Concert Review: Winter Nights/ Sydney Chamber Choir

They crooned and scatted, bobbed and whistled. This was the Sydney Chamber Choir in alter-ego mode, presenting Winter Nights, a concert program with a fresh twist.

The intimate auditorium was swathed in mood lighting, Bentwood café chairs at small tables, with regular seating behind. The audience entered to the strains of Misty and Autumn Leaves, Steve Barry tickling the ivories of a magnificent Steinway ‘grand’ with bassist Hannah James and drummer George Greenhill, signalling that this was going to be a concert with a difference. There was chatter and the clink of (plastic) wine glasses from the attendees as the choir strolled onto the stage.

Alto and chorister Naomi Crellin took the role of Guest Director for this program, which she introduced as being based on ‘the notion of a song.’ Sharing directing duties with Sydney Chamber Choir artistic director, Sam Allchurch the ensemble, with vocalist Jo Lawry took us meandering through the paths of choral song from music by Debussy in the early 20th century to the present, with the Three Night Songs by Australian composer Heather Percy, (b 1963). Crellin has many credits to her name but is perhaps best known as the alto voice and arranger in the ARIA Award-winning vocal ensemble The Idea of North. Crellin’s talent as an innovative arranger were on show with the line-up featuring masterful arrangements of four popular songs for choir.

The collection of pieces underscored just how many similarities exist in seemingly disparate styes of music. All it took was a slight tweak in voice production, a little sway with the music and a pulsating rhythm, to demonstrate that the colours of the opening number, Michel Legrand’s hypnotic Windmills of Your Mind (1968) with its chromatic harmonies and looping melody, isn’t too far removed from Debussy’s lucent Trois Chansons de Charles d’Orléans (1908), hinting at Debussy’s exploration into the aesthetics of jazz and ragtime.

The hauntingly solitary sound of a whistled melody introduced and concluded the incomparable Jacques Brel’s heart-breaking Ne me quitte pas. Vocalist Jo Lawry joined the ensemble for a smoky rendition of Cole Porter’s I Love Paris and April in Paris backed by a mellifluous male chorus from the choir, her last number a sophisticated, improvised, bossa nova-infused Crellin arrangement of Sting’s La Belle Dame Sans Regrets.

Throughout the choral numbers, the choir breezed its way through scatting, vocalising and crunchy harmonies, the sopranos plucking stratospheric high notes out of the air, anchored by the lower three voice parts. As well as the Gallic influence to this program, several selections represented the  secondary themes of winter, sleep and darkness. There were Percy’s Three Night Songs, commissioned by the Sydney Chamber Choir in 2021, Poulenc’s Un soir de neige, the choir showing beautiful dynamic control at the extremes of their range in the third of these, Bois meurtri, and an incandescent rendition of Eric Whitacre’s Sleep in which the ensemble flagged its roots in the classical style. They performed this surreal lullaby with vivid word-painting and disquieting fortissimo, waning to the faintest of pianissimo in a gently rocking finish.

The Sydney Chamber Choir has a tradition of showcasing its choristers as soloists and there were ample opportunities for this, throughout the voice parts, with a highlight being Josie Ryan’s refined performance of Trois beaux oiseau du Paradis in Ravel’s Trois Chansons.

Finally, a charming arrangement of the Guglielmi song, La Vie en Rose, made famous by Edith Piaf. Accustomed to hearing Piaf’s slightly nasal, smouldering style, it was refreshing to hear the male voices sinsing the first verse, with the women taking over the second. The tempo was gracefully nudged as the harmonies blended in this mixed formation.

The Sydney Chamber Choir is an ensemble that is consistently excellent in its performances, both artistically and technically. Its powerhouse soprano section brings a special edge to what it does. This was a relaxed and engaging concert in which the choir presented a different version of itself. All credit to Allchurch and Crellin for exploring this bold new path with new sounds and consummate arrangements.

Shamistha de Soysa for SoundsLikeSydney©

Image credit Robert Catto

Streamed on Australian Digital Concert Hall on Thursday 29 June at 7.30 pm

Read our review of the Sydney Chamber Choir’s March concert.

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