The University of Sydney’s Great Hall set the scene on a sparkling winter’s Sunday afternoon for Sydney Chamber Choir’s Saint Nicolas program.
The afternoon’s repertoire took the audience on a journey from Hildegard von Bingen’s Selections from Canticles of Ecstasy to the erupting celebration of Benjamin Britten’s Saint Nicolas in a concert that Musical Director Richard Gill was inspired to create, but unfortunately unable to conduct.
Brett Weymark stepped up to the podium brilliantly to conduct the concert, which of course he did with style and rigour. How apt that his own circle of music education was present. He had not only sung in the very same hall as a university student but also, he explained, his life had been changed as a student at high school when he joined the then Sydney Schools’ Singers.
The performance featured not only the Sydney Chamber Choir, but chamber orchestra, soloists from within and without the choir, the Santa Sabina College Chamber Choir, the NSW Arts Unit Public Schools Singers and the NSW Public Schools Percussion Ensemble. How inspiring to invite all these different singers to come together as one.
Although Gill needed to step aside from the concert for health reasons, it was impossible not to feel his presence in the room, as the full cast of professional and amateur singers, adults and children and even the audience came together to sing. His nationally recognised and awarded commitment to music education, music as a shared art, and singing as a way to bring people together, was very much played out in practice before our eyes. We were all heartened to hear that he would very much be back next year.
The recurring musical texture of the concert was interweaving, interlocking, expressed vocally and physically in echoes, calls and responses, canons, parts breaking away and coming back together. Parts of the Sydney Chamber Choir split and sang from the sides of the Great Hall and then from the choir gallery at the back and then back on stage again. They began as one for the zen-like Ave Generosa and Dixit Maria, then split into two choirs on stage for the Bach motet. Solo voices sang to and against the full choir. Younger voices flanked older ones (lovely to see Karen Carey singing amongst them). It was a canon physically expressed, which added dynamism and power to the performance.
Hildegard, ‘heaven sent life in the natural world’, mesmorised us with her ancient delicacy. Her music feels so modern in its minimalism and was a perfect way to transport the audience to another mindset and prepare them for their journey ahead. The upbeat Dixit Maria by Hans Leo Hassler took us into a brighter space, followed by the virtuosic Bach motet Furchte Dich Nicht and then a stunning Magnificat by Buxtehude – or was it? The composer of this beautiful piece is still in dispute, as the thoroughly researched program notes by Allison Blake explained.
The centerpiece of the afternoon was Britten’s Saint Nicolas, written for his famous Aldeburgh Festival in Suffolk in England. As well as multiple voices, it features powerful tenor solo parts written for his partner Peter Pears in the title role, and sung with sensitivity and strength by Richard Butler. Librettist Eric Crozier wrote the text of the story of the saint who would become Santa Claus, the patron saint of sailors and children.
The piece begins with the choir invoking the spirit of Nicholas and a young treble soloist, Sam Borgent, as Nicolas the boy, singing the hauntingly beautiful ‘God be glorified’. Well done Sam!
Richard Butler took the mantle from the boy to paint the picture of adult Nicolas, who wrestled stormy and tempestuous seas, saved the poor from darkness and journeyed to Palestine in a spooky and powerful piece for male voices only. The SCC performed the exquisite consecration of Nicolas section magnificently and showcased the complex and lyrical writing.
In the back of our programs we were intrigued to notice some music scores. This was not just for our amusement. We were asked to stand and Weymark rehearsed the audience with typical good humour for their part in the performance singing the hymns, ‘All people that on earth do dwell’ and ‘God moves in a mysterious way.’
When it came to our turn, Weymark conducted us through the first verse and we were then left us to our own devices while the choirs and chamber strings played with and across our voices. We all swam together on the musical stormy seas, just like Saint Nicolas and his sailors, and filled the Great Hall with resonating voices. At that moment, Britten was also in the room, leaving no-one to sit passively, but challenging us all to break out of our own assumptions and expectations. The afternoon was peacefully resolved, however, when we all came musically together in a powerful Amen. What an unforgettable concert and a wonderful testament to the power of singing.