St Patrick’s Cathedral, Melbourne
April 15, 2018
Apart from the obvious dissimilarities, there are nevertheless parallels between the formation of a new string quartet and assembling a new choir. When musicians come together to make music there needs to be some measure of agreement about how this is to be done. The artistic director of the newly-formed Hamer Singers, Jonathan Grieves-Smith, has already established a number of elements in this contract. In this second concert presented by the Hamer Singers the venue, St Patrick’s Cathedral, offered a highly favourable ambiance for the works chosen on the program. In his helpful introduction to the concert, the conductor described the path taken to gather and then to order the works into a coherent sequence. Most are from the 20th and 21st centuries and the interiority of their texts is such that a kind of conversation between them is established. This proved to be the case in performance.
Generally, the dynamic level of the voices did not go beyond moderately loud, and often it was quite soft. Achieving beauty of sound at these levels through precise chording, clear phrasing, and due awareness given to the sounds produced by parts other than your own, was strikingly evident in the Singers’ work. Grieves-Smith was able to bring the nearly 50 singers to an agreement on these matters: their intonation, and hence their chording, was exemplary, the line drawn by the voices – whether as unaccompanied melodies, or as dense polyphony – was well described: shape and pulse were both clearly established, and the balance that comes from a chorister listening to what singers in the other parts are doing, and recognising one’s role as a singer in the larger enterprise, was strongly evident. Clearly, the work of reaching an agreement about how music might be presented by this body of singers is well advanced.
Four of the five works presented were for unaccompanied voices and demonstrated a variety of vocal techniques. Arvo Pärt’s I am the true vine, with its highly organised pattern of pitches and repetitions also uses the medieval technique of hocketing, where the text, taken from the 15th chapter of John’s Gospel, is broken up between the upper voices so that as it unfolds the listener’s ear moves from following one vocal part to another. A virtue of this technique is that the melodic material, even though it remains similar throughout, retains its freshness by being divided between the voices in ways that serve the demands of the text. This the Singers realized most ably.
Anna Thorvaldsdóttir’s Icelandic setting Heyr þú oss himnum á impressed by its sequence of slow-moving chords, never reaching beyond its controlled dynamic of almost conversational directness, but expressive of the gentle pulse of the Icelandic psalm. The Singers sounded quite persuasive in delivering the language of the original.
The piling up of various English versions of a verse from St Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians (13:11) is the textual basis for David Lang’s 2013 commission When we were children. This setting proceeded by increments from a unison beginning in the upper voices, through a building-up of successive voices underpinning the melodic material of the opening. A nearly obsessive three-note recurring motto also characterises the progress of this lengthy litany. The progress takes a sharp turn with a key change just beyond the halfway point, and the litany continues in this new direction. The Singers kept this relentless journey moving and interesting, not by pushing any part or any version of the scriptural text beyond its plain meaning, but by ensuring that the work’s structure was thoughtfully managed. The suddenness of the ending left one with the impression that the litany continues well into the silence that followed.
In jumping back nearly four and a half centuries to the England of Queen Mary’s time and the music of the Chapel Royal of the period, the concert offered an example of the full flowering of Renaissance polyphonic a cappella writing. The presentation by the Hamer Singers of Thomas Tallis’ Agnus Dei from his Missa Puer natus est nobis, a richly satisfying setting of this liturgical text, was completely winning. Here in the third iteration of the Agnus text, the dynamic level of the voices edged towards a stronger, fuller sound. The choir’s movement towards this level was very skilfully judged.
The closing work of the concert, Pēteris Vasks’ Laudate Dominum is a substantial piece in which longish paragraphs on the organ, played with fine judgement by Christopher Cook, alternate with sections for unaccompanied choir. This pattern persists for three such exchanges. In the fourth exchange the organ leads to the final section where it is joined by the choir. The key has moved from the minor to the major, and a new word, Alleluia, replaces the Laudate Dominum of the previous sections. Things grow quite hugely from this point: both the tempo and the dynamics increase. The D major ending is a resonant climax where both organ and choir are called to give their utmost. This was a most powerful and life-affirming conclusion to a program that was marked by a superb sheen and finish to the sound issuing from the shared vision of conductor and choir. One looks forward eagerly to the Hamer Singers’ next concert. The contract to bring carefully prepared performances to its audience has been signed, and has already delivered.