Review: Sydney Chamber Choir – music with a social impact.

The Sydney Chamber Choir is certainly casting its musical net wide under Paul Stanhope, joining forces in its latest programmes not only with oud virtuoso Joseph Tawadros, but also with The Marais Project, formed by viola da gamba player Jennifer Eriksson.

The second of its Palm Sunday concerts, conceived under the rubric ‘Lamentations’, featured a perplexing trajectory of works by Purcell, Tallis, Byrd, Charpentier, the Swede Sven-David Sandström, and Stanhope himself. English repertoire is bread and butter for this healthy, versatile choir, with Stanhope showing impressive control in Purcell’s Hear My Prayer, O Lord: a stately tempo gave the sinuous chromaticisms ample time to breathe.

Excellent, too, was Sandström’s turbulent and challenging reworking of the same piece, which ended the half, while Tallis’ Lamentations of Jeremiah (first lesson) were beautifully understated, with intonation of a standard that belied the unforgiving repertoire. However, following the Byrd bracket, some unwanted English reserve spilled over into Charpentier’s more demonstrative Le reniement de St Pierre: the French Baroque set pieces were insufficiently idiomatic in Stanhope’s rendering, and there were unpolished moments.

The second half, meanwhile, featured Stanhope’s own Exile Lamentations, a collaborative cantata drawing choral settings of Lamentation texts together with elements of Sephardic and Arabic musical and theological traditions. In this unusual, pluralistic soundscape, the styles jarringly conflicted as often as they successfully meshed. Moreover, while Stanhope can undoubtedly write to the strengths of his choir, his dramatisation and word-painting tends towards the heavy-handed, and the final message of unity thus rang a little hollow.

 A soulful contribution made late inclusion Lana Nesnas the pick of the vocal soloists, while Tawadros’ performance was impressive and sure-footed (Eriksson’s role was rather subdued; I regretted missing the earlier concert). Stanhope is doing a good job with a wonderful ensemble.  Chris May.

Chris May recently completed post-graduate studies in Musicology at Oxford University. He is a writer, composer and arranger, a choral singer and champion Scrabble player.

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