Originating as the idea of the Netherlands Chamber Choir, 150 Psalms received its premiere in Utrecht as a two-day event in 2017. Having experienced this unique event in New York as part of the Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival, Adelaide Festival’s Artistic Directors Neil Armfield and Rachel Healy decided to mount the momentous event as a three-day, rather than two-day event. So across three days the city was able to experience 150 psalms set by 150 composers from the late middle ages to the present. However these were much more than a series of concerts. We celebrated a thousand years of inspired composition with each concert preceded by a spoken introduction. In the case of Powerlessness, author Nam Le in his introduction explained just how relevant the psalms are to modern life and its dilemmas – on spiritual, political and personal levels.
The Song Company, under the leadership of Antony Pitts, provided a varied program extending from the early Renaissance of Ockeghem and Josquin to Britten and our near contemporary Sven-David Sandström. The choir and its members were presented in numerous ways from its full 14 members to more intimate groups wherein individual lines of counterpoint could shine and be presented with the utmost clarity of musical purpose and diction. The choir proved to be equally adept in the wide range of musical styles presented in this spiritually uplifting concert.
As in the other concerts which make up this unique experience, there was a judicious balance between the familiar composer and the less well-known, and amongst the well-known the choice of psalmic setting is often unfamiliar territory for the audience. Britten, for example, with his love of the alto voice is familiar territory whilst the ornately ornamented lines of Jean Philippe Rameau are not so familiar as sacred music. And in rather stark contrast to this lay the simplified structure of William Knyvett’s setting of Psalm 129 with his style more obviously influenced by the likes of John Wesley and the growth of the British Protestant church. Tonal experimentation is what marked the setting by the American maverick Charles Ives, proving to be a delight for those even familiar with his individual quirkiness.
Performed at the Adelaide Hebrew Congregation’s temple at Glenside, this was theatre in the round, with the audience seated on two levels. Throughout the selection, The Song Company singers continually altered their number and often their positions within the hall itself (for the concluding Josquin setting, several basses and altos headed upstairs to add gravitas to the piece) presenting intimacy and solace one minute and frustration the next. It was also a treat to be able to welcome back organist Anthony Hunt to Adelaide audiences. The venue proved to be an ideal one – not only in regards to its structure but also due to its strong and ancient spiritual ties to the texts themselves, the décor proving equally appropriate – a modern temple for an ancient faith and belief system.