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14 November 2008

Dance | Chant - Sydney Chamber Choir and Match Percussion

Sydney // NSW // 08.11.2008

Dance | Chant  - Sydney Chamber Choir and Match Percussion

Singing and dancing are two fundamental forms of human communication – has there ever been a human society that hasn't made use of vocal and bodily expression? It is obvious to structure a concert of choral music around the former, but the latter can be fraught with difficulty in its necessity to generate and impart rhythmic propulsion in performance. (Especially when taking into consideration the skill set of the typical Australian chorister.)

The programming of this concert was exemplary. Over its 33-year history, the traditional strengths of the Sydney Chamber Choir have been in early and contemporary music. 'Dance | Chant' was moulded in this tradition, but what was particularly striking was the care with which works from seemingly disparate traditions were paired. Texts or musical ideas followed a coherent and logical flow throughout the concert: for example, Steve Reich's Proverb (1995) was preceded by Perotin's Viderunt Omnes (1198), the work that was its direct inspiration. Musical director Paul Stanhope deserves praise for such intelligent and thoughtful programming.

The strongest performances of the evening tended to be in works that made use of the more traditional, mellifluous qualities of choral writing: that is, reflecting the 'chant' aspect. The intended delineation between dance and chant was largely reflected in the delivery of the music, but not always to best effect.

The opening two works were symptomatic of this. Written in response to the death of his grandmother, Michael Yezerski’s Psalm 23 (2005) for solo tenor drew upon elements of Jewish chant to create a heartrending emotional outpouring, expertly delivered by Dan Walker. It is difficult to create a solo work that holds the attention in such a striking manner, and the judicious use of ornamentation was instrumental in its success. In contrast, the second work on the program, Ross Edwards's Mantras and Alleluyas I (2007) lacked the necessary rhythmic and verbal precision to convey its impact, despite the urgings of the conductor. The dancing musical material urged a sense of physicality and groove, but perhaps the choir was not used to the performing space as the result was problematic: blurry and underwhelming.

Sydney Chamber Choir is to be congratulated in programming Perotin's Viderunt Omnes. Works from the late medieval and early renaissance periods are too rarely heard in this country – when was the last performance of a work by Dufay, for example? Putting such 'strange' music in a concert of largely contemporary works makes perfect sense, but unfortunately the performance of this work was not successful, lacking coherence and any sense of drive from its tremendously important exploration of rhythmic modes (themselves derived from dance music of the time). Overbearing drones from the organs were not conducive to choral rhythmic precision or stability, and at the work's conclusion, there was the sense that the choir was pleased it was all over.

This was not the best preparation for Steve Reich's Proverb, scored for five solo voices, two organs and two percussionists. Proverb is an intensely difficult work for the entire ensemble, and one feels that Reich would be most pleased with three cloned sopranos and two cloned tenors, such is the importance of textural and timbral consistency. The singers did their best and were accurate enough (a significant achievement in this work) but were not helped by the microphone technique that produced an unsatisfying balance between parts. This piece would benefit from more performances by the entire ensemble to really 'bed' the piece down, and to enable the rhythmic drive through the musical material itself, rather than the inherent stress of performing such a difficult work.

One of the most important outcomes in the history of the Sydney Chamber Choir has been the commissioning of Flower Songs (1987) from Ross Edwards. It was a pleasure to hear this masterpiece of vocal writing again, summarising as it does both the exuberance and beauty of the composer's maninya style. The dancing rhythms of the first movement, while very accurate, would have benefited from greater diction and more accented delivery from the inner parts. The second movement, which must rank as one of the most beautiful pieces of Australian music by any composer, was let down in this performance by a tempo that did not allow for enough sense of space for the music to breathe, in spite of sensitive attempts by the performers.

The next pairing of works was the initially unlikely match of Hildegard von Bingen (O quam preciosa) and Ross Edwards (Mountain Chant (2002-2003)), brought together through a shared text, but also in both composers' revelatory sense of the exultant. The performances of both of these works, largely rooted in chant and/or more traditional choral paradigms, were superb. Hildegard's work was treated antiphonally to great effect, serving as a reminder to all composers that sometimes 'simple' effects are all that are needed to achieve a great result. Edwards's Mountain Chant is anything but simple, especially in the striking, virtuosic second movement. This is one of the recent masterpieces of Australian choral music: engaging, rewarding and displaying the composer's mastery of the genre. The jubilant performance of this work brought it to life and demonstrated the skills of both the choir and percussionists to great effect.

Similarly invigorated was the performance of Reich's Nagoya Marimbas (1994) by Match Percussion. While not one of Reich's most striking works, one could not imagine better advocates than performers Daryl and Alison Pratt who played the work from memory, revelling in the intricate relationships between the two marimbas.

The final pairing of works was themed upon the arrival of children, and the choir and ensemble were at the top of their form in both of these pieces. Paul Stanhope's arrangement of Puer Natus in Bethlehem was simply stunning. The original plainchant was subjected to a variety of antiphonal and canonic treatments, all within a musical framework that made complete sense at all times.

The night's premiere performance was To a Child (2008) by Dan Walker. Walker is swiftly gaining a strong reputation for his choral writing, a reputation well warranted given the nature of this work. Structured in three large parts, To a Child, with its mellifluous melodic lines, effortless part-writing and fluid choral textures, would easily be embraced by many of the larger choirs around the country. As a work it doesn't break any particularly new ground or make especially strong musical statements, but one suspects that was not the point.

There is a reason why the Sydney Chamber Choir has such a long and distinguished history, and this concert illustrated why. The overall program was substantial in both size and ambition. To a large degree this ambition was successfully realised, especially where the chanting was the musical intention, rather than the dancing. The achievement of this concert was all the more important when considering that the Sydney Chamber Choir, like the majority of choirs in this country, is essentially an amateur organisation. The dedication required of the choristers to produce such a high musical standard, especially in the second half of this concert, is testament to the countless hours put in behind the scenes by the individuals involved: from the musical direction and the singing itself to important details such as the insightful and informative program notes.

Australian music has been well served by this choir and long may this tradition continue.

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Matthew Hindson is a composer, educator and artistic director of the Aurora Festival.


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