Sydney Chamber Choir’s final program for 2019, led by Artistic Director Sam Allchurch, cleverly drew together a variety of works united in their explorations of the passage of time, the passing of seasons or very specific snapshots of – as the title outlines – time and place.
Sam Allchurch with the Sydney Chamber Choir. Photograph © Pedro Greig
The concert in the Sydney Conservatorium of Music’s Verbrugghen Hall opened with a hushed account of René Clausen’s Tonight Eternity Alone, which sets words from Thomas S Jones, Jr’s Dusk at Sea (with aquatic references neatly excised), featuring luminous solos from sopranos Wei Jiang and Megan Cronin over the choir’s cushioning sound.
In fact, the choir was in fine form throughout. The word painting in former SCC Artistic Director Paul Stanhope’s I Have Not Your Dreaming – setting Margaret Glendenning’s tribute to her teacher Oodgeroo Noonuccal – was a highlight, an erupting texture illustrating the poet’s “sweet poetry of ibis flight”, while the a cappella singing in a trio of anthems by Healey Willan – texts in praise of the Virgin Mary – was assured and sonorous.
Jonathan Dove’s operatic The Passing of the Year, which sets several poets including Blake and Dickinson, saw the choir joined by Luke Byrne on piano, unspooling minimalist textures beneath the singers, who delivered languorous, shimmering heat in Hot sun, cool fire and hypnotic weaving in Ah, Sun-flower!. While the balance was a little piano heavy in the opening movement, choir and pianist gave a pealing, well-balanced account of the final Ring out, wild bells, and Natalie Shea’s alto solo in The narrow bud opens her beauties to the sun was clear and delicate.
Clare Maclean wrote A West Irish Ballad for Sydney Chamber Choir in 1988, when she sang in the choir herself, setting an anonymous poem translated by Lady Gregory, here rendered in haunting lines and chant-like textures – and more bells, though illustrated more subtly than in the Dove.
From Ireland we moved to Latvia, with Ella Macens’ Stāvi Stīvi, Ozoliņ (Stand strong, oak tree), written for The Song Company and drawing on a Latvian folk song, with breezy vocalisations bookending a defiant choral climax, before two movements from Morten Lauridsen’s Nocturnes saw the choir span Renaissance textures to soaring Broadway triumph in Rilke’s Sa nuit d’été (Its Summer Night) and Agee’s Sure on This Shining Night.
The final work was David Conte’s Invocation and Dance, a setting of the bird’s song in Walt Whitman’s When Lilacs Last at the Dooryard Bloom (a poem he penned in the wake of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination) written for the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus as the AIDS epidemic took hold in the 1980s. The choir was joined by Luke Byrne and Kate Johnson on piano, as well as Adam Jeffrey and Trudy Leopard on glittering percussion, the evocations of bells which were such a thread running through this program becoming a grim knell on the piano, against iridescent choral textures, before the music burst into a vivid, vital dance, in a moving close to this beautifully crafted concert.