Clouds of Gold/ The Choir of St James’ /BachBand@StJames’
St James Church, King St., Sydney
14 May 2022
The Ascension of Christ is a celebration of hope and renewal as Jesus resurrected, ascends to the clouds to take his place in heaven at the right hand of God. Its significance both historically and in a modern context was explored through a wide range of choral music from the 1500s to the current day in this superbly curated concert led by the choir’s excellent director and conductor Warren Trevelyan-Jones.
Great storytelling has an engaging opening and a profound and satisfying closing and the first half of this programme delivered this to perfection. Nine very disparate musical offerings displayed differing musical responses to the central theme of Ascension. The opening work by John Tavener, As one who has slept (1997), saw the choir placed in the apse under the glorious golden ceiling dome of Sydney’s oldest church (designed by Francis Greenaway 1824). The organ sounded deep and cavernous as the singers, seventeen voices divided into two choirs, standing in a mirrored formation, created a polytonal world in juxtaposition with the unwavering darkness of the organ pedal chords. The effect was transfixing and timeless as the choral parts seemed to emerge and ascend from the organ’s depths.
Catapulting the ears of the audience back to the world of Renaissance polyphony, three works by Pierre de Manchincourt and Tomas Luis de Victoria followed on the text of Regina coeli. These works highlighted the virtuosity, blending and balance of the choir splendidly and the antiphonal effects were delightful, from the imitative passages recalling the joyous pealing of church bells to the dancelike triple time alleluias referencing the Trinity and evoking great joy in life.
After a virtuosic Messiaen organ solo L’Ascension, the choir moved down closer to the audience. The chamber intimacy created was striking as the choir fanned out more widely and the conductor stood within the front pews. Three English composers of the modern era took the choir from the unrestrained anthemic praise of God is gone up by Gerald Finzi (1951) through Judith Weir’s more subtle and restrained Ave Regina Caelorum (2013) to the major grand centrepiece Benjamin Britten’s Te Deum (1934). Featured in the Britten work was the pure tone of soprano soloist Claire Burrell- McDonald, who also provided the excellent programme notes. A recurrent theme in Britten’s work is the innocence of youth often portrayed by a treble or soprano voice. In the Te deum, this takes the form of expressing redemption and the purity and other-worldly heights achieved by Christ’s ascension to heaven.
The final offering of the first half was a work of exceptional beauty and magical transcendence. Set to an enigmatic poem of spiritual awakening by E.E. Cummings, i thank You God for this most amazing day, (1999) American choral master Eric Whitacre creates a breathtaking work performed with great sensitivity and detail by the St James’ Choir. The work features slowly opening cluster chords from ascending scales and chords, creating waves of resonance that explore the beauty of dissonance and evoke a dreamlike natural world of trees, sky and the infinite. The bell like tones of the choir’s sopranos and their seamless employment of staggered breathing in sustained passages shone in this glorious song of revelation.
After a short interval and with a fine baroque chamber orchestra in place, the sound world shifted dramatically to the Ascension Oratorio of J. S. Bach, Lobet Gott in seinen Reichen (1735). With only two choruses and a chorale, the soloists from within the choir’s ranks took the spotlight. While blending expertly into the choral tapestry, when required to take solo status, these four singers amplified their vocal tone and expressive range and displayed stylish and polished performances. Tenor Elias Wilson and bass Aidan O’Donnell delivered engaging recitatives and a beautiful melismatic duet. These are fresh young voices with ease of delivery and breath to spare, to negotiate the challenges of Bach’s demanding vocal writing. Alto Cassandra Doyle displayed a rich mezzo tone well suited to the demands of the rigorous and despairing aria Ach, bleibe doch which Bach would develop further in his great Mass in B minor. Brianna Louwen’s pure and ringing soprano was complemented deliciously by the baroque flutes and oboe in her uplifting aria Jesu, deine Gnadenblicke. The final chorus featured the three baroque natural trumpets as the gorgeous interior of St James’ was filled with a rollicking exultation of praise. To quote the programme notes ‘Bach represents the ultimate triumph of joy over earthly doubt and suffering, and paints a truly compelling picture of the path to salvation.’
Victoria Watson for SoundsLikeSydney©
A graduate of Melbourne University and VCA, Victoria appeared regularly as a soprano with the Victoria State Opera and has toured and served as artistic director of many chamber ensembles.
She has performed with Sydney Symphony Orchestra and for ten years, was artistic director of a major opera education project with Opera Australia. Since 2015 she has moved into directing opera including Mozart’s ‘Cosi Fan Tutte’ at the Independent theatre.
Victoria has lectured in voice at the major universities in Melbourne, and is currently a tutor at UNSW. Having taught at major Sydney secondary colleges, she now runs a busy private singing studio. She is a published author on opera and a popular freelance music and theatre lecturer and advocate for Australian artists around the world.