On tour with the ACC – What’s it like?
‘This choir plays in the super league’, Kristine Christensen, a director of Denmark’s oldest classical music festival, summed up the Australian Chamber Choir’s performance in the twelfth century Abbey Church of Sorø, at the same time conferring on the Choir an honorary life membership of the Sorø International Music Festival. The ACC took its place among such luminaries as Wilhelm Kempff, Anton Heiller, Gaston Litaize and Julian Bream. The town of Sorø, established by Copenhagen’s founding father, Archbishop Absalon attracts regular concert-goers from around Denmark and during Festival time a steady stream of international visitors can be found in the cobblestoned streets and the lush monastery gardens. Douglas Lawrence, founding director of the ACC has performed at the Festival several times; four times with the ACC and, before that, with the Choir of Ormond College (University of Melbourne) and on the Abbey’s fine Markussen organ. Performing in festivals like this is by invitation. Why are Douglas and his singers routinely invited back, and why have people begun touring with them as Friends of the choir?
‘European audiences are fascinated by the Australian works on our programs,’ Douglas says. For the sixth European concert tour in 2017, he commissioned two new works, one by choir member and Masters composition student, Luke Hutton, and the other by Tom Henry, Uncertain Journeys. Henry took as his text the words of asylum seekers who
arrived in Australia by boat. The voices of these people, speaking of hardship, terror and loss, are heard beside excerpts from the Ghazals (short sonnet-like poems) of the fourteenth century poet, Hafiz of Shiraz. In the words of Darmstadt Echo’s Susanne Döring ‘sounds of a surging sea form a backdrop against which the text is delivered: choral sound overlaps sprechstimme, resolving into wordless vocalise passages that seem to symbolise speechlessness in the face of overwhelming emotion’. Like Henry’s earlier work Kakadu Man, this is choral music that begins in contemporary or ancient Australian experience and speaks to audiences everywhere.
There’s another side to this success, according to Douglas: ‘Europeans just love the way we sing the Motets of Bach.’ Noeline Sandblom, who took the ACC Friends’ tour in 2017, agrees: ‘To hear the Choir singing JS Bach’s Ich lasse dich nicht in the austere St Thomas’ in Leipzig, the place in which the great man laboured for so long and composed so much of his music, was both a thrilling and a humbling experience.’ In Leipzig, the choir was accompanied by Thomaskirche organist Ulrich Böhme. A consummate musician, Böhme continues the German tradition of improvising complex fugues as introductions to congregational hymns. As a warning against showing off, Bach was cautioned by the church authorities for making these introductions too long and complicated. I ask Ulrich why he invited the ACC back to Leipzig after our first concert there in 2011. His answer comes with a forthrightness he might share with JS himself: ‘In Leipzig we have several excellent choirs, not only the St Thomas’ Choir. Of the many visiting choirs we hear, not many come up to our standard. The Australian Chamber Choir did.’
In six European tours, the ACC has sung in many cultural capitals: Copenhagen, Berlin, Bonn, Cologne, Hamburg, Paris, Lausanne, Geneva, Gdansk, Vienna. Often, however it is the little places that make a lasting impression. Stams, near Innsbruck is home to athletes training for Austria’s Olympic ski team. On a mountainside beneath a ski jump stands a thirteenth century Cistercian Abbey. ‘Despite torrential rain,’ Noeline recalls, ‘the church was filled to capacity and the friars obliged by providing dozens of extra chairs. The concert began with the choir singing from the organ loft, first the Bach Chorale By the Waters of Babylon I sat down and wept, and then, accompanied by organist and chorister Ria Polo, Howell’s mystical Nunc Dimittis. The singers then processed solemnly down the nave as Ria performed Bach’s Chorale Prelude An Wasserflüßen Babylon, with the rest of the program sung unaccompanied from the steps of the altar. An American couple seated next to me were fascinated by the story of the choir and were in awe of ‘voices so sublimely beautiful’.
