★★★★ Neat programme makes Gill’s 6×3 add up to rather more than 18.

Great Hall, Sydney University
September 7, 2015

Richard Gill, conductor, music educator and long-term banger of the drum for Australian choral composition and performance, is the incoming Music Director of Sydney Chamber Choir and on the evidence of this intriguingly planned concert they could well be onto a very good thing indeed. Entitled Six Times Three, the bold and imaginative programme added up to more than anything as prosaic as eighteen.

The concert came in conveniently bite-sized chunks and had no interval (a grand idea in itself), and moved from the present to the past, from Australia on to France and Renaissance Italy. The 23-strong choir, inclined to be a rather serious-minded ensemble, seemed more relaxed than I recall – hopefully a sign of the pleasure of engaging with such wide-ranging repertoire and a passionate new conductor.

The best came first with two sets of Australian threes – what Gill boasted was 40 minutes of our own but hoped that “one day we’ll say it’s just music”. There was a theme of time and bells in the works by three Australian men that opened the programme. Dan Walker’s setting of Gray’s Elegy played to the choir’s strengths – tightness of ensemble and security in intonation – in an imaginative and melodic work, reflective but shot through with imitative effects. Elliott Gyger’s Five Bells (perhaps the standout of the concert) took Walker’s single tolling bell and ran with it in what was a superbly original setting of Kenneth Slessor’s meditation on time, memory and mortality. Six plucky soloists gave this fiendishly complex piece an accomplished reading. Vincent Plush’s cheeky setting of a 19th-century portrait of an Aussie ‘gamin’ provided some up-tempo fun, though the text got a little lost in translation thanks to the composer’s sometimes unrestrained flights of fancy.

The women’s turn came next and Dulcie Holland’s admirably clear setting of the carol Adam Lay Y-Bounden yielded nothing to more famous composer’s like Bax or Warlock. Excerpts from New Zealand composer Dame Gillian Whitehead’s Missa Brevis led from a fairly straightforward Kyrie to a valedictory Agnus Dei, but in the middle we were treated to a lovely Sanctus and Benedictus. The thoroughly original setting gave us more pealing bells and a vivid feeling of swinging censors as the themes were passed skilfully from voice to voice. Three movements from Elena Kats-Chernin’s setting of Hilary Bell’s Talk Show, a dark, ironic reflection on a real life murder that took place in the US after a two men appeared on a TV reality show, showed her, as Gill related, “outclassing Philip Glass and Carl Orff”. The choir’s slightly disengaged approach and admirable diction made for a chilling few minutes.

Parts three and four took us to turn of the century France in chansons by Ravel and Debussy, contemporaries, yes, but their essays in choral writing couldn’t be more different. Ravel’s mock folk songs are laced with acid wit and lashings of cynicism, from the tale of Nicolette (who rejects a handsome page but for offered a step up in the world happily embraces an ugly, foul-smelling, potbellied Lord), to a ditty in which the youth of today lament the absence in the world of ghoulies and ghosties who seem to have been chased away by the moralising warnings of tiresome old folk. The choir were in their element with the rapid-fire tongue twisters, though they could have been a bit more engaged as storytellers, and fielded some fine soloists in the wistful second chanson. It will be fascinating to see how Gill’s instinct for dramatisation shapes this aspect in the years ahead. If Debussy’s settings of 15th-century texts felt tame by comparison, they nevertheless played to the speed and agility of the SCC singers who embraced their pungent chromaticism and seized on the madrigal-like qualities of the music. 

Sections five and six skipped back a few centuries to the Renaissance in a set of mournful chansons by Josquin on the themes of lost love and impending death (including the famous Mille Regretez and the sublime Cueurs Desolez). The afternoon concluded with three of Gesualdo’s madrigals with their harmonic extravagances verging on the 20th-century. Beautifully paced, the choir sang securely, despite the demands placed on the tenors by the tricky tessitura. In the end, though, it was the Australian works that lingered longest in the memory, perhaps a sign of good things ahead when Richard Gill takes up the reins in 2016.