Sacred meets profane with Ockeghem up against Estonian shaman drums.

Cell Block Theatre, Darlinghurst
April 19, 2015

The singers of Sydney-based choir bel a cappella are sterling representatives of the great tradition of amateur music making in this country and their 2015 season opener demonstrated outstanding ambition and commitment to composers old and new, international and home-grown. Under the inspired leadership of conductor Anthony Pasquill, they offered an enlightening programme of modern music, including Scotland’s James MacMillan, the Estonian Veljo Tormis plus two world premieres by Australian composers, bound together within the framework of a performance of the sublime Requiem of early-Renaissance master Johannes Ockeghem. With Poulenc’s Quatre Motets pour un Temps de Pénitence adding a little Gallic pungency to proceedings, the general air of reflection was given a little harmonic leaven. And then there was the shaman drum – but we’ll come to that later…

The choir itself is around 30 strong with resonant basses and light but not underpowered tenors. The women have a fresh, clean tone, though I would like to see a bit more differentiation between the soprano and alto sound. They make a good, ringing sound when singing out. Blend and balance are notable. The more ‘solid’ numbers, such as the Poulenc went particulary well, the forte opening of Timor et tremor especially fine and the deceptively tricky inner harmonies generally encompased with accuracy and skill. Vinea mea electa with its beautiful array of melodies was excellent.

Perhaps surprisingly the Ockeghem posed the greatest difficulties. Medieval and early-Renaissance repertoire calls for considerable experience to get past the counting stage and into the heart of the music. In numbers like the Kyrie they certainly achieved that, but some of the more extended polyphonic wanderings of the Introitus and the Offertorium needed a bit more confidence and determination to the sound. They were at their best in the Tractus, first the women and then the men enjoying the serene vocal lines whose endless interweaving seemed to require virtual circular breathing at times.

There’s clearly something in the air at the moment because this was the third performance of MacMillan’s magnificent Miserere that I’ve heard in six weeks. Despite a few hairy corners, it was a fine performance with sopranos and altos relishing the scotch snaps and tiny melismatic details of MacMillan’s idiomatic writing. The “Behold I was shapen in wickedness” verses drew a full, rich sound heading into the paraphrased Allegri Miserere sections, also well realised, Pasquill especially fine at finding the right dramatic throughline in what can seem an episodic work.  The final ‘folk-tune’ finale entered magically, rising to a marvellous climax, the choir really singing their hearts out.

Two new Australian works on the programme proved well worth the outing. David Basden’s warm Pater Noster (not far in idiom from Eric Whitacre or Paul Mealor) played into the choir’s strengths with its unison lines bifurcating into evocative harmonies. Anna Jacobs’ Ave Maria for double choir was perhaps even finer, written in an approachable style that might not have surprised Britten or Poulenc.

The best til last, though. The Estonian Veljo Tormis, now 84, is one of the greatest living choral composers and his Curse Upon Iron is representative of his intriguing, demanding, yet accessible style. Inspired by the Finnish epic Kalevala, it tells of the ‘birth’ of iron from the breast milk of trio of nature spirits and then describes man’s attempts to bend it to his will, culminating in a final section that makes reference to contemporary technology and the continuing blight of warfare on our modern world. With lines like “Ahoy, villain! Wretched iron! Cursed bog ore!” and tales of wolves, bears, death and plague, it’s a rich tale and Tormis sets its rhythmic metres to music of enormous vitality (in some respects a distant cousin to Stravinsky’s Les Noces).

With a pair of soloists growling and muttering like a couple of Nordic skalds (the excellent Kieran Scott and Sam Piper) and all driven by the pulse of Jess Ciampa’s pounding shaman drum, there was a real tang of the primeval about it and sounded superb in the excellent acoustic of the evocative Cell Block Theatre, a former women’s correctional facility in what is now the National Art School. Disciplined, adventurous and full of wild outbursts, the choir was on tremendous form, the men in particular transporting us to the Northlands with their convincing Estonian and relishing Tormis’s ululating vowel sounds. Pasquill was terrifically adept at holding it all together and building an edifice out of the various chatterings, howlings and vocal glissandi – one huge shriek drew gasps from the audience!

Great programming, then, good music, and a satisfying dramatic arc, from a group to be applauded for their determination, boldness and imagination.

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