The Australian Chamber Choir’s latest concert, Survivors of the London Plagues, will be performed under social distancing conditions in Mandeville Hall, Toorak, and streamed live to audiences around the country thanks to Melbourne Digital Concert Hall. The choir’s manager Elizabeth Anderson and director Douglas Lawrence spoke to Limelight about the concert, which will feature eight singers – the ACC 8 – performing music by William Byrd, Orlando Gibbons, John Dowland and Henry Purcell and more.

Douglas LawrenceDouglas Lawrence. Photo courtesy of Australian Chamber Choir

How did the idea to program a concert around survivors of the plague in London come together?

EA: Douglas and I usually work together to develop programs. We decided that to generate some income for our singers during the COVID-19 crisis, we would live-stream a concert once a month. Douglas thought that a series of programs, each with a national theme would work well, and started working on a program of English music. He gave me his first draft and I thought there might be a correlation between the works he had chosen and outbreaks of the Bubonic Plague in England. There really were many outbreaks of Bubonic Plague, so any Elizabethan composer would have experienced between one and three outbreaks. I wrote a spiel and found a nice picture and gave it back to Douglas. He then decided that he should increase the secular music component, as the Elizabethan period is considered to be the Golden Age of the Madrigal. The final program is 50 percent sacred and 50 percent secular.

How did outbreaks of the plague affect the lives of composers in Elizabethan London?

EA: In many ways it was similar to today with COVID-19. Many composers fell upon hard times. They needed to conform to a strict set of rules, including social distancing. Public houses and theatres were closed, public events and fairs were banned and people were told to stay at home as much as possible. Any household where someone had contracted the disease was required to self-isolate. A cross was painted on the door and nobody was permitted to come or go. They probably drank more. Musicians who worked for the church would have been able to maintain a more “normal” working life: church services continued, as it was believed that you couldn’t contract the plague while worshipping. But just to be on the safe side, it was forbidden for people with the plague to attend church.

What music did you choose for this concert and why?

DL: Some would say that the reign of Elizabethan I was the greatest period in the history of English music. The list is extraordinary: Tallis, Byrd, Gibbons, Morley, Tomkins, Tye and on it goes. Given his three stunning masses, Byrd is tops for me. Add to that list of composers, Henry Purcell, born 60 years after Elizabeth’s reign and the problem becomes not so much what to choose as what not to choose! With so many excellent works, it was easy to find a beautiful program.

ACC 8The ACC 8 in rehearsal. Photo courtesy of Australian Chamber Choir

What have been the challenges of putting this concert together?

DL: No particular challenges. One always strives for balance: put crudely: fast/slow, loud/soft, inspiring/sentimental/technically challenging/easy. With this palette of fine composers there was no real challenge.

EA: We’re grateful to the Melbourne Digital Concert Hall for helping us through the challenges of live-streaming. We live-streamed a program with them with four singers during April. The challenge was in getting used to singing with one and a half metres between singers. In this program we will have eight singers, so we’ll be able to make a more “choral” sound. And of course we’ll rehearse with social distancing.

What are the real highlights in this program?

DL: Oh! That is a tricky one. I love the Byrd masses. Tomkins’ When David heard that Absalom was Slain is loved, even revered by singers the world over, as is Gibbons’ The Silver Swan. Well, all the works on the program are both accessible and beautiful.

What do you think audiences can come away with, hearing this music today?

DL: Reflection and meditation with the sacred music and a big smile with the hilarity of some of the madrigals.

The Australian Chamber Choir’s Survivors of the London Plagues will stream live at 5pm AEST on May 24, through Melbourne Digital Concert Hall