Performance review: Alchemy Consort: It Lights the Whole Sky, National Gallery of Victoria

Choral music performances that explored the connection between humanity and natural phenomena.
It Lights the Whole Sky. Image is a choral group spread through a gallery space, standing on a multicoloured rug surrounded by 19th century paintings of weather phenomena and storms, singing. They all wear black suits and ties, and white shirts.

In true Melbourne fashion, let’s talk about the weather. Better yet, let’s delve into the intangible phenomena of hurricanes, lightning, foggy mornings and their profound connection to our existence. No need for a background in physics or astronomy – instead, this was an invitation to immerse yourself in an experience that combined vision, voice and movement to deliver a tapestry underpinned by shining stars and an exaltation of hallelujah.

Against the backdrop of the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV)’s 19th century international painting collection, there emerged a multilayered holistic display of artistry. The collection itself features marine subject matter such as Henry Moore’s complex play of light over the waves and clouds in Outside the Harbour, 1872, as well as the profound depiction of sea and sky in Clarkson Stanfield’s Mount St Michael, Cornwall, 1830.

As part of the NGV Triennial Extra, a vast range of artists were invited to engage with or respond to the works showcased in the exhibition. Among them, Alchemy Consort took to the stage to present It Lights the Whole Sky – a series of one-hour choral music performances spanning three nights. They were showcased within the immersive space crafted by the Swiss artist Franziska Furter’s evocative works Liquid skies/Gyrwynt, 2023 and Haku, 2023. 

To be fully engrossed by the mastery of Furter’s two remarkable installations, viewers were invited to recline upon Liquid skies/Gyrwynt (meaning ‘hurricane’ in Welsh) – a soft rug the vivid hues of which depict the strain between the beauty and the destructive power of the natural phenomenon it represents. Meanwhile, floating above in the viewer’s eyeline, Haku reveals itself in the form of thousands of hand-threaded glass beads. Each strand drops delicately from the ceiling at varying heights to mimic the ethereal swathes of fog.

As the clock struck 7:15 pm, a new dimension unfolded within the space. Figures adorned in black suits, white shirts and black ties ground themselves barefoot upon the plush surface of Liquid skies/Gyrwynt. They clutched their professional black bags containing a personal object to be revealed during the performance as their collective gaze reached far beyond the surface of Haku. They yielded to an unseen force, perhaps a celestial essence emerging from the collective soul within the physical space. As the momentum built into the opening act, the figures spread their limbs wide in a gesture of acceptance of what was to come.

A lament of surrender bellowed in unison as the audience settled into what promised to be a universal connection between people and the natural world.

It Lights the Whole Sky emerged as a transcendent dialogue extending beyond the intimate ensemble of vocalists, conductor and cellist. The performance artfully mirrored the personalised yet universally resonant experiences derived from the cosmos. Alchemy Consort’s interdisciplinary presentation was impeccable. The ensemble adeptly employed movement within the space, striking choreography and contrasting props to create a captivating and almost hypnotic experience.

In an authentic display of immersive offering, the unfolding events were intentionally withheld from prior announcements. The audience was entrusted with the autonomy to embrace the unforeseen.

I must acknowledge that the conclusion of each segment within the presented repertoire left some audience members feeling bewildered. While the concept and execution were adept, the overall experience could have been enhanced by a subtle announcement or an invitation for the audience to remain in anticipation of the subsequent act.

However, those who were deeply entranced by the environment comprehended the full scope of the delivery as they waited patiently for the start of the next act.

The ensemble reiterated the interconnectedness of all the layers within the space. The transition between each act was denoted by the choral members’ direct engagement with the 19th century paintings on display. Additionally, the conductor took a moment of respite, seated at the plush centre of Liquid skies/Gyrwynt, all the while contemplating Haku as the viewing experience demanded. 

The choral performance program included ‘The Sun Never Says’ by Dan Forrest, ‘Earth Song’ by Frank Ticheli and ‘Northern Lights’ by Ola Gjeilo.

Read: Performance review: Tempo, Arts Centre Melbourne

It Lights the Whole Sky succeeded in delivering an immersive showcase that bridged the gap between the past and the present. It transcended the choral repertoire to encompass the physical elements within the Gallery and invoked Furter’s fascination with visualising unseen phenomena. Moreover, it also paid homage to the natural world as depicted in 19th century paintings, and created an atmospheric experience that invited audiences to contemplate the weather as an integral part of our existence.

Alchemy Consort: It Lights the Whole Sky
Director: Dr Gary Ekkel
Choreographer: Walt Isaacson
Performers: Nicole Jones, Hannah Irvine, Clementine Isaacson, Stefanie Dingnis, Miranda Gronow, Matt Bennett, Ben Hjorth, Ben Russell, Alasdair Sim, Thomas Attard
Cellist: Josh Dema

It Lights the Whole Sky was performed on 23, 26 and 28  January at the National Gallery of Victoria as part of Triennial Extra 2024. 

Dorcas Maphakela is a multidisciplinary creative combining writing, visual arts and holistic well-being advocacy in her practice. She is a South African-born Mopedi woman who relocated to Australia by choice in 2007 and became a citizen in 2012. She studied Fine Arts at the University of Johannesburg and holds a Master of Arts in Writing from Swinburne University of Technology. Dorcas is also a TV presenter, public speaker and founder and producer of the Antenna Award-winning OZ AFRICAN TV (OATV). She is the co-founder of Yo CiTY, a platform that champions the culturally diverse experience through Art & music. Her work was acknowledged with a Media Award from the Victorian Multicultural Commission for “outstanding reporting on issues of importance to diverse communities and reporting which contributes to Victoria’s cross-cultural understanding” (VMC).