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21 October 2009

Adelaide Chamber Singers – float or swim?

Adelaide // SA // 20.06.09 and 09.10.09

Adelaide Chamber Singers Image: Adelaide Chamber Singers  

There are many different kinds of listeners. Some perceive music as something to just lie back and float on, some prefer to dive in and be submerged, and others are compelled to swim. In each case, music takes them somewhere, but while 'floaters' simply enjoy the ride, 'swimmers' like to grasp where they're going and why. In terms of choral music, I would define 'floaters' as those who prefer to let the beauty of the sound wash over (or under) them, and enjoy it for what it is, whereas 'swimmers' are more concerned with understanding the words that are being sung, and discerning more explicitly what is being communicated.

The Adelaide Chamber Singers 2009 season brochure has the subtitle 'all in the line of beauty,' which to me suggests a kind of abstract 'floatist' aesthetic, but their repertoire this year, thanks partly to some specially commissioned works, has included many pieces that cry out for a whole lot more than a flawless, pristine reading of obscure Latin text. And I'm happy to say that they have, for the most part, delivered, with a startling variety and meaningfulness of expression.

Each of their three subscription series concerts features a new work especially commissioned by the choir. So far we've had two of these world premieres, and the third, Calvin Bowman's Songs of Radiance, is lined up for the final concert in December.

Anne Cawrse's Pilgrim Psalms were premiered in the first concert, in June, sandwiched between two performances of different versions of Allegri's famous Miserere - seemingly difficult (and epic) company for any composer to stand alongside, but this combination actually, if anything, buoyed the new work, letting it provide the much-needed contrast. Cawrse's work consisted of unaccompanied settings in English of Psalms 130, 131 and 121, all 'songs of ascents' for Old Testament pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem. As a group, the three psalms themselves formed a journey, from the opening cry to God 'Out of the depths,' through the surrender and humble trust of 'Israel, put your hope in the Lord,' and concluding with the uplifting 'I look up to the mountains,' a confident expression of faith in God's love and protection; all very effective dramatically, and also - more importantly - in terms of speaking a coherent message to the audience. The final cadence - leaving you not quite fulfilled, but questioning, thinking beyond the music - was particularly powerful, and for those not merely content to 'float' it turned the attention to our pilgrimages, which Cawrse explained in the program as any journey 'searching for answers in times of uncertainty.'

All this was achieved within Cawrse's readily comprehensible yet fresh harmonic language and well-balanced textures, reflecting a clear interpretation of the text. My only small concern was that the scoring stayed rather thick throughout, and I wanted more space, but perhaps this was a matter of acoustics and a less reverberant venue would have given greater clarity to the music.

The second concert, 'Renewal,' was held in October in the considerably smaller acoustic of St. John's Church, Halifax Street (a fact this reviewer is sincerely sorry for failing to realise in time, leaving him with a four kilometre trek across the city, for which he missed the opening three pieces of the program). The advertised ACS commission for this performance was Paul-Antoni Bonetti's Intenderunt Arcum, but there were in total three Bonetti works which ended up receiving their premiere here.

Two of these had a fascinating genesis - Bonetti had discovered, in Italy, the music of some potential ancestors, the 17th-century composers Carlo and Giovanni Bonetti. Taking the unusual Latin text set by Carlo and Giovanni (O Quam Felix Est and Intenderunt Arcum), Paul Antoni-Bonetti then crafted his own settings, also freely adapting their music as a basis for his own: a retelling of these works in a new context.

Intenderunt Arcum ('they have bent the bow') was a refreshing and invigorating work, rhythmically driven at the outset and conclusion, with some effective contrasts and a satisfying shape. The Latin text, not set by any other composers since the baroque Bonettis, was brought to life with the rhythmic, bold and exciting music - as though it wasn't in an archaic church language at all, but was something that could speak to us now (if you wanted to read the translation).

This second concert program had an ambitious variety of works connected by the theme of renewal; some more successful than others, depending on your position as either a 'floater' or 'swimmer.' After my 35 minute hike to find the right venue, I was much more inclined to 'float' than 'swim' for William Byrd's Ave Verum Corpus, which received a beautifully rich, riveting performance - it was obvious how much conductor Carl Crossin and the choir enjoy this piece. This was followed by Steven Stucky's Whispers (with Christie Anderson conducting), a work making use of portions of Byrd's music sung by a quartet positioned behind the choir, juxtaposed surprisingly successfully with Stucky's totally different harmonic language in his own setting of a Walt Whitman poem.

Arvo Pärt's challenging I am the true vine may have been bliss to some, but with no reference for the English text that was being sung, its repetitions, despite having a vine-like structure, became quite meaningless - unless you had an absurd passion for hearing sixths and sevenths. The jumping around between extremes of range, and different voice parts, certainly didn't help make the words any clearer! I guess we were similarly in the dark in the previous concert with Anne Cawrse's piece, only there the program notes actually gave away something of the meaning of the text, rather than just musical technique.

This is an interesting point for discussion - should choral works in English have written out text for the audience to follow? The fact that I can't escape is that, in only printing words (translations) for works in other languages, these compositions become easier to understand than the works in English, for which no words are supplied! This is in terms of overall meaning - obviously the odd English word is easy enough to pick up on, but by itself isn't particularly meaningful. Is it possible for a choir to have such perfect diction that every word is clear?

Górecki's Totus Tuus was given a rousing rendition by singers who evidently relished this music, beautifully paced and spaced by Carl Crossin. O Spes Mea Cara - a transcription and arrangement of a plainsong, accompanied with simple descending harmonies by Carl Crossin - struck me as definitely on the side of 'floater' music, but fit well on the program. Ingrian Evenings, by Estonian Veljo Tormis, was a highlight, as we saw the Adelaide Chamber Singers break out of their usual concern with purity of tone and jump headlong into these wonderful adaptations of somewhat racy Finno-Ugric folksongs with vigorous abandon - here was a work which benefited greatly from having words to follow.

I was worried how Bonetti's final premiere would be able to effectively follow the strange mood this last piece put us in, but somehow it worked. Angel Lovers, with text by local Adelaide writer Jeannie Davison, was a fitting conclusion to the concert - a little Górecki-like in its reflective repetition of short phrases of text ('Angel lovers… angel lovers… angel lovers'), but more lyrical than ritual. There seemed to be some discrepancy over the pronunciation of the second syllable of 'angel', but the overall effect was calming and - as Bonetti said he was aiming for in his program note - 'poignant.' And so concluded another program in which the premieres played a vital part, adding another level of engagement for the listeners and (hopefully) encouraging a little more 'swimming'!

Event Details

Adelaide Chamber Singers
Carl Crossin, conductor

Anne Cawrse: Pilgrim Psalms
Works by Buxtehude and Allegri
20 June 2009, St. Peter's Cathedral, North Adelaide
Details in the AMC Calendar.

Paul-Antoni Bonetti: O Quam Felix Est; Intenderunt Arcum; Angel Lovers
Works by Monteverdi, Cardoso, Byrd, Stucky, Pärt, Górecki and Tormis
Friday 9 October 2009, 6:30pm, St. John's Church, Halifax St, Adelaide
Details in the AMC Calendar

Further links

Anne Cawrse - AMC profile (www.australianmusiccentre.com.au/artist/cawrse-anne)
Adelaide Chamber Signers (www.adelaidechambersingers.com/)
Adelaide Chamber Singers's next concert 5 December: AMC Calendar

Subjects discussed by this article:

David Lang is studying composition at the Elder Conservatorium in Adelaide. He also finds the time to play trumpet and piano, conduct, sing, volunteer on radio, read, write... and occasionally even attend musical events like these!


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