The national youth choir Gondwana Chorale, conducted by Paul Holley and Carl Crossin, has released its debut recording SOAR. Featuring 16 tracks, both sacred and secular, most works are by living Antipodean composers. This repertoire is the hallmark of the ensemble, established in 2008, which has drawn its singers from around the nation. Contrasting with the modern Australian items are some judiciously selected renaissance works and arrangements of other contemporary songs.
There are two outstanding features of this album – one is the inimitable sound of the ensemble which reflects expert musicianship, great versatility and sophistication; the other, is the freshness of the Australian repertoire which brings to life the unique landscapes and legends of Australia, both indigenous and immigrant.
Although Australian ‘classical’ music has its roots in the ‘Western’ tradition, as an island far removed from these origins, Australia is on its way to developing its own aesthetics in verse and music. The repertoire on this album looks forward with writing that is nonetheless grounded at times in the building blocks of the European classical style.
The younger Australian composers Dan Walker, Matthew Orlovich, Joseph Twist and Ben van Tienen have used the words of the Australian poets Michael Dransfield, Michael J Smith, Henry Lawson and American writer Paul Aster for four songs.
Walker’s Concierto Del Sur is a rhythmically complex part song with piano accompaniment by Luke Byrne (who also accompanies other songs on percussion), which the ensemble sings with a distinct sense of otherworldliness, capturing Dransfield’s counter-culture lifestyle. Orlovich’s Butterflies Dance is an onomatopoeic a capella cameo in which the singers create vivid images of “colourful butterflies……fluttering to the ocean from mountains, valleys, hills and plains.’ Henry Lawson’s On the Night Train set to music by Joseph Twist is introduced with low pedal point and grows into a wistful song to the bush with scat singing and a plaintive solo by Clare Kenny, the upper voices evoking the distant hoot of a night train. Ben van Tienen’s White Nights sets Paul Auster’s words to a rich sequence of chords.
From the ranks of the more established Australian composers, the chorale has selected New Zealand born Clare Maclean’s Christ the King, Katy Abbott’s Fool and Angry and Paul Stanhope’s Lament to Saint Cecilia with lyrics by Veronica Pamoukaghlian for 5 parts and two soprano soloists.
Christ the King is a complex multi-metric canon for double chorus based on Gregorian chant, which echoes luminously before settling into a chorale style Alleluia. Katy Abbott’s songs are from her Words of wisdom : song cycle for vocal sextet. The songs call on the choir to deal with a range of complex rhythms, syncopation and dynamic challenges, which are achieved with aplomb. Paul Stanhope’s Lament to Saint Cecilia for 6 voices and two soprano soloists pays homage to Benjamin Britten’s Hymn to Saint Cecilia written for the Gondwana Chorale in 2013, also coinciding with the Britten centenary. The references to Britten’s anthem are engaging and the musical language indeed evokes the spirit of Britten.
From the older classical canon, the Gondwana Chorale brings a hushed reverence to Rachmanninov’s Bogoróditse Dyévo, singing controlled phrases that are as long as they are graceful and smooth; the timbre brighter than in the more conventional renditions. The jubilant polyphonic motet Cantate Domino by Monteverdi and the 12 part Duo Seraphim by Guerrero are performed with a sensitive interplay of vocal lines and a skilful execution of renaissance polyphony.
A variety of innovative vocal techniques are required for Eric Whitacre’s Leonardo Dreams of his Flying Machine and we hear the whining of an engine as it sputters to life and soars into the sky.
Rounding off the selection are Moses Hogan’s spiritual Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel?, Oscar Galian’s Latin rhythmed Salseo with vocal acoustics and arrangements by Carl Crossin of Sting’s Fragile and the Wailin’ Jenny’s Parting Glass.
The CD liner contains images of the chorale and biographical information. The musicological notes are especially helpful in learning about the new composers and their music, although the text of the songs would have been an added boon.
Recorded in Sydney in January 2014, SOAR is an excellent portrait CD of Gondwana Chorale which showcases their many skills as they work through a variety of styles. It is a pleasure to listen to.
Shamistha de Soysa for SoundsLikeSydney©
SOAR is available on iTunes and from Fish Fine Music.