VOX’s Aurora: A magic musical journey through light and culture

by | Jul 8, 2024 | Ambassador thoughts, Choirs, Composer, Premiere

VOX | Aurora

July 7, 2024, Pier 2/3, Walsh Bay, NSW

Sitting admiring the water views and breathing in the history of the recently renovated main hall of historic Pier 2/3 at the Walsh Bay Arts Precinct on Sunday the chatty audience quickly hushed as we heard the footsteps of 60-odd choristers moving into place behind us. From the opening sung acknowledgement of country Aurora, presented by the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs youth choir VOX, took us on a luminous journey across the northern and southern hemispheres exploring mysterious natural wonders, while we gazed out at the sunshine and storms shifting across our own natural beauty, Sydney Harbour. A captivating space for a captivating concert.

The performance began with Alice Chance’s Aurora Eora (Dawn of this place), a hauntingly beautiful piece that honours the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation. With singers strategically placed around the space, occasional shifts and movements of choristers assisted with the integration of the harmonic landscapes being created, but also gave the distinct impression of the lights of an aurora shifting across a dark sky, ‘singing’ out their colours to all who observed. The use of space and minimal text was very effective, working with the natural acoustic of the venue, and creating a deeply immersive experience.

Ēriks Ešenvalds’ The First Tears presented an evocative dramatisation of an Inuit folk tale depicted a Raven as the creator of the world. The intricate layering of solo voices and dissonant harmonies, accompanied by percussion and improvised lines from tin whistles and jaw harps, painted a vivid auditory picture of Raven’s journey and the birth of the world’s first tears. This moving piece set a high bar for the continuing emotional and narrative depth of the concert.

James Henry’s Fire in the Night Sky (the first of two world premieres, commissioned by Sydney Philharmonia Choirs) imagined a centuries old encounter which brought the rare fiery red aurora australis to life. Henry explained, ”I envisioned the tribe grappling with interpreting the meaning and origin of the aurora”. His blend of traditional Aboriginal and contemporary musical elements, combined with his poignant storytelling, resonated deeply and proved both mystical and thought-provoking, asking, “what does it all mean?”

sydney philharmonia choirs aurora at walsh bay, sunday july 3. photo simon crossley meates (3)

Arvo Pärt’s Magnificat, with its serene and austere beauty, provided a meditative interlude. The solo soprano’s clear, chanting line juxtaposed against the choir’s rich chordal textures exemplified Pärt’s mastery in combining modern spirit with ancient devotion.

Einojuhani Rautavaara’s Missa a cappella offered a glimpse into the Finnish composer’s late Neo-Romantic style. The Kyrie and Credo movements, performed with clarity and rhythmic precision, highlighted the choir’s ability to navigate highly complex textures and pulsing rhythms while evoking a sense of timelessness. An excellent performance of a very difficult work.

The evening continued with Ešenvalds’ Rivers of Light, inspired by his research into Sámi folk songs and the writings of Arctic explorers. This piece, rich with mystical harmonies and childlike chants from soloists standing outside the choir, as if heard from a distance, beautifully captured the awe and wonder of the northern lights. Drum claps shook us from our revery as the sky reached a climatic crescendo of colour and light.

The Cloudburst Whitacre writes, “…is a ceremony, a celebration of the unleashed kinetic energy in all things. The mood throughout is reverent, meditative and centred…,” and the choir really went along on the journey with him.  Accompanied by piano and with handbells, wind chimes, and other percussion resounding from within the choir they created a soundscape that was exhilarating. A powerful performance accompanied by a real live cloud burst out on the harbour.

sydney philharmonia choirs aurora at walsh bay, sunday july 3. photo simon crossley meates (4)

Nicholas Buc’s Starry Sky, another world premiere, is introduced in the program notes as, “an impassioned hymn to the evening star in all its lonely magnificence.” It’s an evocative idea, nicely articulated through Buc’s cinematic composition style and the poetry of Lesya Ukraineka. Luke Byrne’s astute piano accompaniment added much to the performance of this work, and indeed throughout the whole concert.

The concert concluded with Byrne’s own composition Desert Sea, inspired by the rare phenomenon of water in a desert landscape. Byrne’s dramatic and narrative-driven composition captures the essence of Kati Thanda (Lake Eyre) in flood, inspired by the aerial photography of Peter Elfes and texts from Australian explorers and writers, leaving the audience with a deep sense of Australia’s unique relationship with its natural environment.

Aurora was a beautifully programmed concert conducted expertly by Associate Music Director Dr. Elizabeth Scott, a sonic exploration of light, culture, and the human spirit. VOX delivered a performance that was both intellectually stimulating and emotionally resonant, reminding us of the many magical wonders of our world.

Photo credit: Simon Crossley-Meates

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About The Author

Pepe Newton

Pepe is classikON's Managing Director. She is an avid concert-goer and self confessed choir nerd, regularly performing and touring with no less than 5 different choirs to countries ranging from Poland to Cuba over the last few years. Through her board positions in choirs and her role with classikON she is actively involved in the exciting Australian art music scene, including the promotion and commissioning of new Australian music. Running classikON presents a perfect opportunity for Pepe to pair her love of classical music with her ‘real life’ qualifications in business management and administration.

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