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14 August 2009

Brisbane Chamber Choir

Brisbane // QLD // 26.07.2009

Brisbane Chamber Choir singers at a recording session in 2006 Image: Brisbane Chamber Choir singers at a recording session in 2006  

Aside from the seemingly random inclusion of a rogue Estonian, the Q150 Celebration Concert* - which featured the Brisbane Chamber Choir and The Queensland Orchestra String Quartet - did indeed fulfill its mandate of showcasing choral music by Queensland composers. The evening included two world premiere performances of commissioned works, and a number of other works written relatively recently. Despite the new music focus of the program, the event was well attended by subscribers, showing at least a modicum of willingness on the part of local choral enthusiasts to support a living community of composers.

The concert opened with the Berliner Messe (1990, rev. 2002) of Arvo Pärt, a work which amply exemplifies the composer's post-1976 tintinnabuli preoccupation and which accordingly consists of simple triadic outlining gilded with a floating stepwise overlay. The work provided the least gregarious opening to a concert imaginable, though the ultimate effect was the creation of a curious atmosphere of calm - a sort of cleansing of the palate for the new works to come. The impact of Pärt's technique of allowing the consonances to fall lightly in and out of sync with the tonic pedal was no doubt enhanced by the generous acoustics of the cathedral. The venue was ideally suited to the tinnabulae effect, and the harmonic beating produced by the occasional dissonance in the work provided for a subtle element of rhythmic interest.

Joseph Twist's The Old Prison provides a setting of a poem of the same title by Judith Wright. The poem evokes the desolate skeleton of an abandoned convict prison in New South Wales. The outcome of this rather Escherian reflection on the Australian landscape by an Australian author, set to music by an Australian composer, who was in turn reflecting upon the barren wasteland of the poetic subject, is, not surprisingly, a work with an inexorably Australian flavour. Twist sets the opening simple motif over a drone with wide temporal space between the intervals alluding to the flat, open landscape. This six-note (with anacrusis) opening motif becomes the germ upon which the work is based. A more sinister tone is suggested by the violin while the simple diatonic line of the voices marches onward over the top. Twist continues to use the strings (and later the support of the piano) as a malevolent counterbalance to the simplicity of the vocal lines - a creeping reminder of the painful memories housed in the dilapidated building. The role of the strings and piano mimic Wright's characterisation of the wind and sea as murmuring a primordial echo of what has come before: 'They did not breed nor love/ Each in his cell alone/ cried as the wind now cries/through this flute of stone.'

Until I Saw, composed after a poem by Lilian Moore, is a short work characteristic of Stephen Leek's compositional style. Leek's music seems to clothe the text, rather than vice versa, with the sounding words acting as integral musical features of the work. Leek here experiments with suspending a single note of a cadence beyond the resolution so that it is suddenly left bare and able to be contemplated out of its original functional context. Graeme Morton's work Let Evening Come and John Nickson's Psalm 23 are, again, both competent examples of choral writing, with Morton employing the full SATB range, favouring pianistic block choral movement and overwhelmingly diatonic harmony.

The world premiere of Paul-Antoni Bonetti's Requiem Lux Aeterna occupied the majority of the second half of the program. Opening with a static unison E in the strings and the requisite expectation of a sombre first section, the music quickly slides upwards to an A major chord and follows on with some entirely surprising and beautiful string quartet writing. Bonetti achieves a feeling of momentum, though one underpinned by an uneasy stasis, by such techniques as maintaining the underlying E minor tonality while luminescent shifts continue to occur over the top, and by extending a single note beyond the life of a given cadence (similar in a way to Leek's technique above, though seemingly for a different purpose) to operate as a linking device to a more complex gesture. This latter technique has the effect of continuously thwarting expectation as dense textures of detailed writing are constantly interchanged with static simple textures which allude to the plainsong basis of the work. In the cathedral, the impact of this interchange was really rather surprising - the aural persistence of the simpler sections seemed to become tangibly disturbed by the entrance of complexities (an effect which was heard in passing in the Pärt and fully realised in Bonetti's work). The listener had the impression, from the concert notes, that Bonetti was to attempt a harmonic re-contextualisation of the plainsong melody, and with the inclusion of instruments such as mallet-synthesiser and electric bass guitar, it seemed clear that some type of fusion of old and new was to be presented. In the final product, however, the integration of these disparate elements was complete - each timbre was used only as far as necessary and never for anything other than the conscious and deliberate intention of the composer. The close of the work was no less unexpected with the chorus forcefully concluding on an inconclusive, interrupted cadence, after which the strings quietly sounded the final resolution, achieving an effect rather like the extra harmony one sometimes hears from the pipes of an organ for a moment after the keys are released.

Both Bonetti's Requiem Lux Aeterna and Twist's Old Prison were shown to be commendable works upon their world premiere at the Q150 Celebration Concert, providing an encouraging outlook for Queensland's compositional future.

* Queensland celebrates 150 years of independence from New South Wales on 10 December 2009.

Event details

Q150 Celebration Concert
Brisbane Chamber Choir; Graeme Morton, director
The Queensland Orchestra String Quartet
Works by Joseph Twist, Stephen Leek, Graeme Morton, John Nickson, Paul-Antoni Bonetti. Also: Pärt.
St John's Anglican Cathedral, Brisbane, QLD
26 July 2009

Further links

Brisbane Chamber Choir (http://www.brisbanechamberchoir.org/)
Next concert: Brisbane Chamber Choir and Schola of the Cathedral of St Stephen perform Ross Edwards's Missa alchera 20 September 2009 - more details in the AMC Calendar

Sarah Collins lectures part-time at the University of Queensland in music history and cultural studies, is currently completing her PhD in the School of Music, and has performed throughout Australia and internationally as a flautist with various contemporary music ensembles and orchestras.


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