December 1, 2019, “A Boy Was Born”. What better way to ring in the festive season than with a bit of Britten? Last Sunday I was fortunate enough to sing in the final concert of Bel a cappella’s 2019 program, presenting this epic work (which I should point out was written by Britten at the age of 19) plus other works by Imogen Holst, Eric Whitacre, Clare McClean and Alice Chance. It was a challenging but successful concert, which we (and I think I can speak for many of my fellow choristers here) sang with equal parts joy and terror. The wonderfully rich acoustic of St Augustine’s Church literally blew people away. I watched as our audience sat up, awestruck with that “wow!” expression that only comes when 30 voices belt out a final fortissimo chord in perfect 8-part harmony. It nearly lifted the roof off, a fitting an end to an innovative and ambitious year for the choir!
But it’s the season for “out with the old and in with the new” as they say, and this is really what my report is all about, as Bel launched its 2020 season directly after the concert, celebrating what will be their 25th year by toasting the new year (albeit a little early) with their very own custom label “Prosecco ‘Bel’lissimo”.
Artistic Director Anthony Pasquill has become known for programming exciting works rarely heard in Australia: in 2019 this included whistlers to shaman drums, Cage to Schnittke – so what does he have in store for next year? Well, more than ever, actually! The choir will be busy touring, collaborating and performing extraordinary music in a number of key concerts across Sydney and beyond.
BOWRAL: First, in March the choir heads off on tour…to Bowral, admittedly not very far afield this year, considering previous tours to Europe and another planned in 2021 (more on that later), but they are nonetheless looking forward to joining the annual Bowral Autumn Music Festival. This concert will feature works by Imogen Holst and Bach, among others.
CHATSWOOD: As a small a cappella chamber choir, Bel a cappella does not get perform with a full orchestra very often, so this year’s opportunity for Pasquill to be guest conductor for Willoughby Symphony Orchestra presents a rare privilege.
From the heavenly music of George Dyson’s masterful Hierusalem, to Arvo Pärt’s beautiful setting of the Te Deum for choirs, string orchestra, prepared piano and tape, this is a concert than celebrates the human voice. Also on the program is Alice Chance’s Holy Dreaming. Alice is 2020’s composer in residence at Willoughby Symphony Orchestra and Bel is thrilled to be working together with new Australian composers on larger scale works this year.
MANLY: The next major presentation of the year will be Joby Talbot’s epic choral masterpiece, Path of Miracles, to be performed at sunset in the resonant acoustic of Cardinal Cerretti Chapel on the cliff tops of Manly. The four movements ‘Roncesvalles’, ‘Burgos’, ‘Leon’ and ‘Santiago’, are named after four points on the Camino Frances, one of the principal pilgrims’ routes to Santiago de Compostela. At least three Bel singers have walked parts of the route so this, ‘…one of the most beautiful choral works we have heard’, is close to the hearts of many in the choir. It is a work of remarkable range and assurance. Accompanied by Kate Moore’s Eclipsed Vision, this will be a highlight on the 2020 choral music calendar.
BALMAIN: Bel a cappella’s final performance of 2020 sees them perform music that showcases Toivo Tulev’s Suvine Vihm (Summer Rain) alongside Ross Edwards’ Mass of the Dreaming, as well as the combination of electric guitar (!) and choral polyphony of Gabriel Jackson’s Ave regina caelorum. This concert will also feature music by emerging Australian composer Ella Macens, Howard Skempton and Daniel Brinsmead.
BEYOND: And so, as the Prosecco Bellissimo was topped up to toast 2020 and 25 years of Bel a cappella, Pasquill wrapped up by announcing that in 2021 Bel a cappella will be taking their 3rd international tour, to Russia and the Baltics. The choir has decided they wanted to showcase Australian music on tour and have set up a project with the Australian Cultural Fund (ACF) to raise $5,000 to commission 3 new Australian a cappella choral works. The ACF is a great crowdfunding initiative which facilitates tax deductible donations to small arts organisations for specific projects such as this. The choir are hoping that people who wish to give a donation rather than a Christmas present this year might consider this worthy cause. The composers, chosen by way of an anonymous composition competition later in 2020 will be able to select which city on the tour their work is given its world premiere. The works will be given their Australian premiere on return from tour in mid 2021. To learn more, or to donate, click here.
Putting my singer’s hat back on, I am so excited about our upcoming busy schedule. I get chills every time I listen to Talbot’s Path of Miracles and can’t wait to begin rehearsals in February (I urge you to go on Spotify and have a listen, and be sure to put earphones on, the first tutti chord is absolutely jaw dropping). Bel is a choir who very much enjoy each others’ company and I think this translates into our performances as a cappella singing requires equal measures of trust in your fellow singers and individual responsibility, and this is so much easier when you genuinely like each other. There is a lot to look forward to in the coming year, we hope you will join us.
In the meantime, We Wish You a Merry Christmas! and hope to catch you around the city as we join the merry bands of carollers.