The Australian Chamber Choir is attracting an increasing following. This can be attributed to three major factors: the quality of the performances, the choice of repertoire, and the suitability of Our Lady of Mount Carmel as a venue. The acoustic of this Middle Park church provides a splendid vehicle to showcase the vocal and musical strengths of this 18 voice choir. On Sunday afternoon, a fine blending of strong voices with secure intonation and a surprisingly broad dynamic range responded to the direction of Douglas Lawrence with assurance.

Chichester Psalms

The first half of the program was largely devoted to older music: Purcell, Schütz, Jacob Handl and Anton Arensky, with Samuel Barber’s Three Choral Worksproviding an entrée into the 20th century element of the program: Britten’s Missa Brevis and Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms. This program provided an opportunity to explore a variety of styles, while certain juxtapositions enabled the audience to experience diverse treatments of similar liturgical material.

After a stirring and beautiful account of the Purcell’s Hear my PrayerO Lord and Psalm 100 by Schütz, men and women were divided to sing Pater Noster, by the less well-known Slovenian composer, Handl. The echoing effect of this piece was beautifully realised with cascades of pure, sweet soprano sound proving particularly effective. Instead of Latin, a secondLord’s Prayer, this time by Arensky, was sung in Russian. The choir is fortunate in having a talented young singer with a true bass voice in Kieran Macfarlane. While a larger choir might have a stronger bass foundation, especially in Russia, Macfarlane’s solo notes made a striking impression. Strong tenor and bass lines are significant assets of this choir.

Samuel Barber’s Three Choral Works: Twelfth NightAgnus Dei and A Stopwatch and an Ordnance Map make considerable demands on the vocal resources of a choir. The Agnus Dei is an ‘a cappella’ arrangement of his Adagio for Strings and has the merit and daunting aspect of being a famous popular classic. Instead of Eugene Ormandy’s 101 piece string orchestra, we had the ACC’s 18 voices. This was a time when the quality of the acoustic and the voices were really tested. The soft passages were wonderfully floated and the long, sustained climaxes were suitably impressive. The musical tension was sustained in A Stopwatch by the use of three kettle drums as the only musical accompaniment to male voices. For his setting of Stephen Spender’s poem, Barber drew upon his experience of World War II to create a harmonically complex piece of choral drama, which the performers delivered with power and musical skill.

The performers were elevated to the organ/choir loft for the second half of the concert. Unfortunately the acoustic proved to be a little problematic from this position. While the singing of the Missa Brevis was very effective, especially in the ‘Benedictus’ passage, some of the soprano voices were overly dominant while others sounded unduly distant. This was also true of the Bernstein work. While there were satisfyingly full-bodied, integrated sections, others required more presence. Counter tenor Tomas Dalton gave a pleasant but somewhat remote account of Psalm 23. Peter Neville on percussion and Mary Anderson on harp contributed sterling performances. Rhys Boak’s fine organ playing revealed the capabilities of a versatile instrument – a further reason for making this church a highly suitable venue for ACC.

Versatility also proved to be a feature of the choir itself. Apart from a swag of musical demands, in addition to the Latin, German, Russian and English of the preceding works, Chichester Psalms was sung in Hebrew. All languages appeared to be competently handled and all were delivered with good articulation and conviction.

In its final concert for 2012, the five-year-old Australian Chamber Choir demonstrated that it is a significant force in our musical landscape.

Rating: 3 ½ stars out of 5

Chichester Psalms
Australian Chamber Choir

Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672) Psalm 100, Jauchzet dem Herrn
Jacob Handl (1550-91) Pater Noster
Anton Arensky (1861-1906) Otsche Nash (The Lord’s Prayer)
Samuel Barber (1910-81)
Let down the bars, o death
Agnus Dei (Adagio for strings)
A stopwatch and an ordnance map
Benjamin Britten (1913-76) Missa Brevis
Leonard Bernstein (1918-90) Chichester Psalms for choir, countertenor, organ, harp and percussion

Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Middle Park
21 October

Heather LevistonHeather Leviston is a Melbourne-based reviewer.E: editor@artshub.com.au

Heather Leviston on CHICHESTER PSALMS at ArtsHub, October 24, 2012

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