One of the world’s very finest choirs transports us to the gates of heaven.

Sydney Opera House
March 10, 2015

The Sixteen was one of the first small-scale professional choirs on the scene, and one of the first to found its own record label, Coro, in 2001. A healthy fecundity in the studio has led to over 100 recordings to date making ‘The Sixteen sound’ one of the most recognisable to anyone not lucky enough to get to hear them on one of their regular choral pilgrimages. The chance to catch them in the flesh in Australia was not to be missed and this ravishing evening of Marian masses and motets under founder and conductor Harry Christophers was a showcase for imaginative programming, vocal skill and making the connection between church music past and present.

The Sixteen started out with the music of the high Renaissance, so Palestrina has been on their books for many years now. They also have a commitment to new music and the future of the liturgy (a relationship with the pioneering Genesis Foundation has led to a series of important commissions and a relatively new singer training scheme), and one of their closest supporters is the Scottish composer James MacMillan, a selection of whose work proved a winning counterbalance in a concert entitled The Queen of Heaven.

First of all the choir. The 18 (!) singers of The Sixteen represent the perfect blend of youth and experience. The sound is rich, clean and immaculately balanced. Clear sopranos, delicate, light-voiced altos (three men, one woman), bright tenors, warm basses. With each chorister a potential soloist, individual contributions and sub-ensembles were spot on. But it is the commitment to the text, a zeal clearly stemming from their passionate helmsman, that makes them special. No effete polyphonic prettiness here. When they have a story to tell they tell it, when they sing of pain we feel it, when they are joyous they mean it.

The program was bookended by the Kyrie and Agnus Dei of a Palestrina mass – appropriately the Missa Regina Caeli. Crisp consonants and impeccable discipline made this and the two eight-part motets that came later in the program very special. Christophers has a keen sense of dramatic flow, moving seamlessly from chant to polyphony and back again, ensuring his musical agenda has the very best possible chance to be heard. The antiphonal effects in Palestrina’s Stabat Mater (a surprisingly spirited setting, rejoicing in its message of consolation rather than wallowing in the sorrow of it all) swung bell-like from stage right to stage left, the dynamic Christophers roaming at will in order to coax and cajole the desired emotional heft from his forces.

At the heart of this program lie two settings of the Miserere, the first to be heard being the famous Allegri in a relatively radical revision based on the latest scholarly research into what the visitor to the 17th-century Sistine Chapel most likely heard. As Christophers pointed out, the tourists flocked to hear the elaborate embellishments, not the notorious top C. The top line was sung by castrati up until 1913 when a (killjoy or progressively humane?) Pope decreed, “only whole men should be singers”. The Sixteen’s reading was flawless and fascinating. With each verse differently decorated, the progression of the work became a game of will she or won’t she as we anticipated the antics of the solo soprano in the ‘distant’ vocal quartet (and yes, we did get two top Cs).

Harry Christophers has called James MacMillan the saviour of modern church music and the four works in the Queen of Heaven program show precisely why. A committed Catholic (like the Sixteen’s chief), MacMillan writes devotional music to inspire, engage and educate. His sometimes abrasive orchestral manner is eschewed in his liturgical works in favour of an immediacy and approachability aimed at the hearts and minds of his ‘congregation’ and I very much doubt that anyone would have left last nights concert muttering “yes, but I didn’t really like the modern stuff”.

Mirroring the Allegri in the first half, MacMillan’s Miserere was the evening’s emotional climax. Dedicated to Christophers himself, the work is a rapturous thing that even quotes from  Allegri’s setting in its central section. Travelling from bleak despair, represented in knotty harmonies and angular lines, to an essentially optimistic conclusion rising warmly to a folk-like hymn of praise, it’s a showcase for choral sound and technique and received a stellar performance. A true modern masterpiece, the work is being performed twice more over the coming months by the impressive Sydney Chamber Choir and the intrepid Bel a Cappella (in a program that includes Tormis’ extraordinary Curse Upon Iron complete with shaman drums!).

The other MacMillan pieces were taken from his outstanding Strathclyde Motets. The sprightly Dominus Dabit Benignitatem with its ‘scotch snaps’ and piquant harmonies was followed by Videns Dominus which flickered and shone like a modern-medieval altarpiece. The segue from Palestrina’s Vineam Meam Non Custodivi into MacMillan’s glorious O Radiant Dawn, and out again into Palestrina’s Pulchrae Sunt Genae Tuae perfectly illustrated the common goal of these two composers, separated by 500 years, yet each determined to communicate a Christian message through musical means.

It’s been a good year so far for lovers of choral music here in Sydney with the remarkable Latvian Radio Choir gracing the Sydney Festival, a fine season opener from Sydney Philharmonia Choirs last week, and now this. Resisting the urge to conclude with any clever puns about queens and heaven, I will just add that it was a pretty good house, but I can’t for the life of me imagine why this concert didn’t have a returns queue stretching back to Circular Quay. Dear Sixteen, please come again soon.