Friday, October 19, 2018

SCM CHAMBER CHOIR, at Verbrugghen Hall, October 17 2018

Reviewed by Tony Magee

In an inspired and brilliantly executed opening, the Sydney Conservatorium of Music Chamber Choir segued two contrasting settings of the 12th Century chant "O quam preciosa", composed almost 1000 years apart.

Hildegard von Bingen's music was thrust into the 20th century spotlight with the 1985 album, A Feather On the Breath of God, one of the top selling classical music releases for that year. She was an Abbess, composer, mystic and poet of the 12th century. Also author of the text, the chant celebrates the arrival into the world of the Christ Child, through the vessel of the female body.

As a further enhancement, an East meets West philosophy was applied with Chinese erhu and guzheng instruments replacing the traditional hurdy-gurdy accompaniment of the day, played with sensitivity and style by Nicholas Ng and Vicki Zheng respectively.

The piece was beautifully performed with the tenors and basses setting up a drone foundation over which sopranos and altos soared with melody sung in antiphon.

The second setting is by contemporary Australian composer Ross Edwards. In this, the virgin is a metaphor for the Earth-mother, who gives birth to a hoped-for bright new era. Listening to this performance, I found my mind contemplating today's fragile and dismal international political climate, and was comforted by this very welcome spark of hope and joy.

Eriks Esenvalds' "Evening" is a piece of beautiful delicacy and warmth, fluttering leaves, gentle evening light and peace. To quote Gabrielle Jackson's program notes, "The piece doesn't really go anywhere - it simply is - full of innocence and wonderment at the close of day."

Balancing her time between Canberra and Sydney, composer Olivia Swift's "The Leaves Drop Down" is a complex choral work, alternately delicate and demanding. Generally, the balance in this and indeed the entire concert was excellent between all vocal parts, with the exception of a moment of doubt in a tenor section entry. A beautiful work.

Carlo Gesualdo (1566 - 1613)
Don Carlo Gesualdo's final madrigal, "Quando ridente e bella" followed, sung by just five members of the 24 member choir. Way ahead of his time, 16th century Gesualdo is remembered both as a composer of intense expression and chromaticism - something not heard again until the late 19th century - and also a tragically tormented soul, wracked with guilt and shame due to his ghastly murder of his wife and her lover.

One commentator of the day noted, "Gesualso was afflicted by a vast hoard of demons which gave him no peace, unless ten or twelve young men, whom he kept specially for the purpose, were to beat him violently three times a day." The sub-group of five handled the complex harmonies very well, with good balance and varied dynamics. Shaping of phrases needs more work from them, something that does develop over time, with familiarity of performance and rehearsal.

Conductor and music director Paul Stanhope showcased one of his own pieces, "The Land Is Healed: Ban.garay!" Full of beautiful and at times complex harmonies and rich in texture, the choir developed intense dynamics. This was choral writing of the first rate and one of the highlights of the program.

The erhu and guzheng instruments returned to the stage to accompany the choir in two Chinese folk songs arranged by Julian Yu. Originally from Beijing, Yu is now based in Australia and coached the choir in Mandarin pronunciation for this performance of delicate dynamic shading.

Benjamin Britten's "The Evening Primrose" and "The Ballad of the Green Barron" followed. These pieces once again demonstrated the choir's excellent pitch and intonation. Also evident were beautifully shaped lines and phrases and mostly excellent diction.

The concert closed with "Christ the King" by New Zealand born Clare Maclean. She is particularly influenced by Renaissance repertoire and early polyphony. The piece is magnificent in its harmonies and structure and the choir made full advantage of the richness of the choral writing and sounded superb. A fitting conclusion to a wonderful program, as stylistically the presentation almost came full circle.