Sydney Opera House, Utzon Room
April 29, 2018

“Ladies and gentlemen, please make sure that your mobile phones are switched off,” sung the choristers of Sydney Philharmonia Choir’s young adult ensemble VOX, in perfect four-part harmony and with precise, crisp diction. “Do it now.”

Finnish composer Jaakko Mäntyjärvi’s cheeky Announcements – a playful nod to the formality of concert etiquette – was a light-hearted crowd warmer for what was a diverse program comprised almost entirely of contemporary Australian choral music, led by conductor Elizabeth Scott in the Sydney Opera House’s Utzon Room as part of the Crescendo Series.

From the fluttering fricatives of Matthew Orlovich’s Butterflies Dance– setting the poetry of Michael J Smith and underpinned by a texture woven through with the repeated word “fly, fly, fly” – to Ruth McCall’s chant-infused arrangement of Waltzing Matilda, VOX demonstrated a remarkable flexibility, mirroring the diverse influences of Australia’s choral composers.

Among the highlights were the powerful a cappella Ban. Garay movement from Paul Stanhope’s 2014 dramatic cantata Jandamarra – about the life of the young Bunuba warrior and resistance hero – and Ross Edwards’ rhythmic, driving Mountain Chant were highlights. Other highlights included the two world premieres on the program, the first of which was Ella Macens’ We Were Not Ready, an exploration of grief following the death of the composer’s grandfather. With antiphonal soloists positioned around the audience – and they in turn haloed sonically by the choir – We Were Not Ready saw gentle textures blossom with the text, a heartfelt outpouring of grief, the word “pain” delivered with a stinging accent by the choristers. While this was a beautifully crafted musical experience, it could have been enhanced further by having the soloists remain in their positions at the edges of the audience, rather than disturbing the atmosphere by having them creep carefully down the aisles to positions in the choir and back again. Ben van Tienen’s When I am Old, also enjoying its first performance, was a touchingly sweet love song.

Antiphonal groups also featured Alice Chance’s Aurora Eora – the Latin word for “dawn” with the Gadigal word meaning “here” or “of this place” – in an arrangement commissioned by the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs, while Luke Byrne’s Desert Sea (written for Sydney Philharmonia Choirs in 2015) celebrates water returning to Lake Eyre in a pulsing, rhythmic work that saw the composer accompanying on drum. Byrne also joined the choir for Katy Abbott’s grooving Fool from Words of Wisdom, which sets the old Chinese proverb: “He who asks is a fool for five minutes, but he who doesn’t ask remains a fool forever.”

Like Macens’ We Were Not Ready, Trish Delaney-Brown’s Rachel, written for The Idea of North, explored ideas of death and grief, while Kate Miller-Heidke’s Our Song – in an arrangement by Dan Walker that saw the melody floating above a rhythmic choral accompaniment – explored a different kind of heartbreak, and the power of music to evoke memory. Amidst the Australian music, Eric Whitacre’s lush Alleluia (which the American composer workshopped with Sydney Philharmonia Choirs in 2015) tied into the mood of reflection and spirituality that permeated much of this program.

The Utzon Room can be a challenging acoustic, but the VOX choristers seemed – and sounded – quite at home. While there were moments at the extremes when the tone was not quite as fulsome and polished as in the more comfortable registers, the diction was generally excellent and the choir did a fine job of what was an incredibly diverse and tightly packed program. Highlighting some of the emerging voices and recent currents – with a particular focus on the Australian landscape and engagement with Indigenous stories, language and music – in the artform, this was a fine hour of Australian choral music.