Warning: This report contains unashamedly gushing commentary. If you like your reviews critical and scathing I would advise you to read no further.
Sydney Chamber Choir is a truly excellent vocal ensemble. In a recent interview with Limelight magazine, Artistic Director Sam Allchurch described his experience in this his first year with the choir as equivalent to being handed the keys to a Rolls Royce, as both mechanic and driver. He said he has been taking time ‘to really understand the unique qualities of the choir and how to exploit them’. I think his choice of works in this, their last concert for 2019 showed his growing competence in the driver’s seat.
I try to see every Sydney Chamber Choir concert. As a ‘lesser’ choir member myself they are the pinnacle of my fantastical choral singing aspirations. I remember the first time I saw them perform, thinking, ‘when I grow up I want to be in that choir’ because I was astounded by their accuracy in pitch and their clean blend of voices. I still am.
I rarely need to revert to reading the words provided in the program because of the clarity of their enunciation, and in this afternoon’s program this was important because the program notes (written by alto Natalie Shea, and excellent as always) encouraged the listener ‘to experience together, here and now’… ‘time made audible’.
This was the theme of the concert – Time and Place, and I would actually add ‘Shape’ to that title as Sam Allchurch did a wonderful job of not only shaping the musical phrases to bring out the best sound from the musicians in the beautiful acoustic of the Verbrugghen Hall but also shaping the texts. The expressive poetry chosen by the composers ranged from Blake, Dickinson and Tennyson, to Rainer Maria Wilke and Margaret Glendinning, and these works did indeed span Time and Place. But I gush… down to the business of the works themselves.
When thinking about the program for this concert Allchurch brought together pieces which evoke either a specific time or place, or offer a broader consideration of these two concepts (admittedly a very wide brief, allowing him to choose pretty much any of his favourite works, but, hey, who’s complaining?). The program celebrated contemporary choral works from Britain, Australasia and across North America.
Jonathan Dove’s The Passing of the Year was the original inspiration for the program. Beginning as spring unfolds, ‘The narrow bud opens her beauty to the sun’, then progressing into joyous summer in ‘Answer July’ (a fun dialogue between two choirs). ‘Hot sun, cool fire’ evokes the languishing heat of a baking summer day and the cycle continues with canonic melodies tracing a sunflower’s endless journey, following the sun and restless for peace in ‘Ah sunflower, weary of time’. The annual cycle of seasons changes to autumn in the 6th movement focusing on the phrases ‘Adieu, farewell, earth’s bliss’ and ‘Lord have mercy upon us’. The work concludes with a joyful setting of Tennyson’s poem ‘Ring out, wild bells’. It’s an optimistic finale for double choir with a virtuosic piano accompaniment.At this point I should pay special mention to the marvellous pianist Luke Byrne, an expert choral accompanist and music director and composer in his own right. His dramatic approach to the ‘rippling’ and ‘lush’ piano lines added so much to the shaping of this work’s drama, emotion and excitement.
It was so hard to choose a stand out piece in this program – Time and Place stretches so far and wide and touches on so many concepts – but I think the Dove was my favourite. Prior to this the choir opened the concert with the breathtaking, literally spine tingling, René Clausen’s Tonight Eternity Alone and Paul Stanhope’s I Have Not Your Dreaming, a tribute to the Indigenous Australian poet Oodgeroo Noonuccal. The choir obviously has a deep connection to Stanhope’s music: he is a past singer and was its Music Director for ten years until 2015. This particular work for 4 treble parts (showcasing the exceptional voices of the women of the choir) explored the ‘place’ of Australia, and the relationship between the Indigenous peoples and colonial settlers in relation to time, it was performed with energy, emotion and, finally, real joy.
We were then led across the Atlantic to Canada, Healey Willan’s lush choral harmonies explore the Bible’s ‘surprisingly sensual’ Song of Songs. Rise Up, My Love, My Fair One, is the most popular of the liturgical motets in this trio and I confess is one of my favourite a cappella choral works, in all its simplicity and loveliness. Shea in the notes mentions that Willan had a love of plainsong, in which notes were written as ‘dotted or even wiggly lines, and irregular with no time signature or bar lines which encouraged singers to ignore them’. Again, it was lovely to watch Allchurch be able to ‘drive’ the choir in shaping the phrases in this beautiful harmonious music.
The second half of the concert opened with a specific example of ‘place’, Clare Maclean’s West Irish Ballad. Maclean wrote this when she was member of the Sydney Chamber Choir alto section. Shea notes that ‘The poem speaks of a chasm of loneliness when one is stripped of a connection to time and place’. It was gut wrenching. The altos carried the folk-like melody perfectly across the marshland evoked in the poetry and other voice parts joined the echo as it rang out through the hall. Stunning!
Next was young Australian composer Ella Macens drawing on her Latvian heritage in Stāvi Stīvi, Ozolin (Stand strong, oak tree). Macens is rapidly establishing herself as a successful composer. Her piece, set in her native Latvian tongue, is an emotionally charged test of strength in troubled times which used vocal techniques to emulate the wind in the boughs of an oak tree very effectively.
The two works from Morten Lauridsen’s Nocturnes which explored the qualities of night, included a beautifully restrained performance of Sure on this Shining Night where it’s so easy to get carried away and simply belt it out, especially in the men’s parts. They didn’t, and it was wonderful honeyed stuff, a chance for the men of Sydney Chamber Choir to shine.
The concert concluded with David Conte’s tragic yet uplifting Invocation and Dance, a setting of the poetry of Walt Whitman. Conte writes: ‘It is a hymn to nature and the place of death within the cycle of life on earth’. Written originally for the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus, the work has been rescored for SATB choir, piano duet and percussion. The invocation with its thrumming piano lines felt very like a Copland work (with whom Conte worked closely). It is a song of death and agony, leading to an unexpectedly joyful ending in the Dance. The two pianists and percussionists who joined the choir for this finale added great depth to this uplifting piece. An exuberant ending to an emotive journey through Time and Place.
I encourage you to look through the program notes to find out more about Allchurch’s selection of music here.
Time & Place was followed by the ‘speed launch’ of the Sydney Chamber Choir 2020 program. One that makes me want to jump up and subscribe immediately… To quote Allchurch, this program is ‘no lollipops in a choral fantasyland’. It is a series of masterworks of the choral genre…
Handel’s Messiah: An ‘instant hit’ of its day and still one of the world’s favourite choral works for almost 3 centuries;
Paul Stanhope’s Requiem: A world premiere conducted by the composer himself;
Secret Music: featuring Frank Martin’s Mass for Double Choir with a new ‘secret’ work by Australian Joe Twist (this is as yet unwritten – an exciting prospect!);
And finally, Haydn’s The Creation: A special event with the Australian Romantic and Classical Orchestra conducted by Jakob Lehman.
Bring on 2020!