There is something special about an a capella group that sings religiously-inspired music in a church with a generous acoustic, without too much reverberation. Thus it was at the Paddington Uniting Church on Friday 9 August. This group of experienced choristers under the musical leadership of Anthony Pasquill took us on a sublime musical journey around the ‘roof’ of the world with music from Norway, Finland, Sweden, Estonia and Latvia. Some composers were familiar – Grieg, Sibelius and Pärt. Others less so!
The concert began with a choral arrangement to the hymn-like section of his tone-poem Finlandia, itself a patriotic protest against the oppression of the Russian Empire. This was followed by a hymn to the Virgin Mary by Greig. Beautifully rendered musical territory thus far!
We moved then to Arvo Part who probably more than living composer has kept the religious impulse to the fore, with a 2004 piece Da pacem, Domine that is organised around an alto-led Gregorian-like chant with the other parts harmonising around it. By this time the ensemble, often shifting their respective individual locations, were beginning to transport the audience into a realm of singing that was both expansive and disciplined.
This was followed by a Beneditio by Estonian composer Urman Sisack who in a striking contrast of repetition by the tenors and basses set against the singing by the higher voices that are variously ‘groovy’ and then sliding into the silent ether. The ensemble clearly enjoyed singing this, with Anthony Pasquill as ringmaster. Then the mood shifted again with Swedish composer Sven-David Sandstrom’s rendering of Purcell’s setting of the first words of Psalm 102 ’Hear my Prayer, O Lord.’
By this time the audience was captured by quite remarkable flexibility of this group in presenting a diverse array of largely unfamiliar religious music. They took a short break while Anthony entertained the audience with his inimitable combination of youthful enthusiasm and musical knowledge.
The final piece was complete Mass – the Missa Rigensis – by Latvian composer Ugus Praulins following the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus / Benedictus, Agnus Dei pattern. As the Mass moves forward we are treated with a diversity of musical styles reflecting various changes of mood within the Mass story itself. Not only do we hear the unity of the ensemble, but also quite distinctive individual voices with the sopranos and some of the tenors to the fore.
I don’t pretend to understand the great technicalities of the music, although the program is quite helpful with this. I grew up singing religious music within the Catholic tradition so I know something of the theology underpinning it. Despite the greatest denominational influence in the countries represented in this concert is Lutheranism, rather than Roman Catholicism; the Catholic Mass is central to most of the music performed. It is composers like Part and the other contemporary composers represented in this concert who keep that tradition alive. One does not have to be religious to appreciate the explicitly religious motifs of composers as diverse as Bach, Mozart, Verdi or Pärt. Indeed this group of experienced singers under the sure and enthusiastic leadership of this young conductor make sense of this music without the need to burdened of the theology it represents.
This was a concert to savour, my first experience of the ensemble! It won’t be my last. Their next outing will feature Britten and Brit pop as reimagined by the remarkable Sally Whitwell. I will want to hear that!