Music review: The Lost Birds with VOCES8, QPAC

An extraordinary addition to Queensland Symphony Orchestra’s programming, 'The Lost Birds' combined heartfelt music with an emotional choral experience like no other. 
A group photo of five men in tuxedos and three women in formal tan-coloured evening wear.

Described as a special event in the 2024 Queensland Symphony Orchestra (QSO) season brochure, The Lost Birds was predominantly a concert celebrating our feathered friends while being an elegy on their threatened extinction. It comes at a time when almost daily we are made aware of the loss of unique animal species, alongside the plight of birds whose native habitat is disappearing. A concert dedicated to these marvellous creatures, whose voices and songs add immensely to human musical appreciation, seemed apposite.  

Additionally, this concert introduced Queensland audiences to the a cappella British choral collective VOCES8, in an unusual program for QSO that engaged a group rather than an orchestral or vocal soloist. In a clear appreciation for this offering, a packed Concert Hall responded with great enthusiasm. 

Commencing with Mendelssohn’s marvellous overture from The Hebrides, Op. 26, colloquially known as ‘Fingal’s Cave’, the power of nature was demonstrated through the musical depiction of swelling and crashing waves and sea spray. 

Briskly paced and brimming with atmosphere. the radiant opening entry of the strings, alongside strong timpani and percussion, gave way to powerful trumpets, horns and finely-crafted woodwind. The first forceful theme of a churning sea turned to a second gentler one, clearly demonstrated by the rumbling undercurrent of the darker strings. Clarinet and woodwind fiercely announced the arriving storm with the addition of strident trumpets, percussion and timpani, followed in the receding storm with the haunting melodies of flute and clarinet.  

The wonder of our seas and oceans was brought out in the many colours of this marvellous soundscape by the QSO, under the baton of Barnaby Smith, who conducted with abundant energy and great attention to detail.

Smith is also Artistic Director and Conductor of VOCES8 and he proved to be a wonderful asset. Not only did he conduct and provide additional vocals alongside VOCES8, but he introduced and commented on the program in a light-hearted yet informative manner that was well-received.   

US composer Caroline Shaw’s ‘and the swallow’ followed; an allegory for the humanitarian crisis in the modern world. An adaptation of Psalm 84, reflecting on both the sparrow and swallow nesting and protecting their young, Shaw composed the work for VOCES8 plus violin.

Conducted by Smith, who also joined the seven individual voices, the work is a deeply reflective and meditative chant that rose beautifully above Jack Liebeck’s plaintive but ever-hopeful violin. VOCES8 sang superbly while the text of the Psalm, interwoven with wordless passages to evoke the rise and fall of birdsong, was marvellously realised.  

Vaughan-Williams’ ‘The Lark Ascending’ is possibly the most joyous and well-known musical depiction of a bird flitting along the hedgerows of an English countryside in summer. It offers some of the most ravishingly lyrical music ever written to illustrate bird song and this concert would have been deficient without it.

A vocal arrangement by Paul Drayton to the original score for orchestra and violin allowed VOCES8 to adapt the work to suit their choral voices. By integrating text from the original poetry of George Meredith, Vaughan-Williams’ inspiration, VOCES8 married the poetry with the music to create a marvellous fusion. Intelligently and most sensitively managed, we never lost for one moment the glorious voice of the lark in the violin yet gained much from this newly minted version. 

Jack Liebeck’s violin commenced with the absolute lightest of touches, a whisper of chords that was as breathtaking as it was beautiful. It set the tone for his exemplary interpretation, as technically assured as it was expressive and emotive. It was easy to visualise this small bird within Liebeck’s fine palette of musical colours. Gradually the sonority deepened across the orchestral accompaniment, with shimmering strings and choral humming. Clarinet and horns emulated the soloist’s melody while the violin’s evocative ultra-high notes were delicately executed. 

The integration of Meredith’s poetry was impressively sung by VOCES8 with marvellous harmonies and spine-tingling soprano and tenor solos accompanied on violin. The final whisper-thin notes of Liebeck’s violin were a repetition of the opening, and were perfect. This was a most impressive delivery of the work with a magical and new interpretation that will leave a lingering memory.  

Christopher Tin’s work ‘The Lost Birds’ was composed as a collaboration with VOCES8 and is well crafted orchestrally and vocally. A heartfelt requiem for lost bird species, Tin adapted text from carefully chosen themed poems, each having a distinct flavour. Of the 12 sections, two were orchestral, the remaining 10 sung by VOCES8 as solos or in varying vocal combinations. Orchestral accompaniment comprised a wonderful melange of sweeping strings, ethereal harp, percussion and timpani. 

Melodic, yet often haunting and melancholic, ‘The Lost Birds’ utilised its emotive poetry and soundscape in a cinematic style, such that a visual component to accompany the music could be a welcome addition.  The opening orchestral section ‘Flocks a Mile Wide’ offered a breadth of strings denoting flying birds with violin and cello solos. Heightened by the addition of harp and glockenspiel, it delivered a lyrical intensity. Additionally, the ‘Intermezzo’ was a finely crafted filmic orchestral section with a resonant cello solo.

VOCES8 was the real star of this work, delivering excellent vocal harmonies that were perfectly suited to the overall eight-part voice range with its many soloist sections. Choral humming passages offered the high sopranos and tenors a chance to soar in Emily Dickinson’s ‘The Saddest Noise’ and Christina Rossetti’s ‘Bird Raptures’. ‘Wild Swans’ from Edna St. Vincent Millay was particularly anguished, with its ringing repetitions of ‘Cry’ while her ‘Thus in the Winter’ was suitably dramatic, offering strong male singing from tenors, baritone and bass.  

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A few of the highlights included ‘I Shall Not See The Shadows’ adapted from Dickinson and Rossetti, with carefully articulated phrasing and individual solo lines from altos and tenors. Sara Teasdale’s ‘In The End’ for unaccompanied alto solo was wistful and sad, while her ‘All That Could Never Be Said’ started poignantly as an ethereal high tenor solo with gentle humming across string accompaniment, and was deeply moving.   

As an encore, VOCES8 offered a complete contrast with the upbeat, swing version of ‘Straighten Up and Fly Right’. Made famous by Nat King Cole, this delightful jazz piece showed off the ensemble’s abundant versatility and virtuosity as a really fine a cappella group.     

The Lost Birds with VOCES8 
Presented by Queensland Symphony Orchestra
Concert Hall, QPAC

Conductor: Barnaby Smith 
Vocal Ensemble: VOCES8
Soloist: Jack Liebeck, violin

The Lost Birds was performed on 8-9 June 2024 and will be available on ABC Classic on 22 June at 1pm AEST.

Suzannah Conway is an experienced arts administrator, having been CEO of Opera Queensland, the Brisbane Riverfestival and the Centenary of Federation celebrations for Queensland. She is a freelance arts writer and has been writing reviews and articles for over 20 years, regularly reviewing classical music, opera and musical theatre in particular for The Australian and Limelight magazine as well as other journals. Most recently she was Arts Hub's Brisbane-based Arts Feature Writer.