Concert Hall, QPAC, Brisbane
April 7, 2018
A full house was treated to a choral concert celebrating life and death with Igor Stravinsky’s Funeral Song, followed by the Four Sea Interludes of Benjamin Britten, Cloudburst from Eric Whitacre, then returning to the funeral theme with Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem Op. 48. The Swedish choral conductor Stefan Parkman, Chief Conductor of the WDR Rundfunkchor Köln, was at the podium, having replaced Alondra de la Parra, who is on maternity leave.
Stefan Parkman conducts the QSO. Photograph © Peter Wallis
An excited audience was hushed by a gentle eerie whisper from the strings as the clarinets, strings and brass crept into a graveyard born of horror movies, with the brass conjuring a menacing dark figure amongst the gravestones. As Stravinsky’s Funeral Song progressed you were transported to a dark, bleak and miserable Russia, with overtones of poverty, until the piece wells with a loud roll of grief from the timpani, to subside to a peaceful end.
Stravinsky wrote Funeral Song as a tribute to his mentor and teacher Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. It was first performed in Russia in 1909 and has uncanny similarities to its successor The Firebird. However, the orchestral score had been subsequently lost until it was fortuitously rediscovered in the library of the St Petersburg Conservatoire in 2015. Thus, very few audiences have had the opportunity to experience the full might of the piece, using advanced orchestral chromatic harmonies and extreme tonal ranges. It was a privilege and an unnerving, yet unforgettable experience.
Benjamin Britten provided a change of pace and scene with the Four Sea Interludes from Britten’s second opera, Peter Grimes. They highlight four scenes for an ostracised fisherman accused of murder by the community, longing to be out on the open seas. Opening with a beautiful dawn recreation, the trilling violins signal the first light interjected with a brass rumble, followed by piercing clarinet, harp and viola arpeggios, as the sun reflects and sparkles off the waves.
The second movement opens on a Sunday morning with church bells chiming and the tweet of the flutes and a piccolo as the village awakens and stirs. The quietly undulating Moonlight interlude follows, where the flute and harp mimic the moonlight reflecting off a calm sea with a beautiful harmony from the xylophone and trumpet. Moonlight is the calm before the Storm, the fourth and final interlude of Britten’s, with spectacular screaming violins, a thunderous kettle drum with harp and woodwind tossing about in the waves, culminating in a spectacular crash of thunder and lightning. As the final crash resounded around the Concert Hall, the ebullient applause accentuated the storm affect, like the patter of a downpour of rain.
Cloudburst by Eric Whitacre followed on perfectly from the storm theme, with a choral treat from 61 choristers in The Australian Voices, prepared by the Artistic Director Gordon Hamilton. The inspiration for the Grammy-Award winning American composer, was witnessing a cloudburst in the desert and reading Mexican poems by Octavio Paz at the tender age of 21. The two soloists, Tali Kellam-Pearson and Andrew Firth sang and spoke in Spanish, accompanied by the talented choir, hand bells and four QSO percussionists with thunder sheets, drums and bells in hand. The music highlighted tonal clusters, interspersed with aleatoric finger clicking and clapping, highlighting the pattering rain, interjected with piano chords and ringing bells. The mesmerising layered patterns of voice conjured images of an ethereal realm amongst the desert clouds. This desert storm was no less dramatic than Britten’s, and the choral performance aroused the audience to a fever pitch, with stamping feet, whistling and three encores whisking us to the interval.
Morgan England-Jones and Phillip Gearing. Photograph © Peter Wallis
After such a spectacular first half, the pomp and circumstance of Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem, Op. 48 did not seem out of place. The organist Phillip Gearing accompanied by the resplendently silver gowned soprano, Morgan England-Jones were in the glass pulpit, surrounded by the spectacular array of organ pipes, floating above the QSO, conductor and choristers. Fauré’s Requiem was a return to the funeral theme, but with a more uplifting approach to death than Stravinsky. The music highlighted the choristers, with solos from the soprano (England-Jones) and baritone (Teddy Tahu Rhodes.) Rather fittingly, the orchestral version was first performed in 1924 at Fauré’s own funeral. The Requiem is divided into seven movements, starting with a gentle minor melody from the choir, accompanied by simple strings. As the movements progress to the Sanctus, the orchestra becomes fuller and more textured with harmonising voices, as “Hosanna In Excelsis” rings out from the tenors and basses. The Pie Jesu highlighted the clear bell-like voice of England-Jones, accompanied by the organ, harp and strings. Libera me showcased the confident rounded tones of Tahu Rhodes accompanied by an emboldened brass with the repeated exclamation “Dies Irae” (Day of Wrath) from the choir in the background. In Paradisum closed the fabulous night with funerary text sung by the sopranos and moving choral harmonies embodied with the undulating chords from the organ.
All in all, it was a spectacular evening, embracing the joy of nature and the drama of death.