★★★★☆ Grieves-Smith serves up an energetic mix of old and new.

City Recital Hall, Angel Place, Sydney
May 28, 2016

Jonathan Grieves-Smith is a man adept at dualities it would appear. Not only is the British conductor about to become an Australian citizen, he’s repeatedly proved an outstanding interpreter of music from both the 18th century and our own. This concert with the combined forces of Sydney Chamber Choir and Orchestra of the Antipodes was a perfect example of his ability to span the ages with major works by Bach and Handel set in illuminating contrast against an invocation by Latvian composer Pēteris Vasks and an intriguing new commission from the versatile Iain Grandage.

Bach’s early cantata Christ Lag in Todesbanden gave Grieves-Smith another opportunity to flex his dichotomy-muscle, and he seized it with both hands, capturing the tensions between Bach’s wish to mourn the dead Messiah while simultaneously reflecting with wonderment on the Resurrection. The well-oiled orchestra shared orchestral tears and smiles, while the choir engaged in the composer’s musical game of ‘spot the chorale’ in a work that hides Luther’s ancient melody over seven verses in seven different ways. The opening verse highlighted perfectly SSC’s crisp, clean approach to harmony and text, while the conductor skillfully shaped the musical drama from hushed, awe-laden mezzo piano to full optimistic fortissimo. The young Bach’s orchestral niceties were adroitly finessed, Anthea Cottee’s eloquent cello obligato in the second verse a special pleasure. Assigning the solo lines to each section of the choir worked well (though the tenors were a little taxed by the strenuous runs in the penultimate verse), but generally the sprightliness of Grieves-Smith’s reading suited the fresh SCC voices down to the ground.

Vasks Prayer, a homage to Mother Teresa, exhibited some surprisingly Bachian harmonies as it arced from supplication to impassioned invocation. It built to an ecstatic climax before falling back to a hushed reverence, the choir coping magnificently with sustained final chords that seemed to last forever. Iain Grandage’s Why Do We Exist?, by contrast, felt far more up to date. If anything it channelled the late Peter Sculthorpe with its evocation of an Australian garden replete with bird calls from orchestral strings supplemented by a barrage of choral whoops and whistles. A commission by keen SCC supporters James O’Toole and Kate Friis to celebrate the marriage of their son (the entire family were in the audience), the work’s harmonic and melodic freshness had the direct appeal of, say, a John Adams or even an Eric Whitacre, while remaining distinctively Grandage. As wedding presents go, it struck me as rather more original than Kate and Wills’ ubiquitous and slightly saccharine Ubi Caritas. The fine premiere performance, which built to a beautiful triple intonation of the word “universe”, ought to have pleased all concerned.

Back to young man’s music, and Handel’s Dixit Dominus received a pacey, exciting reading to conclude. In their enthusiastic response to a grizzly psalm text that revels in the shattering of kings and the smashing of skulls, the choir delivered some of their finest singing of the evening. Although the flow was slightly upset by much standing, sitting and the toing and froing of soloists from choir to front of stage, Grieves-Smith was generally highly alert to Handel’s dramatic agenda. His reading was full of imaginative detail, always achieving a crystal clear separation of parts, despite the hectic rush of notes. Not every soloist was always perfectly in tune, but Natalie Shea delivered a fine Virgam Virtutis, while Josie Ryan exhibited a strong upper range in solo and duet. As a special treat, the best was kept until last with the sopranos outstanding in the rapid roulades of the concluding Gloria, while the bouncy “et in saecula saeculorum” section got the blood pounding as the combined forces ploughed on to deliver a high-voltage final Amen.