Life Begins at 40
In mid-1975 Nicholas Routley, a recent arrival from the UK to the Music Department at Sydney University, agreed to a request from four students to form a small choir. Their first concert was held in November that year and Routley continued to conduct the choir for the next three decades. On Sunday, 40 years after that inauspicious start, Routley returned (in snappy red shirt under his tails!) to conduct their anniversary concert entitled ‘Creativity and Loss’, in the Great Hall packed to the rafters with former choir members, long time supporters, and lovers of fine singing.
The first half of the three hour program was a fascinating combination of the old and the modern. Three pieces from C15th composers Dufay, Ockeghem, and des Prez were bookended by works composed by Ligeti (1966), and Australian and former choir member Clare Maclean (2015).
A brilliant opener, showcasing the total professionalism of the choir
Lux Aeterna, a 16 part unaccompanied choral work by Ligeti, was a brilliant opener, showcasing the total professionalism of the choir. I would have paid for a ticket for that piece alone. I’ve never heard singing like this – I felt as if I were hearing a resonating sound that had started millions of light years ago and was finally reaching my ears – we were immersed in sound that was at once ethereal and profound, circling in and out, up and down, and finally descending into a very long silence that was almost palpable.
Vehicles for the choir’s expressive and disciplined singing
Dufay’s Nuper Rosarum Flores was enhanced by the excellent program notes which provided a fascinating insight into the mathematical relationship of the music to the architecture of the dome of the Florence Cathedral. Dufay wrote this for the 1436 consecration of the dome, considered an engineering miracle. This was followed by Ockeghem’s motet Salve Regina and Josquin des Prez’s Veni. Sancte Spiritus. The choral music of des Prez have been sung by the choir over the years, dating back to the very first concert 40 years ago so it was fitting that his work was featured in this anniversary performance. All three pieces provided a vehicle for the choir’s expressive and disciplined singing, their voices blending exquisitely in this sacred music.
Above the Water by Clare Maclean is a brilliant synthesis of the ancient and the modern
Specially commissioned by the Sydney Chamber Choir for their 40th anniversary, Clare Maclean’s Above the Water is a brilliant synthesis of the ancient and the modern, the old world and the new. The heart of the piece is a C9th Latin hymn, Veni, Creator Spiritus, but leading into it and then out of it are two wonderful poems of Australian John Carroll (2015) painting word pictures of birds high in the sky in western NSW while symbolically referencing the movement of the Spirit of God in creation. Maclean, who was acknowledged with a very enthusiastic ovation, must have been very gratified by the superb singing of her work.
It was hard to imagine an orchestra would be anything but an intrusion
The second half of the program was Brahms’ A German Requiem (1867). Moving away from the usual biblical theme of sacrifice and salvation, Brahms selected texts that celebrated life, spiritual comfort, and hope, arranged in seven sections. Brahms eventually reworked his orchestral version into one for two pianos, played here by Anthony Hunt and Thomas Victor Johnson. Their accompaniment was so well balanced with both the other piano and the singers that it was hard to imagine an orchestra would be anything but an intrusion. The soloists were the well-known soprano (and choir chorus master) Belinda Montgomery, and rising young baritone Alexander Knight. The choir was in superb voice under Routley’s fine conducting, thundering out ‘Hell, where is your victory?’ at the climax of the piece. The final section, reflecting on the dead at rest, was sublime singing.
A promise of even better things to come
In 1975 I doubt anyone in that first concert foresaw four decades of superb choral singing in the new choir’s future. Thanks to the hard work of many people, especially conductor Nicholas Routley, Sydney is today blessed with a world-class chamber choir. Sunday’s 40th anniversary concert was a promise of even better things to come.
Sydney Chamber Choir | Great Hall, University of Sydney | 14 June 2015