Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Sublime vocal heights elicit rapturous applause

“Open Book”
Luminescence Chamber Singers
ANU Drill Hall Gallery, August 18. 

Reviewed by Tony Magee

Photo: Tony Magee
IN a program of song from musical “books” which are a collaboration of works either from an individual like Monteverdi, or a third party, sometimes anonymous, Luminescence Chamber Singers reached, at times, a cappella vocal heights of sublime beauty and exquisite harmony and balance.

Beginning with the Fourth Book of Madrigals by Claudio Monteverdi (1567 - 1643) the singers displayed superb phrasing and all shared moments as soloists where certain parts were brought forward, highlighting seasoned tenor and musical director Dan Walker and soprano Chloe Lankshear whose exquisite voice was one of the highlights of the entire concert.

Two pieces from the Eton Choir Book followed. Firstly “Ave Maria, Mater Dei” by William Cornysh (1465 - 1523), sung by the male section only - bass, baritone and two tenors. Walker has a seamless transition from chest voice to head voice and at times approached the sound of a counter tenor. A unique vocal ability of astonishing beauty. 

I found the blend of the four male voices as a whole to be poor. I’m sure it’s all correctable with more careful attention in rehearsal, but something jarred and the sound as an all male ensemble was jagged and unbalanced.

By contrast, John Browne’s “Stabat Mater”, a substantial and longer work in four sections, had the addition of Lankshear and AJ America and the balance was excellent. The youngest member of the ensemble, 20 year old Alexander Gorbatov brought forth a beautiful tenor solo in the third section of the piece. He is currently on the cusp of transitioning from baritone to tenor and as yet, is undecided which one to pursue as a serious singer.

Two pieces from the anonymously compiled Red Book of Montserrat opened the second half. “O Virgo Splendens” was performed as a trio by Lankshear, AJ America and Veronica Milroy, who sang the solo soprano part beautifully, all from behind the main screen. 

America’s mid range vocal parts in other pieces were another highlight for me during the entire concert. She has the ability to balance herself with the other six in a role where inner voices play such a major part, but are not often showcased. 

It was a soaring and beautiful rendition which could easily have been from the pen of Hildegard of Bingen, although the composer is unknown. “Maria Matrem Virginem” was the second piece, featuring all seven performers, including baritone Patrick Baker and bass Andrew Fysh, whose solid bass foundation was a major factor in holding together the ensemble and harmonic balance of the group throughout the concert.

The works in this book are all mediaeval and display some of the earliest attempts at polyphony. This huge musical advancement from two-part organum was championed by the French composer Guillaume de Machaut (c. 1300 - 1377), most notably with his “Messe de Nostre Dame” and his three part secular motets. Much of the choral music from this period also shows a propensity to crossover the melodies from sacred texts into secular works - something that was very controversial at the time. 

Three selections from the Second Book of Madrigals by Gavin Bryars (1943 - ) closed the program. Once again tenor Dan Walker’s seamless tenor voice came through with beauty and precision. Bryars cites Monteverdi as an influence in his composing style, but I heard much more of Don Carlo Gesualdo (1566 - 1613) coming through in his writing. Gesualdo’s harmonies are considered way ahead of their time and can easily be mistaken for contemporary choral writing. Incidentally, his other claim to fame was hacking his wife and her lover to death with an axe, upon discovering their affair. Quentin Tarantino - there is your next screenplay.

Rapturous applause from the audience followed, with the opportunity to meet and chat with the singers.

First published in City News Digital Edition, August 19