The joyous textures of Herbert Howells’ A Hymn for St Cecilia opened Sydney Chamber Choir’s first performance for 2019, Sam Allchurch’s debut as Music Director. Allchurch has big shoes to fill, taking over the choir from the late Richard Gill, but the young conductor – who was also appointed Director of Music at Sydney’s Christ Church St Laurence and Associate Artistic Director at Gondwana Choirs last year – more than delivered the goods in his first outing in the role.

Sydney Chamber Choir, Music on MusicSydney Chamber Choir’s Music on Music

Music on Music saw Sydney Chamber Choir tackle repertoire from the Renaissance through to 21st-century music by Australian composers, in a multi-layered program of music written about music, but which also – as Allchurch explained in a recent column for Limelight – paid tribute to his predecessors at the choir, from the Renaissance music beloved of Nicholas Routley, to music written by Paul Stanhope, and, of course, Richard Gill, in Elliot Carter’s setting of Emily Dickinson’s poem Musicians Wrestle Everywhere.

The choir was on point, giving a refined performance of William Byrd’s 16th-century Quomodo cantabimus, the weaving lines perfectly balanced as they rung out in the University of Sydney’s Great Hall, before creating a magical atmosphere in the gentle dissonances, overlapping voices and ghostly sibilants of Australian composer Joseph Twist’s How Shall We Sing in a Strange Land from 2011, which sets the the same Psalm alongside words by Indigenous poet Oodgeroo Noonuccal. Effects in the Twist were echoed in the use of the component elements of speech and song as musical material in Elliot Gyger’s 2003 Ut queant laxis, which draws on the plainchant hymn of that name telling the story of John the Baptist, and from which the solfa names originated, taken from the first syllable of each ascending phrase (it’s essentially the music theory purist’s “Doe, a deer, a female deer”). The work unfolded in a thrilling accumulation of textures beginning with an organ drone from Joshua Ryan, bursting into ecstatic English passages from the Gospel of Luke when Zechariah’s speech is restored. James MacMillan’s A New Song, setting verses from Psalm 96, built from the hazy and iridescent opening of organ and sopranos, through tactile filigree textures to a powerful, almost overwhelming crescendo. The first half of the concert culminated in the bright ricocheting of the “Singet” entries of Bach’s Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied (Sing to the Lord a New Song) dispatched with bustling affection by the choristers with fine singing from the quartet of soloists – soprano Josie Ryan, alto Alison Lockhart, tenor Richard Sanchez and bass Joshua Murray.

The tangled word-painting of Carter’s Musicians Wrestle Everywhere kicked off the second half, soon contrasted by the melancholy of Josquin des Prez’s Nymphes des bois (Nymphs of the wood) and interweaving voices of Palestrina’s Missa Ut re mi fa so la: Kyrie – another work to draw on the Ut queant laxis chant – that had the choristers leaving the stage to line the edges of the hall and envelop the audience. Paul Stanhope’s haunting setting of the Orthodox Cherubic Hymn – translated into Latin for this work commissioned by the Choir of St James’ Church in Sydney – highlighted the dark, exotic imagery of the ancient text (“Christ our God, comes forward to be sacrificed and to be given for food to the faithful”) in modal, scalic passages and chant-like cries, in contrast to the bright fanfare “dance” entries and aquatic lapping of Michael Tippett’s Dance, Clarion Air, composed for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.

The concert reached its climax with a work by Tippett’s contemporary, Benjamin Britten. His Rejoice in the Lamb, a setting of text filleted from 18th-century Christopher Smart’s Jubilate Agno – written during Smart’s confinement in St Luke’s Hospital for Lunatics – was delivered by the choristers with vibrant clarity, quick, precise diction making short work of the strange, often humorous, but ultimately thoughtful, text. Highlights included soprano Lindy Montgomery’s moving sweetness in “For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry” and alto Natalie Shea’s personification of the touching bravado in “For the Mouse is a creature of great personal valour”, an expressive solo by tenor Christopher Ophen and a powerful contribution by bass Ed Suttle. As the work’s mood shifted, the choir captured the troubling violence evoked by the poem’s depiction of police brutality, Allchurch shaping a crescendo of almost apocalyptic rage.

This was an ambitious program, but Allchurch and his choristers pulled it off with aplomb. While there was the occasional moment when a soloist might have strained to reach extremes of register, the singing was incredibly secure throughout. Allchurch had the parts perfectly balanced at every moment and his lively tempi and resonant cut-offs and masterful shaping – not to mention a smart and sophisticated program – added up to a polished and deeply satisfying performance. If Music on Music is anything to go by, Sydney Chamber Choir is in safe hands.