Just before the long weekend that celebrates Queen Elizabeth II’s birthday, Sydney Chamber Choir put its Kings and Queens in a row with a concert exploring composers with the Royal seal of approval. On a dark and wintry Sydney night, we were as if transported to a substitute London’s Westminster Abbey with ‘A Royal Affair’ at Sydney University Great Hall. The choir performed music by two Masters of the Queen’s Music – Australian Malcolm Williamson AO CBE (not to be confused with film composer John Williamson) and Judith Weir CBE – and the choral great George Frideric Handel.
Opening the concert was Judith Weir’s stunning ‘A Blue True Dream of Sky’. The contemporary brilliance of her writing was a wonderful surprise and transported the audience immediately into a world of tone and texture. The rich text of poet E.E. Cummings was a perfect showcase for the 30 singers of this ensemble, now finding their new direction under Music Director Sam Allchurch. The enchanting voice of soprano soloist Belinda Montgomery against the chanting duets of two alto voices Liane Papantoniou and Natalie Shea and the lush chords of the choir were a wonderful introduction to this composer. Weir, succeeding Peter Maxwell Davies in the role, is the first female composer to enjoy the Queen’s pleasure, and is the current Master of the Queen’s Music.
Her second piece, ‘Love Bade Me Welcome’, explored a sensitive interplay of choral texture and ignited expressive conducting from Allchurch. The piece revealed the incredibly clear discipline and diction of the choir, based as it is on dialogue between Love and the Soul. Weir writes pieces for schools and community choral groups, as well as advocating for and supporting her fellow contemporary composers. After this performance I think it’s safe to say we would love to hear more. Weir’s piece ‘The Song Sung True’ was also included in the program.
One of the hallmarks of Sydney Chamber Choir concerts (due to celebrate 55 years in 2020) is that the audience always learns something new, supported by informative and intellectually rigorous program notes. This concert gave us an in-depth lesson on Malcolm Williamson, the Sydney-born Conservatorium of Music student who spent most of his life in the UK, with what some would say was a checkered career as a composer.
Williamson (who beat Benjamin Britten and Michael Tippett to the role of Master of the Queen’s Music) wrote ‘Love, the Sentinel’ in the 1970s and his five-movement ‘Symphony for Voices’ in the 1960s. The latter, never before performed in Australia, was prefaced almost by an apology by program writer and chorister Ria Andriani as it championed the ‘rule of courage’ in the colonies, in particular New Guinea. The piece praises the god-fearing quest of the colonisers, with both Williamson and his librettist the poet James McCauley being Catholics: ‘Stains of blood, and evil spirits, lurk; like cockroaches in the interstices of things.’ The piece was written before Australians could deny the truth about and apologise to the Stolen Generations, and the documented slavery and brutality of the British in the Pacific. As a constitutional monarchy, with no clear pathway yet to an independent Republic, the program is right to ask: How should we reconcile ourselves with this aspect of Australia’s history?
After the interval, The Muffat Collective and guest chamber musicians flooded the acoustics of the Great Hall with the Baroque era. The Chamber Choir interspersed with soloists drawn from their ranks presented a wonderful rendition of Mr Handel’s ‘Dettingen Te Deum’, his first commission as Composer to the Chapel Royal, and ‘Zadok the Priest’, a Coronation Anthem.
The militaristic flavour of the opening chorus ‘We praise thee,’ gave way to brilliant clarity of ‘To Thee Cherubim’ – Handel the rock god at his best. A tempered ‘Zadok’ filled the Hall with an exploding finale, with a powerful period brass section in the ‘Alleluia’ warming us all up for the journey home.