The Sydney chamber choir Bel a cappella kicks off its 2018 season with a bit of a coup, presenting the Australian premiere of Caroline Shaw’s work To the HandsWritten as a response to Buxtehude’s Membra Jesu nostri patientis sanctissimait is programmed alongside the composer’s Ad manus, Fauré’s Requiem and Bach’s Partita in D MinorLimelight talks to Bel’s Artistic and Musical Director, Anthony Pasquill, about the concert.

Anthony Pasquill 

Although you perform a range of music spanning the ages, would you say that Bel a cappella has a particular affinity for specific composers, or a period of composition?

Over the years the choir has performed music by a wide range of composers including Johannes Ockeghem, Clemens non Papa and Claudio Monteverdi through to more contemporary composers such as Tõnu Kõrvits, Bernat Vivancos, Galina Grigorjeva and Gavin Bryars. I have always wanted to explore new works and to challenge myself as a young conductor and am fortunate to have an ensemble that is willing to come on these ambitious journeys with me.

What unites the works you’ll perform in your first concert? What gave you the idea to program Fauré, Bach and Shaw alongside one other?

Surprisingly Fauré’s Requiem has never been on my ‘to-conduct’ pile due to the fact that so many other choirs perform it. Since the choir was formed they have performed requiems by Ockeghem, Howells, Duruflé, Cherubini, Brahms and Mozart. Of course, there are more on the radar to sing over time (Schnittke and Jackson to name a couple) but I really wanted to perform the Fauré at this time of year. Being Sydney, it has been incredibly challenging to find a venue that fits the program (more importantly a venue that an ensemble can afford!) and although our program is more appropriate for Lent – the more fitting time to explore works that highlight pain and loss – our concert aims to highlight issues regarding human suffering, seeking refuge and our role and responsibility in relation to these issues. For example, in the fifth movement of Caroline Shaw’s work, numerical figures are spoken by the choir. These are global figures of internally displaced persons, by country, sourced from the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre in May 2015. As Caroline writes in her notes, ‘sometimes data is the cruelest and most honest poetry’.

How did you come across Caroline Shaw’s To the Hands, and what was the attraction of this piece for you?

I have long been an admirer of The Crossing, a professional chamber choir from Philadelphia, who perform a wide range of new music. They are continuously working with creative teams, including innovative composers from a variety of backgrounds, to make and record new, substantial works for choir, most often addressing social issues.

In 2016 they put together a project called Seven Responses, which aimed to address the topic of suffering.  Seven composers were asked to respond to one of the cantatas of Dieterich Buxtehude’s Membra Jesu Nostri (The Limbs of Jesus). I was actually interested in another work in the project by composer David Lang, but the highlight for me was this beautiful work by Caroline Shaw who I knew about thanks to her stunning Partita for 8 Voices and all her work with the vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth.

To the Hands is incredibly intimate and tender and I was instantly hooked. Towards the end of the work, Caroline quotes Buxtehude’s “In media manuum tuarum” (In your hands). It has been described as ‘musical balm for suffering’. “They could be the words of Christ,” Shaw writes in the booklet notes, “or of a parent or friend or lover, or even a nation.”

It’s wonderful that you’ve gotten the rights to perform Shaw’s work on the proviso that the proceeds go to the homeless. How did this agreement come about?

Caroline Shaw has made the scores available “with the understanding that any performance of this piece is accompanied by rigorous solicitation of donations for those without homes (locally and globally), and strong support for active & informed conversation with policy makers. Let us open our hands to those of others. (What are these wounds, in my hands, and in yours?) Walls are not the answer. We are all creatures.” The committee of Bel a cappella is currently exploring avenues to raise money for various organisations here in Sydney.

How would you describe Shaw’s work to an audience unfamiliar with her work?

This work is essentially a suite of six small chorales on texts of the composer’s own device. Shaw writes “it begins inside the 17th century sound of Buxtehude” and throughout the work the idea of reflection is important for us all. There are ‘riffs’ on Emma Lazarus’ sonnet The New Colossus, known for being engraved at the base of the Statue of Liberty, other texts taken from the Song of Solomon, and wordless plainchant melodies. The movements contain passages of solace, stillness and interlocking choral parts, something that works neatly alongside German scholar Professor Helga Thoene’s remarkable arrangement of Bach’s Chaconne, in which funereal Lutheran melodies are woven into the music’s fabric. The melodies are sung as the violin plays what has been described by Yehudi Menuhin as “the greatest structure for solo violin that exists”.

As well as being a privilege, it must also be a significant responsibility to give the Australian premiere of Shaw’s work. Is this responsibility something you’re conscious of and that helps in preparation, or something you find daunting?

I find the whole idea incredibly exciting! I love the challenge of programming and designing concerts that bring something new and potentially unique to the Sydney choral scene. It’s important that all ensembles across Australia push the boundaries of repertoire, to try and bring new music to audiences. It’s then the responsibility of music lovers to explore and listen to new composers and the amazing music that is currently available. I’m also fortunate that I have the ability to work with a wonderful group of singers in order to present programs that are diverse and somewhat personal to both myself and the choir as a whole. Over the years we have given premieres of works by Vasks, Dyson, Kõrvits, Jennefelt and even a world premiere of Obriume els llavis, Senyor by Bernat Vivancos. It’s something that we are keen to do and there are plans afoot for 2019 to perhaps focus more at home and to give voice to the incredible composers that Australia has to offer. As for this concert, I’ve tried to create an entire body of work that will hopefully leave the audience with a very powerful impression – Caroline’s work will certainly do that.

It must be rewarding to feature young artists such as Gemma Lee, who will performing the Bach, in your concerts. What is that process of collaboration like?

Absolutely! We’re incredibly excited to be working alongside Gemma for this concert! The Bach Partita needs a pretty fearless performer and Gemma already has an incredible amount of experience as a violinist, especially as she participated in the Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s Fellowship program in 2017.

As a choir, we have always tried to work with young and upcoming performers over the years. Some of our soloists that have performed with us have gone on to work overseas with professional ensembles and opera companies, have won the Opera Foundation of Australia’s Lady Fairfax New York Scholarship or are currently performing with professional ensembles around the world. Even the conductors of the choir over the years have gone on to work around the world with various professional orchestras and choirs.

Bel a cappella’s To the Hands is on at Christ Church St Laurence, April 8