A Royal Affair
Sydney Chamber Choir/ The Muffat Collective
Great Hall, Sydney University,
1 June 2019
It was a splendid liaison between music and history when the Sydney Chamber Choir presented A Royal Affair, conducted by newly appointed Music Director, Sam Allchurch. If not for royal patronage, Europe’s rich repository of music would be a fraction of its size. This concert focussed music written for the English court, at two contrasting points in music’s timeline.
Featured in the first half of the programme was an a capella selection of music written by two recent Masters of the Queen’s Music: the present incumbent, British born Judith Weir (b 1954), appointed in 2014 and her predecessor, Sydney born Malcom Williamson (1931 – 2003) who held the post from 1975-2003.
Judith Weir’s writing strikes a keen resonance with the listener. Rejecting the avant-garde and minimalist influences, she looks to folk music from different traditions and has an extraordinary ability to create illustrations in music. Her soundscape is tonal, yet novel. a true blue dream of sky (2003) with text by E.E.Cummings, was the earliest work presented in the first half. A hymn-like piece, written for 4 part choir with soprano solo and alto duo, the 29 strong ensemble gave an uplifting performance with Belinda Montgomery’s light but perfectly agile style conveying the graciousness of the text “ I thank You God for most this amazing day…” In similar hymnal style, Love Bade Me Welcome (1997), looks back to the words of George Herbert, the 17th century poet and clergyman (and godson of John Donne). Anchored by the female voices, gentle but strong, the effect was heightened when the male voices entered to flesh out the drama. The Song sung true (1997) is a fun-filled quartet of stanzas by Alan Spence (b 1947), Shakespeare or John Fletcher and Edward Lear. Says Weir, “I felt that the link between us all was the life-giving activity of singing; and so all four movements of The Song sung true are about singing.”
Amidst the warm embrace of the music by Weir, Malcolm Williamson’s Love, the Sentinel (1972) and Symphony for Voices (excerpts, 1962) was somewhat more discomforting and challenging in thought and sound. Love, the Sentinel is a visceral response to loss and political unrest which sets the words of three cantos by Tennyson from In Memoriam, his massive collection of 133 cantos. Sung with an arresting sense of drama, the music was spare in harmony with lines that often took the form of unison melodies sung by different voice parts. The singers created crashing descending passages to match the text, resolving in the tranquility of a wordless chorus from the sopranos. Although composed in 1962, this was the Australian premiere of The Symphony for Voices which sets words by Sydney poet James McCauley (1917-1976) and ventures into the vert relevant themes of identity and ownership. Natalie O’Shea’s serene rendition of Invocation was followed by the intense word-painting of Terra Australis, the angular atonality of Jesus and the wonderment of New Guinea.
Around 20 musicians of the augmented Muffat Collective joined the singers for two works by Handel, the Dettingen Te Deum, rarely heard in Sydney and the perennially loved Zadok the Priest. The choir displayed its flair at changing style, with feather-light fugues, a sepulchral “sharpness of death”, a reverential reference to the day of judgement and columnar chords in its pleas for redemption.
Finally, the familiar arpeggios of Zadok the Priest for which the choir, now close to 2 hours of continuous singing, drew on its massive reserves for the explosive opening and following coloratura passages. Singers and orchestra playing period instruments created a glorious sound under Allchurch’s meticulous and understated leadership..
Comprehensive insights and historical notes in the programme placed the music in perspective. Unfortunately, the members of the Muffat Collective were not listed. However, there were several familiar faces from Sydney’s expert early music scene.
Despite my proximity to the choir, so careful was the blend of voices that I was hard-pressed to identify any one voice which stood out. The choir’s well-seasoned sense of ensemble validated its reputation as one of Sydney’s finest choral ensembles. Articulation, dynamics and phrasing occurred as one, creating a totally polished and professional sound. This was another carefully considered and erudite collection of music, engaging as well as challenging and expertly performed.
Shamistha de Soysa for SoundsLikeSydney©