At the midpoint of a three date tour, the Ngunnawal and Ngambri country-based vocal sextet Luminescence Chamber Singers brings its Glass Heart to Sydney – an eclectic program of unaccompanied music dating from the 12th to the 21st centuries.

On stage are soprano Rachel Mink, mezzo-soprano AJ America, tenor Dan Walker, baritone Lucien Fischer, bass Alasdair Stretch and guest soprano Brianna Louwen (replacing an unavailable Veronica Milroy).

I was already primed for my heart to be broken several times over before the evening was out. Described as half a millennium of “love songs and break-up anthems,” the repertoire weighs on the two extremes of this timeline, exploring different forms of verse (the sestina and the villanelle), and compositional ideas spanning from the 12th century (composer Beatriz, Contessa di Dia) to America’s 2024 arrangement of Fragile by Sting.

Luminescence Chamber Singers at The Neilson, Sydney. Photo © Shamistha de Soysa

Despite the absence of a core member and Louwen stepping in at short notice, Luminescence performs with sophisticated ensemble coherence across diverse styles, creating a rich blend of tonal colours, translucent softness, well-defined part singing, synchronised articulation and dynamics, and unerring pitch. The soundscape is well suited to this particular venue and its richly resonant timber surfaces.

Luminescence presents its pieces in a mixed chronological order emphasising themes rather than temporal sequence in a notably commentary-free run allowing for continuity of sound and build-up of mood. The thoughtfully curated program, with its text, translations and explanations, is more than sufficient to place the music in context.

There are two mighty selections from the Renaissance canon, opening with Monteverdi’s sestina Lagrime d’amante al sepolcro dell’amata from his sixth book of madrigals, and (later), the expansive Baci, soavi e cari, a song of seduction and consummation by Luca Marenzio, a forgotten master and prolific composer of the madrigal who had a profound influence on Monteverdi.

Monteverdi’s sestina is a lament for the promising court singer Caterina Martinelli, who died young from smallpox. Monteverdi and the court were deeply moved by her death and with these two pieces, we are treated to Luminescence expressing in Medieval style, the anguish and the ecstasy of pain, love and loss with sighing portamenti, grating dissonances and lengthy suspensions of unbearable grief. Elegantly phrased, with deftly changing rhythms, tempi, tonality and dynamics, there is no lag in engagement through these transcendent pieces in which Walker and Louwen, floating high above the ensemble, enjoy some exquisite moments.

A chanter m’er (1175) by Beatriz, Contessa di Dia, a town in the former marquisate of Provence, is a unique choice. Beatriz’s song for three female voices were written in the rare Occitan language and it is the only piece by a trobairitz (female troubadour) to survive with its score intact. The chant-like soliloquy is introduced with simple beauty and microtonal ornaments by the bright tones of Mink, taken over by the burnished richness of America with the male voices providing a low drone.

The male voices follow with the unfolding staggered four-bar cycle of William Cornysh’s 1545 dolorous Tudor round, Ah Robin. A ribald ballad Matona, mia cara by Orlando di Lasso, is a welcome change of style with its infectious drive, play with poetic lines and rustic chorus.

To the present and David Lang’s i live in pain. Like Beatriz’s piece by which it is inspired, it is written for female voices, the parts slowly unravelling over a rising triad in the lower line. Drew Crawford’s When the Heart is Cut or Cracked or Broken, sets the bittersweet words of Michael Leunig. Premiering under the direction of Peelman in 2015, this is a rhythmically intricate piece with the ensemble calling on onomatopoeic bell-like effects, straight-toned beauty, jazzy chords and impeccable control, reflected again in the distinctive, close harmonies and cluster chords of Eric Whitacre’s A Boy and a Girl which Whitacre himself describes as ‘the truest notes I’ve ever written.’

The singers pack up their classical voices for the traditional Finnish number Kaipaava, sung in rustic style, followed by Peelman’s arrangement of Glitter in the Air by P!nk and co-writer Billy Mann. They close with Sting’s incomparable ballad Fragile, plucking hip-swaying rhythms, scatting and a vocalised saxophone effect from Stretch.

My heart was indeed broken several times through the evening, yet I emerged healed and uplifted.

Luminescence Chamber Singers performs Glass Heart at Wesley Uniting Church, Canberra on 24 March

Limelight subscriptions start from $4 per month, with savings of up to 50% when you subscribe for longer.