Bregenz on Lake Constance is famous for the floating stage of the Kunsthaus, where summer opera performances take place. From Bregenz, one can drive for eight minutes alongside the lake to reach Germany, or for twenty minutes in the opposite direction to reach Switzerland. In 2017, we took the ferry to the German island of Lindau, where our Friends were delighted to alight at their five-star harborside hotel. The ACC has regularly performed in many of Southern Germany’s most picturesque towns – Lindau, Nördlingen, Wangen, Tübingen – where summer concerts in ancient churches are packed to the doors. Alana Mitchell, who took the Friends’ tour, recalls the beauty of this area and the warm German hospitality experienced there: ‘The three-day sojourn in a beautiful hotel in Lindau deserves special mention. It was made truly amazing by our private tour of the Rieger organ factory at nearby Schwarzach. I’m sure I wasn’t alone in having no idea of the enormous number of critical, finely-honed steps that go into creating a pipe organ. And the barbecue after our tour with Managing Director Wendelin Eberle and his staff was a perfect finishing touch.’
Schloss Hohentübingen is an eleventh century castle which now belongs to the University of Tübingen. It was here, in 1869, that Friedrich Miescher discovered DNA. On the river at almost any time of day, students can be seen boating in punts. Locals are entertained by the ineptitude of visitors trying their hand at punting, such as the singers of the ACC, who erupted in gales of laughter as one singing oarsman almost lost his balance on the prow of the boat. The choir is regularly hosted by Andrei Lupas, Director of Protein Evolution at Tübingen’s Max Planck Institut and his wife, Janice, a choral singer. ‘Our two favourite performances,’ says Alana, ‘were in the picturesque village of Villach in the Austrian Tiroll and Tübingen, where the choir sang in the only modern church of the tour. Why these two? It’s hard to say – based more on a feeling than evidence. But part of the specialness of Tübingen was the welcome we received from Douglas’ friends, the Lupases. These people brought a special warmth to both the concert and the dinner afterwards. Over dinner, we chatted with the Lupas family and their friends, all of whom had invited ACC singers to stay in their homes and experience something of their family life.’
There is something powerful in making friends with people when you’re in their country, says Douglas, ‘Over the years, I’ve really enjoyed taking young singers to Europe, many of them on their first overseas trip.’ Hannah Spracklan-Holl joined the choir in her first year at the Conservatorium of Music. ‘Touring with the ACC has been an incredible opportunity, for which I am so grateful,’ she says, ‘On my first tour in 2013 I stayed with a few families in Germany who didn’t speak much English and I spoke no German! After that I set my mind on being able to communicate with them if I ever went back. I have since been on two more ACC tours and have been lucky enough to stay with many of the same families, with whom I can now communicate. Now studying for my PhD, I am working with a lot of German-language sources. I don’t think I would ever have learned German without the impetus I got from touring with the choir. Not to mention the amazing places I’ve had the privilege to sing in and the connections I’ve made with people, both in Australia and in Europe. ‘There’s something that comes across in their singing,’ says Douglas, ‘Maybe it’s the joy of being on a journey with like-minded people. Audiences everywhere can hear joy.
On 4 July 2017, following the first two concerts of the 2017 tour in Rome and Florence, Douglas and I celebrated the tenth birthday of the ACC, together with our singers and our Friends group in a restaurant surrounded by olive groves at Maiano. ACC Friend Joy Carver wrote about this, ‘After an introduction to olive growing and pressing given by the owner, we relaxed in the beautiful grounds and enjoyed fabulous views over Florence as a balmy evening set in – perfect for dining on the terrace, and for celebrating with these beautiful young people the stunning success of the Australian Chamber Choir.’
The Australian Chamber Choir can be heard in its regular concerts in Melbourne, Sydney and regional Victoria. More at www.auschoir.org/season2018
From 1 July 2019, Douglas Lawrence and the ACC will undertake their seventh European concert tour, singing in Denmark’s oldest town, Ribe, in Copenhagen and performing at Berlin Cathedral and through Germany and Belgium before the grand finale singing at the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris on Bastille Day. You are invited to travel with the ACC from Ribe to Paris. More at www.AusChoir.org/2019