Western Australian chamber choir The Giovanni Consort presents Songs for the Soul, a celebration of women’s voices and music. The women choristers will be joined on stage by Yi-Yun Loei on harp, and Wendy Tait and Doree Dixon on horns. The performance, at Government House Ballroom on 21 May, will feature repertoire by composers including  Amy Beach, Imogen Holst, Gustav Holst and Johannes Brahms.

“This concert represents what I hope will soon be the norm throughout our industry; a program of extraordinary music which moves and entrances our audience, in which both female and male composers are equally represented,” says Kate McNamara, the Consort’s conductor, Artistic Director and General Manager. She spoke to Limelight about the concert and about addressing the gender imbalance in classical music programming.

Kate McNamara

Kate McNamara. Photo supplied

When did you take over as the Giovanni Consort’s Artistic Director and General Manager?
I have been the Artistic Director and General Manager of the Consort since the start of 2021. I add my name to a long list of wonderful singers and conductors who have led the Consort over the last 28 years, and I am enjoying putting my own stamp on the ensemble’s long history of music making.

Can you tell us a bit about your background?
I live an unusual double life as both a conductor and a soprano. I studied classical voice at WAAPA, and went on to sing with many ensembles, including the Giovanni Consort and St George’s Cathedral, where I am currently a soprano lay clerk. Alongside working as a singer, I have been lucky to have had a wonderful conducting education through programs with the West Australian Symphony Orchestra, Perth Symphony Orchestra and now West Australian Opera. I am particularly indebted to Jessica Gethin for her mentorship. It is relatively uncommon to come to conducting via singing, and it hasn’t been an easy road, but I am extremely grateful to have both skills. My singing background deeply informs the way I approach working with choirs, and I am a better conductor for it.

How important do you believe it is to address the gender imbalance in repertoire in classical music concerts?
This is something which is incredibly important to me; I would love to see our industry question whether all-male concert programs are acceptable in 2022.

Do you think a quota system is required, or is there a better approach?
There is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question. We cannot change the fact that Western art music has been almost the exclusive domain of male composers for many centuries, with notable but nevertheless comparatively few exceptions. My approach when programming has been to ask myself whether my hands are tied because of historical inequality, or whether I can do better. My experience so far is that I can usually do better.

Do you feel things are moving in the right direction?
I can’t speak for other ensembles and organisations; certainly I now find it jarring when, for example, a program of modern works fails to include any female-identifying composers. But my focus is to change my corner of the world for the better; if enough people do the same, we can create meaningful change.

Did you consider a program of all female composers, or did you want an equal representation of male and female composers?
I made a specific choice to include both male and female-identifying composers in this program. I worry that an all-female concert continues to ‘other’ female composers; I feel strongly that they should not be celebrated in the occasional concert, but be woven into the fabric of the canon through representation in every performance.

You only have female singers. Why is that?
There is a rich tradition of composing for upper voices, but as we usually sing as an SATB ensemble, that repertoire is less familiar to us. We are extremely lucky to have an incredibly strong soprano and alto lineup in the Consort, and this concert felt like a wonderful opportunity to showcase both less commonly performed repertoire, and our exceptional women’s voices.

Songs for the Soul

Songs for the Soul, choristers from The Giovanni Consort. Photo supplied

Can you tell us about why you chose the composers and the repertoire on the program?
When choosing [repertoire], I am always looking for music that moves me. Once I knew the concert would feature harp and upper voices, I set about finding music that was cohesive, while also delivering my forearms enough shivers to know I’m on to a good thing. Highlights of the program are the luscious and cheeky Three Shakespeare Choruses by the American composer Amy Beach, and a large set of works by both Imogen and Gustav Holst. Imogen Holst’s Welcome Joy and Welcome Sorrow is light and simple and yet fiendishly difficult, reminiscent of Britten’s style. And Gustav Holst’s Third Group of Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda feels like the choral equivalent to The Planets; foreign and yet familiar.

The use of harp and two horns is an unusual combination. Why did you choose that?
The addition of horns to the harp and voices is for Brahms’ Vier Gesänge, Op. 17. It is such an unusual sound combination, with the horns adding gravitas and complexity to the angelic lightness of the voices and harp. It is unusual for us to approach the meaty Romantic repertoire which is so common for instrumental ensembles, so it was an opportunity too good to pass up!

What can audiences most look forward to in this concert?

I hope to leave our audiences with hearts that are warm and full, and with a new appreciation of the work of some extraordinary 20th-century female composers.

The Giovanni Consort will present Songs for the Soul at Government House Ballroom, Perth on May 21 at 7.30pm.

Sign up to the free Limelight newsletter