As we emerge from lockdowns, conductor Sam Allchurch shares what drove him to perform ‘Garden of the Soul’ as the timely next concert of Sydney Chamber Choir, and his love for the music of Benjamin Britten.
By Sam Allchurch, artistic director Sydney Chamber Choir
Benjamin Britten’s music has fascinated me since I was a teenager, but differently from Bach, Handel and the other great choral composers. Technically, the music is extremely well constructed and stimulating but for me, quite emotionally elusive. It’s not to say that is unemotional music but rather that you’re often not sure what you’re supposed to feel. Britten’s music always has something interesting, provocative or challenging to say – it’s a more complex emotional experience than the sheer uplift of a Handel chorus.
I’ve long wanted to perform Britten with Sydney Chamber Choir – so it helps now being the artistic director!
Joe Twist’s major new Australian Song Cycle is the centrepiece of our forthcoming Sydney concert this month, Garden of the Soul – with some beautiful garden-related works from the Renaissance – but I’m also thrilled to be conducting three by Britten.
In my final undergraduate year in Melbourne, I even formed my own choir, made up of chorister friends from Trinity College where I was living. The piece I really wanted to conduct was Britten’s Hymn to St Cecilia, the patron saint of music, and so we named the group ‘The Cecilian Voices’. We did some fun but fairly rough-around-the-edges music-making for a few years, but we had a great desire to do the Britten really well. We rehearsed for weeks during lunchtimes and put ourselves into a masterclass for the piece with the late Richard Gill, later my predecessor at Sydney Chamber Choir and a great friend and mentor. Richard had a self-confessed ambivalent relationship with Britten’s music but I remember his great sense of drama adding a lot to our interpretation, which we eventually performed in a concert to raise funds for the Royal Children’s Hospital.
Two years later, I was standing in Trinity College Chapel in Cambridge and again doing a masterclass on Britten’s Hymn to St Cecilia, this time with my teacher, Stephen Layton. After a year of study, I had learnt ideas about every single note of every single bar – how it worked technically, how it should feel musically. The Hymn to St Cecilia is about making music: Auden’s poem, which begins ‘in a garden shady’, creates a fantasy world based around Cecilia, the Roman martyr and patron saint of music, as the proto-musician.
References to instruments and singing abound, but the central idea is the source of music being a revelation from above. The refrain “Blessed Cecilia” appears in visions to all musicians, as an inspiration: “come down and startle composing mortals with immortal fire” is a concluding comment to each of the distinct sections. Nostalgia for lost innocence is also a strong theme – music, like childhood, is both ephemeral and a deep part of us.
Since first working with Sydney Chamber Choir as a guest conductor in 2017, I have wanted to perform Britten’s work with them. It’s one of his most technically demanding pieces – requiring enormous and varied technical resources: one minute the choir creates a rich, sonorous singing, the next an extremely light and fast, almost diaphanous sound world. But it also requires great emotional engagement with the possibilities of what the music and text might mean. Having weathered the storm (and continuing to do so) of COVID-19 together, I feel that now is a good time to tackle this beautiful piece – and to go further into the Garden of the Soul.
The ‘garden shady’ in which Britten’s piece is set inspired me to draw on some of the treasures of the renaissance which also evoke the beauty of a garden. Two of these have texts from the Song of Songs, perhaps the most expressive, and certainly most sensuous bit of the Bible – Clemens non Papa’s Ego flos campi (I am a flower of the field) almost feels like a painting of the garden of Eden in sound, with Victoria’s Vidi speciosam (I beheld her, beautiful as a dove) like an oasis in the desert. In the secular realm, Monteverdi’s Zefiro torna (Spring returns) is a favourite of the choir, matching the changes in seasons with the fate of courtly love.
Sydney Chamber Choir has received an extremely generous gift from the Maury family. The Maurys have been incredible supporters for decades, to the point that it doesn’t feel quite like an SCC concert without Gillian and Jean-Pierre in the audience, not to mention Sebastien in the first bass section. This gift has enabled us to commission a substantial work from Australian composer Joseph Twist – An Australian Song Cycle. Joe is one of the nation’s leading composers, working a lot in film music, and writes beautifully for choral forces. I was keen to see how Joe would approach the challenge of a multi-movement work of around 35 minutes. We discussed ideas and texts over several months but in the end, Joe came up with an eloquent collection of texts from Australian poets last century, all linked in some way with the natural world.
Joe’s Song Cycle opens with the depiction of a sunrise to the text of Banjo Patterson then charts different aspects of nature in Australia – the challenge of droughts, the mysterious nature of our rainforests, the humour in our animals. The end takes a more serious tone, reflecting on the devastation of the 2020 bushfires and then concludes with an arresting setting of Oodgeroo Noonuccal’s Time in Running Out. And so the cycle asks us how serious we are about doing something about climate change.
The idea behind Garden of the Soul is a simple metaphor imagining something extremely difficult to describe, the soul, in terms of something easy to picture – a garden. This imagining leads us to think about our relationship with the natural world which surrounds us – is this a healthy, fruitful and fulfilling relationship, or one that needs more work?
Sam Allchurch is the artistic director of Sydney Chamber Choir which will be performing ‘Garden of the Soul’ at Verbrugghen Hall, Sydney Conservatorium of Music on Sunday June 27 at 3pm. Bookings on www.sydneychamber choir.org