Birthday invitations are not to be sneezed at and it was a privilege to be part of a celebration of Ross Edwards’ seventy fifth year at City Recital Hall. He is probably Australia’s best known contemporary composer with Peter Sculthorpe no longer with us and has continued the tradition of invoking sounds of native Australia, human and otherwise, in his music.
Ross has written several liturgical pieces, perhaps to the surprise of many, and it was a brilliant idea to focus on the Sydney Chamber Choir for the festivities. Although a pity that current director Richard Gill was indisposed, we were compensated with no less than three conductors, Paul Stanhope and Nicholas Routley as past directors and Sam Allchurch appointed for 2019.
Ross’ Dance Mantra (1992) opened proceedings. Written in his Maninya style, this versatile piece was here performed by the choir and two soloists.
There followed two works with the title translated from Latin as O How Precious. The first was written by Hildegard Von Bingen in the 11th century. She was an abbess, authoress and expert in medicine and her book on the Symphony of Harmonies was the first ever collection of works by a single author and was the origin of the term “Symphony”. Based on Plainsong and Gregorian Chant, it contained surprisingly complex chords and modulations. Ross’ version was closely based on the above and, perhaps disappointingly, was lacking in his musical characteristics.
Peter Sculthorpe’s “Autumn Song” which followed is an early work and one could see the emergence of his references to the Australian landscape, beautifully conveyed by the contrast between the main choir above the framework of the altos.
A madrigal by Monteverdi again showed musical development in advance of it’s early seventeenth century origin and the choir really excelled here. In his own description of Ab Estatis Foribus (At the Gates of Summer) which followed, Ross states that it is one of the few of his works which has no conscious reference to Australia and its culture. Claire Mclean’s Christ the King was written in 1984. Based on two poems by NZ poet James Baxter. There are three musical lines based on a plainchant theme and I particularly enjoyed the climactic ending when the three parts coalesced.
After the break, we heard Synergy Percussion playing Ross’ Prelude and Dragon Dance. For this segment, we had three xylophone keyboards and a group of three hand drums. The work, with its tranquil introduction followed by its rhythmic dragonfly representation was ideally suited to the group, especially the bell – like sounds and insect noises -a refreshing contrast to the rather dour religious items.
Paul Stanhope conducted his own Agnus Dei do not stand at my grave and weep. The poem is attributed to Mary Frye and the last lines “Do not stand at my grave and cry: I am not there – I did not die” are especially moving. The piece captured the tone of the poem brilliantly with a tutti climax for the above lines and one almost felt ones sins being absolved.
Olivia Swift, a member of the choir composed Dew based on a poem by Sarah Teasdale. The music reflected the poem accurately from the stillness of the morning to the allegory of lovers arising from the seeds of grass and weeds. I felt the choir excelled in this work which I found particularly moving.
Josephine Gibson’s Let them all come is based on a poem by Tasmanian cartoonist “First Dog on the Moon” which has a political theme which could be stated to have little place in this context. The work itself was very powerful with deep harmonies and contrasts and I enjoyed it.
We finished appropriately with two works by the celebrant. In the Agnus Dei, there was a healthy mixture of Latin texts with Australian rhythms giving an introspective nature to the music. The Flower Songs however was a recitation of scientific names of flowers and Synergy joined in with the choir to produce strongly Australian themes and inferences entirely suitable to the occasion.
I had not heard the Sydney Chamber Choir before and I was incredibly impressed by their accuracy, tonality and range – they combined well with Synergy to rise to the occasion. That “occasion” however belonged to Ross Edwards and he was clearly overcome to hear the Choir and group’s rendition of “Happy Birthday”.
How many people have had their Birthday celebrated in this way!