Vocal Writing Prize Winners

2013—Mark Ferris

Mark Ferris led an international career before he emigrated to Australia in 2012. In 2013 he entered the Pacific Opera Vocal Writing Prize and won first prize for his work A Se Stesso which was performed in concert by the Pacific Opera Young Artists and accompanied by Glenn Amer at Elizabeth Bay House. His winning work will be recorded by Fine Music 102.5 FM and broadcast later this year. In this interview Pacific Opera discovered what led Mark to a life-long passion for music.    

1. Can you tell me about your background and what brought you to Australia?

I grew up in Zimbabwe and attended university in South Africa where I studied law. I learned piano but was more interested in ‘tinkering’ with my own compositions than serious piano practice. And sport was also a distraction. After a short period working as a solicitor, I left South Africa with the intention of backpacking for a year. But after 12 months, I found myself in Japan teaching English to replenish cash. Within a year, I started a business and ended up staying almost 20 years! Singing in a choir, composing and enjoying Tokyo’s vibrant music scene kept me in touch with music. Having emigrated to the Sunshine Coast with my wife and daughter, I’m now enjoying exploring the musical landscape in Australia!

2. What attracts you to writing music for voice?

 My experience singing in choirs exposed me to beautiful choral music. I also enjoy trying to achieve a beautiful ‘blend’ when composing for voice. For example, even if you are writing for two sopranos, they may have completely different vocal styles which may ‘work’ together… or they may not. And working with vocalists is very personal, because they are the instrument and the emotion behind it.

3. Tell me how the idea of your winning work A Se Stesso came about?

I find the Italian language very ‘musical’ and am flooded with compositional ideas when setting Italian lyrics to music. Having just finished a song cycle based on the poetry of Goethe and other German poets, I was looking for Italian poetry from a similar era and came across Leopardi. First, I worked on his earlier poems which were cheerful and celebrated nature and the arts. But as he grew older (not ‘old’ because he only lived into his mid-thirties), he became despondent and bitter with deteriorating health and failed relationships. In A Se Stesso, he notes that death is the only respite from his miserable and unfair world. So, it’s all rather bleak but I enjoyed trying to capture exactly the mood of Leopardi’s poem (rather than trying to contrive a happy ending!).

4. Which composers inspire you?  

There are many - but Bach provides a musical grounding that is impressive and always a good reference. Brahms can be romantic but playful at the same time and Wagner makes me want to take (musical) risks. Composers of musical theatre such as Rogers / Hammerstein, Loewe/ Lowe, Lloyd Webber / Rice remind me that effective composition for voice requires story-telling skills. And I’m inspired that many composers achieved wealth and acknowledgement in their lifetimes so a composer is not necessarily condemned to a life of poverty if we don’t want it that way!!!

5. How would you describe your style of music?

I try not to think of style when I’m writing because I find this a limiting factor. My objectives for any composition will determine how I approach it. Sometimes, my objective is purely to experiment and other times I want to evoke a particular reaction in someone. When I collaborate with a lyricist or a performer, I try to focus on what will make them or their work shine (while putting my ego aside – at least that’s the plan!!) All of these things determine style. After living in Japan, I developed an interest and comfort in the pentatonic scale and this ‘creeps into’ my compositions from time to time. Looking back, I’ve noticed that music I am listening to or rehearsing (e.g. like a large choral piece) can subconsciously influence the style of what I’m writing at that time. This a difficult question to answer and I’d rather leave it to others to assess and name my style!!

6. What are you working on currently?

Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” was apparently based on a series of poems, the origin of which is unclear and some have attributed them to Vivaldi himself. I’m enjoying setting these to music with a modern twist. I was also asked to compose film music by an Australian screen writer / director for his upcoming film. I have a Requiem under construction and am writing songs based on the poetry of  a Canberra-based poet. Listening to the bird life here on the Sunshine Coast, I am sure there is music to be written to capture their calls and personalities! I tend to juggle a lot of things at the same time, which seems to work for me.

7. What do you see as the opportunities and challenges for Australian composers in the future?

Well, I think that the biggest challenge facing all composers (whether they are Australian or not) is to get our music heard and performed. I have met very few composers (or artists for that matter) whose national identity is a strong driver for them. We tend to write about our experiences and what we feel, a subset of which is our nationality. So, as composers we should try to enrich our lives through travel, taking risks, learning new things and encountering the unpredictable because that will lead to music which ‘speaks to people’. I’m really intrigued by Australia as a culturally diverse nation, a changing nation and a country of striking beauty – these are things I’ll write about in coming years. The biggest opportunity is that audiences are demanding new approaches to music and can access and enjoy music more easily than ever before. Embracing these changes makes more sense than resisting them.

2009—Benjamin Loomes

We are delighted to announce that the winner of the 2009 Pacific Opera Vocal Writing Prize is composer Benjamin Loomes whoose composition In my mind there's a Golden Thread  for baritone and piano was a hit with the judges.  Benjamin was presented with his $2,000 prize money at an event at the S.H Ervin Gallery on 25th February along with a performance of this and several of Benjamin's other beautiful works. The 2010 Telstra Wholesale Young Artist Michael Vaiasinni performed the winning work.

Benjamin Loomes

Benjamin Loomes is an honours graduate in music from the University of  Sydney, where he majored in composition, studying with Anne Boyd, Ross  Edwards and Peter Sculthorpe. He has written numerous works for a range of media, including orchestral and chamber works, but has a particular passion for vocal writing. In 2000 Benjamin won first prize in the Open Composition section of City of Sydney Performing Arts Challenge for his work "Christ Martyr" , which was also performed by the Sydney Chamber Choir at the University of Sydney.

Benjamin is a pianist and singer having performed numerous lead roles including: Eisenstein in "Fledermaus"; Sir Walter Raleigh in "Merrie England"; the title Role in "Fra Diavolo" by Auber; and in 2004, the role of BRIAN in his one-act opera "The Boat".

Benjamin is currently working as musical director in Opera Australia's WotOpera project, where he collaborates with young people to compose, stage and perform their own new Australian works. This January, Benjamin's Rock Opera "Crusade 1212" directed by Peter Cousins, was performed at The Independent Theatre, North Sydney. In 2007, Benjamin was commissioned by "Tall Popeas", producing a work, "The Present" which received very positive reviews. He is currently seeking funding for a number of works which are still in their infancy.