Australian Arts Review review
a dramatic concert which was both tremendously well-conceived and received
Fear. Invasion. Displacement. Isolation. These are emotions which have been experienced by peoples under violent siege from Biblical times right through to modern day refugees. Vocal protests, outcries or laments are believable reactions of victims trapped in such crystallised crises.
In this most recent internationally-toured concert, Australian Chamber Choir Musical Director Douglas Lawrence created a sequence of a capella choral music to highlight text-setting dealing with such anguish.
This musical offering used a well-structured programme centred around the sorrowful cries of the ancient Israelites forced into Babylonia. The phrase ‘By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept’ was in keeping with the erssence of other collectively programmed works. It was expanded to include other types of persecution, fear and loss of place, as the music sung highlighted the plight of such human condition, always giving it a superb choral voice.
The crispness of this skilled vocal ensemble, fresh from another European tour, ensured that even in double-choir and dense moments the key emotional phrases projected above the tapestry and resonated in the active acoustic of the St Mary’s Cathedral crypt space.
Two recently commissioned works by Australian composers joined other treasured music from the canon. These were highlights of the afternoon’s music making not simply because they were moments of new music, but as the texts chosen were virtuosically and uniquely created for a choral destination. The intricate sound effects and evocative nature of the scores for both works were subtly and satisfyingly presented by the ACC.
Choir member Luke Hutton’s inventive work Fern Hill, continues the Israelites’ keen reference to place and impact of environment. Its performance of Dylan Thomas’ poetry with its youthful reactions to surroundings was a luminous reverberation of overlapping sonic expansions.
The sense of discovery and wonder in the reiteration of description across the choir was finely nuanced in both the crafting of the work and successful sonic booms from the ACC’s joyous and multifaceted handling of Thomas’ stark commentary.
Starkness and rawness of predicament were also notable features of the profound work Uncertain Journeys by Melbourne-born composer Tom Henry. With this work’s textual sources coming from biblical psalms, Persian poetry and accounts of refugees escaping to Australia, it was by far amongst the most diverse and rich works of the afternoon .
This work’s impact was stunning. Smooth segues exist in this choral work between text fragments from published refugee stories and sections of words from a biblical or early foreign poetry background. These were seamlessly sung by the ACC members. The work also allowed for impressive solo display of spoken and sung vocal talents of some of this choir’s highly trained members.
Entertaining were the two treatments of the ‘Waters of Babylon’ texts as set by early choral music masters Johann Sebastian Bach and Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina. JS Bach’s short chorale An Wasserflüssen Babylon BWV 267 was an atmospheric start as it concisely illustrated pain and confusion of the exiled people beside a foreign river. A continuance of the theme of displacement in the clearly rippling treatment of Latin text in Palestrina’s Super Flumina Babylonis was also a rewarding moment. Following Tom Henry’s work in the concert’s second half, perilous, watery concerns of a dangerous boat-people trip away from horror were juxtaposed with Frank Martin’s unique setting of The Shakespearean aquatic grave song Full Fathom Five from ‘The Tempest’. Martin’s musically complex setting from 1950 showed once more the ACC’s ability with modern choral techniques as well as a superior sense of the most effective way in which to collectively lay a musical atmosphere before our eager ears and imaginations.
The remainder of the concert celebrated the fluidity of ACC’s performance skill in more established and traditional choral history. There were motets by Dering, Byrd, Gibbons, more glorious Bach and a penetrating Pater Noster from the sixteenth century quill of Slovenian-born Jacob Handl. This setting of the ‘Our Father’ prayer text was a beautiful moment at the chosen venue. It was yet another successful cry out for comfort in a dramatic concert which was both tremendously well-conceived and received.
Australian Arts Review, August 29, 2017