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18 December 2009

New Australian compositions for chamber choir

Paul Stanhope Image: Paul Stanhope  

In his capacity as a choral conductor, Paul Stanhope introduces some recent choral works by Nigel Butterley, Anne Boyd, Dan Walker, Andrew Schultz and Gerard Brophy. All these works, and many more, have been brought to life through the activities of the Sydney Chamber Choir. As a composer himself, Stanhope is known for a rich output of works for choir - for more information and samples, see an online list of Stanhope's choral compositions in the AMC catalogue.

Since taking over as musical director of Sydney Chamber Choir in 2006, one of my chief aims has been to commission, perform and compose new and existing Australian works. The trick, as always, is for these pieces to work within the context of a program as a whole, and many of these works have been commissioned especially to fit within the framework of a particular concert.

In this article, I intend to briefly introduce a number of these new choral pieces to which Sydney Chamber Choir has helped give voice. The choir has been very fortunate to receive financial support from a number of individuals, including Father Arthur Bridge, for Ars Musica Australis, and a very generous anonymous donor, in order to commission these new works. It is hoped that other choirs - both in Australia and abroad - might now take these pieces and give them further performance opportunities.

Nigel Butterley: Beni Avshalom (2007)

One of Australia's senior and most skilled composers for the vocal ensembles, Nigel Butterley was commissioned, in 2007, to compose a new work on the theme of the Old Testament lament of King David over the death of his son Absalom. This commission forms an accompanying piece to the polyphonic masterworks by Weelkes and Tomkins and was performed in a program of works based on various settings of (and around) the same text. Butterley uses both a new translation of the text in English by Robert Alter, as well as refrains from the original Hebrew.

This new piece was expertly brought to life by guest conductor Roland Peelman and Sydney Chamber Choir. It is a work suitable only for highly-skilled or at least quite brave ensembles and makes use of the unique sound of a high male-voice trio in addition to a variety of clever choral textures. The use of clear tonal sections in the midst of a richer harmonic world (timed exquisitely) works extremely well. Beni Avshalom is a very engaging work.

More information about Beni Avshalom.

Anne Boyd: Cum Rex Gloriae (2009)

Written as a companion piece to her much-loved As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams, this piece by Anne Boyd is also a work for triple choir (12 vocal parts in three groups of four). Beginning with small snippets of sound in single syllables, musical phrases gradually expand into larger sections of a liturgical (Latin) text for Easter Saturday. Christ has descended into hell in order to conquer death, and the illustration of this murky descent is evoked imaginatively. The piece ends with an English cathedral-style festive 'Alleluia'. There are plenty of technical challenges in the work (not the least of them finding choristers able to hold to their parts in the triple-choir format) but nevertheless the piece is a rewarding one and an excellent addition to Easter repertoire.

More information about Cum Rex Gloriae.

Dan Walker: To a Child (2008)

On a more secular note, this piece was written for a collaborative venture between Sydney Chamber Choir and Match Percussion in a New Music Network concert in 2008. There are a growing number of works written for the attractive combination of choir and percussion, and this one would suit a broader range of choirs than the works described above. Written in three clear sections, there is a use of longer homophonic sections using a relatively open harmonic language. The percussion parts - a combination of vibes, marimba and a few non-pitched hand drums - ensure that the piece chunters along at an excellent clip. To this, Walker adds hand chimes for members of the choir to play, further adding to this fascinating sound-world.

Andrew Schultz: Magnificat (2009)

This unaccompanied Magnificat setting, commissioned as a piece to contrast with the Bach Magnificat, is written in a simple and unadorned style. Although composed in up to eight parts, it should be a suitable standard for a large number of amateur choirs and will work equally well for a symphonic chorus as it would a chamber choir. It is a welcome addition to the repertoire.

More information about Schultz's Magnificat.

Gerard Brophy: Berceuse (2001/09)

This is actually not a completely new piece - rather Sydney Chamber Choir commissioned Gerard to rework his piece in a new version for the unusual combination of choir and guitar. 'Choir and guitar?' I hear you say - well believe it or not, there is another piece for this combination, the Romancero Gitano by the Italian-born composer Castelnuovo-Tedesco. The new version of Berceuse was written to make use of the extraordinary abilities of guitarist Slava Grigoryan with a series of cadenza sections. The choral parts are beautifully conceived as a series of small groups with one or two voices per part, contrasting later with more homophonic sections. Characteristically sparse in texture, the piece is really best for small-scale groups who have individual voices able to hold a part.

More information about Brophy's Berceuse for choir and guitar.

Further links

Sydney Chamber Choir (www.sydneychamberchoir.org/)
Sydney Chamber Choir sings Australian repertory in Spain - a blog article by Paul Stanhope on Resonate

Paul Stanhope is an experienced composer and conductor who has been musical director of Sydney Chamber Choir since 2006.His choral work Deserts of Exile will be performed by Trinity College Choir, Cambridge, in Musica Viva’s 2010 concert series.


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