure of 30 instruments - nine of which she will play in the Runymede Pop Festival this week. "But I don't play them all at the same time," she assures me.It's hard not to be drawn in by Evans's delight in the music and artistic endeavours of the Renaissance. She has been the driving force behind the Renaissance Players ever since, by a strange twist of fate, she ended up conducting the group's first concert while she was still a student at Sydney University. Nigel Butterley directed on that occasion, she says, and among the singers was Germaine Greer."She's a wonderful singer," Evans says. "It was the one thing that she felt slightly insecure about because she was surrounded by people who could read music very fluently, but she had a beautiful soprano voice."If an occasional year has gone by since 1966 without a clutch of Renaissance Players performances, it's only because Evans - also an associate professor and senior lecturer in the university's music department - has been sick or involved with other projects. But this year is important: not only is it the 40th anniversary of the Players, but the 30th time she has organised the medieval romp of song, music and poetry that is the Runymede Pop Festival.The opera star Graham Pushee was among the many talents who took part in early festivals, and this year one of the performers will be his long-time student and fellow countertenor, Russell Harcourt.A clarinettist until his late his teens, Harcourt says he had always loved singing but wasn't sure, even by his final year at school, if his voice had finished breaking. However, when he auditioned for a musical directed by Richard Gill from Opera Australia, Gill immediately pinpointed Harcourt as a countertenor and put him in touch with Pushee.Now in his final year of a music degree at the Conservatorium, Harcourt is still being trained by Pushee - and although he was a little apprehensive at first of following in his teacher's footsteps by singing with the Players, he's relishing the experience."I've never sung any repertoire as early as this before ... and to be exposed to period instruments and sing in a period ensemble with all these melodic lines and different combinations of sounds - I'm just loving every minute," he says.A good way to define what the Players are doing, he adds, would be to describe it as 12th-century pub music. "It does have that kind of rustic element to it, and to an untrained ear it could sound just elaborated and continuous and like it's being made up on the spot. You know, all the instrumentalists are having a great time and they're going with it."[But] the music as a whole is quite complex. The vocal line taken out of that, though, is quite lyrical and simple ... the melodies are really lovely."This year's festival will contain music from England, France, Spain and Germany - including some of the original, medieval Carmina Burana in Latin and old German, and dance music chosen to get the audience up and moving.Evans painstakingly rakes through facsimiles of old manuscripts or modern anthologies of old music to find what she wants - and the music is anything but complete, as we would understand it."What survives is just a little fragment of melody with maybe a few words under it and then a whole lot of text," she explains. "When you look at the manuscript there's no rhythm. It's just a lot of dots - you know, pictures. But I've read a lot of medieval texts ... and it's become very clear to me that, for example, when you have these very long poems that sometimes a verse is sung in free rhythm and sometimes it's sung with a definite pulse and sometimes a verse is just declaimed with some kind of instrumental background."It's fun - but it's serious fun."
© 2006 Sydney Morning Herald