Sydney Chamber Choir Shows Off Its Party Tricks


Celebrating the  40th anniversary of its inception, the Sydney Chamber Choir and its alumni gathered under the direction of founding Music Director Dr Nicholas Routley in a performance they called Creativity + Loss. From the decades of repertory the choir has accumulated, the choir performed a carefully selected programme of the music it performs best, looking back to its origins as well as looking forward to the future. The choir was party ready with a swag full of party tricks.

It is a mature ensemble that can open a concert with Ligeti’s Lux eterna (1966), a fiendishly difficult a capella work for 16 voices which makes supreme demands on the singers vocally and musically. For this work, the singers gathered in a large horseshoe formation around the conductor which underscored their sense of ensemble whilst maintaining an unshakeable independence in a composition seemingly devoid of melody, rhythm and harmony. Introduced by Dr Routley as “light without emotion”,  Ligeti’s use of polyphony, sustained tones, complex rhythms and dissonance, requires superlative breath control, iron clad pitch and dynamic variations at the extremes of the vocal range. Starting in unison, the vocal lines swell to cluster chords and back, moving through a spectrum of colours and shapes, tension and release, before ending with 7 bars of absolute silence. Under Dr Routley’s articulate and understated  direction, the choir, not only achieved this performance with a aplomb, proving their mettle but thumbed their noses at convention, challenging the audience with this opening choice.

The music of Josquin des Prez and his predecessors, Dufay and Okhegem , has been part of the repertoire on which the Sydney Chamber Choir has built its reputation. It was fitting that their music  was included in the programme. The choir resumed a conventional formation for the next bracket which comprised Dufay’s Nuper rosarum flores, Ockhegem’s Salve Regina and Josquin’s Veni, Sancte Spiritus. The three works showcased a simple and unadorned expression of melody in the cantus firmus of Nuper rosarum flores, a more elaborate exposition of melody in Salve Regina and of complex counterpoint in Veni, Sancte Spiritus. Now there was more than one voice to a part but the blend of sound was so effective they may as well have been singing as one. 

Ending the first bracket was another nod to the choir’s history – the world premiere of a work composed especially for the ensemble by Clare Maclean, both a Sydney Chamber Choir alumna and a composer who has written several works especially for the choir. Above the Water is a setting of the ninth century Latin hymn Veni Creator Spiritus interpolated into the English text of two poems by John Carroll which describe water birds at Lake Menindee in western New South Wales. Above the Water  was a beautiful and popular choice which should be heard again.

For the second half of the programme, Dr Routley and the present incarnation of the Sydney Chamber Choir were joined by around two dozen alumni for a performance of Brahms’ A German Requiem in the two piano version, accompanied by Anthony Hunt, Chorus Master at Opera Australia and Thomas Victor Johnson, Assistant Chorus Master and Children’s Chorus Master at Opera Australia. A curious choice for an anniversary celebration, it might be said, but not so in the knowledge that the conventional Latin liturgical text is not used and Brahms’ focus is more on life than on death.

They made a mighty sound, reveling in the joyful counterpoint, the explosive statements of faith, the hushed, sepulchral feel of Denn alles Fleisch and the gentle sway of Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen.  

Soloists soprano Belinda Montgomery, a member of the choir, as well as regular soloist, and baritone Alexander Knight thrilled with their performances. Belinda Montgomery gave a sublime solo that shimmered with purity and the comfort of maternal reassurance.

Alexander Knight’s rich baritone and dramatic sense conveyed the supplication of the third movement and the deep mystery of the fifth movement.

Congratulations to the Sydney Chamber, its founder, Dr Nicholas Routley and to all those who have added to its story over the past 40 years! 

Shamistha de Soysa for SoundsLikeSydney©

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