add consistent purity of tone and colour to the beauty and passion of the finest choral repertoire and the result is another exceptional performanceAustralian Chamber Choir: Terra Australis – Land of the Imagination
Directed by Douglas Lawrence

Author: Julie McErlain

Why so many of us love Australian Chamber Choir concerts is accurately described by Rob Stove, author of the choir’s scholarly and detailed program notes – “the atmosphere is convivial and friendly, the event is a serious and intelligent activity, the artists are disciplined and alert, enviable (professional) standards have been established.” Then add consistent purity of tone and colour to the beauty and passion of the finest choral repertoire and the result is another exceptional performance.

The unique concept of today’s theme: Terra Australia Land of the Imagination, was a highly innovative and intriguing approach. Director Douglas Lawrence described the choice of works as being “linked by year with voyages in search of Terra Australis, the fabled Great Southern Land, and later expeditions charting Australia and Antarctica”. With an approaching European tour in mind, this theme of historical discovery, combined with a recognition of the culture of the first Australian people and the choral repertoire of other lands, provided an interesting source for a music program.

‘This Earth’ from Tom Henry’s contemporary Kakadu Man opened with acute and striking chords, while sopranos caught our attention with their bell ringing clarity. The basses added a gorgeous low earthy throb, the widespread chords provided strong tonal colour, and we felt the natural colours of the land. The choir put full heart into vocalising techniques and contrasting hues, and with the second piece: ‘Rain’, individual voices marked the landscape with rapid rising arpeggios and lively punctuations. This work was well-loved by the audience.

While the extensive program notes described the exploration and events of history, I felt that some “links” with the associated music were somewhat tenuous, albeit they did provide a challenging perspective and much historical food for thought. References to Italian cartography and European exploration in the early 16th century inspired the inclusion of Two Secular Songs of Josquin des Prez and the ACC was scintillating with beauty, fine balance of parts, and rich tones which resonated broadly under the dome of this fine venue. In these French chansons, there was the capriciousness of a folk dance in the lighter secular texts. The spiritual contrast came with the following Josquin des Prez’ ‘Gloria’ from Missa Pange Lingua where the text was sung with meaning and heart. The choir’s energy and joy rang out in the exuberant contrapuntal lines of praise which then dramatically contrasted with solemn blend in the Agnus Dei. As we have always come to expect with the ACC, the tonal strength and colour in the final balanced chords and cadence was spine-tingling.

The charted landmass of “Terra Australis” was in the imaginations of the Portuguese explorers, and this link was represented by two very beautiful Latin motets. Crux Fidelis, attributed to John IV, King of Portugal, was an ACC showpiece with confidently balanced parts and colourful, rich harmony. Lusitano’s Heu me Domine (Alas Lord for I have sinned) was an intriguing contrast with challenging rising and falling slow chromatic lines, spiritually strong with the bass voices affirming the depths of the misery of sin, repentance and fear of eternal death. Merulo’s 12-part sacred motet Salvum fac populum tuum gave the sopranos shining heights in the confidently balanced chords.

In 1619, as Dutch sailors reached the western coast of Australia, the composer Sweelinck saw his 5-part motet Hodie Christus natus est published. This popular motet was performed very, very beautifully, with over-lapping voices and fugal statements being full of life and rejoicing. The frequently changing duple and triple meter changes were barely noticeable within the smooth rhythmic flow, with the final cadence of the Alleluia giving us a triumphant resonance.

Marking the 250th anniversary of James Cook’s voyage, the ACC commissioned Alan Holley to compose Time Passages, set to text by Mark Tredinnick. This complex vocal soundscape allowed the ACC to show its mastery of contemporary dramatic atonal works with earthy bass drones and colourful open chords. Bell-birds could be imagined as solo soprano lines floated in a timeless sky, and almost indefinable cadences blurred the modern and ancient spirit.

The imaginative program continued with Beethoven’s Monk’s Song and Farewell Song for Men’s Voices demonstrating the virtues of the eight male voices. Unity and clarity of diction, honest romantic expression and dynamic contrasts were main features, with the last words Lebe wohl (O Dearest Brother! Fare Thee Well!) being expressed with a sensitive softness. Mendelssohn’s Denn er hat seinen Engein befohlen provided simplicity, dignity beauty and calmness. In Debussy’s Three Songs of Charles d’Orleans the ensemble delighted in French tactics with delightful picture-painting of the text. From the ensemble there was elegance, vocal beauty, dream-like, calm qualities in the first, vocal imitations of dancing tambourines in the second, and dramatic choral crescendos with the wintry wind and rain in the third song. Messiaen’s O Sacrum Convivium allowed the basses to reveal their dark rich shades in this profound, slow, solemn work. The discordant, sombre hues drew us to the memory of Christ’s Passion, and the listeners were moved by this music. The lively Bach motet Lobet den Herrn which followed demonstrated light, flowing tight contrapuntal lines, each vocal part taking turns to shine in their fugal entries.

As in the beginning, Kakadu Man ‘Sacred’ and ‘Return to Earth’ evoked the dreaming and spirituality of the land. Unison female voices sustained shimmering notes, reflecting the heat on the horizon and widely spaced chords floated with an ethereal quality. An emotional and highly appreciated finale to this grand journey.

The Gospel song, My Soul’s Been Anchored in the Lord, was the jubilant encore, full of energy, pulse and a wide range of dynamics. A joyful and spirited conclusion.

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Julie McErlain reviewed the Australian Chamber Choir concert “Terra Australis – Land of the Imagination” presented at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church, Middle Park on June 16, 2019.

Classic Melbourne, June 20, 2019

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