On Saturday afternoon if you happened to be wandering through Sydney’s Queen Victoria Building you may have been somewhat astounded when instead of the usual bland piped elevator music, the sound of 80 voices singing 16th century anthems and motets soared over the weary shoppers and latte sippers. This was the culmination of Bel a Cappella’s 2018 Come and Sing project, and I was lucky enough (or mad enough) to be amongst the merry choristers.
Bel’s Come and Sing projects began in 2017 when music director Anthony Pasquill and a few choir members decided it would be fun to get together one morning to sing through some awesome choral music then just ‘gig it’ that same afternoon. Invitations to come along and sing Duruflé’s Requiem were sent out and it was so successful that in 2018 Pasquill wanted to do it again – this time raising the bar. For this year he proposed Thomas Tallis’ epic surround-sound composition Spem in alium as well as one of the most impressive achievements in Renaissance polyphony, Alessandro Striggio’s motet Ecce beatam lucem. Both of these works require 40 independent voices. Just for good measure these two pieces were ambitiously augmented by a bit of William Byrd and Thomas Tomkins.
40 vocal parts is a lot of people to bring together for a small chamber ensemble like Bel a Cappella but 80 keen choristers quickly signed up, myself included. Suddenly, there I was with 20 minutes of extremely hard music to learn at home in two weeks (potentially being the only person allocated to that voice part) before getting together to give it a crack. We had been assigned just 3 hours to rehearse as an ensemble to pull the whole thing together. The Queen Victoria Building was prepared for us to gather under the dome at 2pm for our public debut. More than once during the lead up to Saturday I thought, ‘What have I done?’
There were people who had travelled up from Melbourne and road trippers from Canberra, all there just to sing Tallis and all were excited.
When I arrived for the rehearsal I found many familiar smiling faces from choirs past and present. There were people who had travelled up from Melbourne and road trippers from Canberra, all there just to sing Tallis and all were excited. I was a little stunned that so many people would want to do this crazy thing, but now I know why. It was extraordinary singing the complex and at times very exposed vocal parts which come together to form vast walls of sound then drift apart again and again. To do this with limited time to make it note perfect was exhilarating and challenging, and during the rehearsal the hair stood up on my arms many times in appreciation of our combined sound and the anticipation of the performance to come.
From experience, performing choral works in outdoor or public spaces is never terribly satisfying, no-one can hear each other, standing room is tight and sight lines to the conductor are all but impossible, and the middle of the QVB on a Saturday afternoon was certainly no exception… but we sang nonetheless. At times we muddled through, at others we sang with sheer heartfelt joy and, yes, even perfect harmony, always with a sense of humour and just a touch of blind terror helping us along. It was a perfect way to spend the day, as our fearless conductor said ‘That was monuMENTAL!’ Thank you Anthony Pasquill and Bel a cappella for making this happen… What are we doing next?!