Melbourne Festival: Tenebrae Choir

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Published: 23rd October, 2017

One could compare the superb wooden interior of Elisabeth Murdoch Hall at Melbourne Recital Centre with the belly of a giant instrument. Cocooned within its comfortable surrounds on Saturday evening, we could truly appreciate its attributes, thanks to a spell-binding performance by the celebrated English chamber choir, Tenebrae. In combination, the choir and the acoustic space created an instrument of astonishing power and warmth from the lowest of rich basses to the soaring purity of the highest sopranos, giving equal voice to the inner parts, and capable of producing a huge dynamic range – all this in a pure and clean aural environment, where nothing else can be heard. There is no sound of passing traffic, or any semblance of life outside our cocoon.

Tenebrae, directed by Nigel Short, has committed to “presentation”, creating performances in a variety of spaces, using lighting, movement and placement in addition to their choral sound. While not a religious space, Elisabeth Murdoch Hall certainly felt sacred, with subdued stage lighting and candlelight illuminating the stage as we entered.

The program began with the 18 voice choir singing Footsteps, their newly commissioned work by Owain Park, a 23 year old English organist, composer and conductor who has already notched up a number of significant achievements. The intelligent script is a fusion of texts by eight different authors, from which Park has constructed a narrative that takes us on the journey of a solitary traveller through all weathers to find comfort in the sky and stars. Thematically this is a wonderful shorter work to accompany Jody Talbot’s Path of Miracles, also commissioned for Tenebrae.

Unmistakably British in sound, Footsteps possesses rich and adventurous harmonic language which is also given a wide range of textural and rhythmic treatments, reminiscent of some of Britten’s choral works. It uses all those techniques that only an excellent chamber choir can pull off successfully. From the opening intervals of simple ascending major seconds, so often not quite large enough in lesser choirs, to the absolutely unison unisons and clean octaves and perfect fifths that live up to their name, together with unified vowels, it was clear that harmonies created would sparkle with clarity. Intonation so true is an aural delight unique to a capella choral music, and combined with unanimous onset of consonants or vowels, is very satisfying indeed. Diction was excellent, and the solo voices emerging from the choir were wholly comfortable.

Although the choir recessed into the wings in the same reverential way they had entered, there was no interval, and a slow silent dimly lit procession led most of the tenors and basses back, to gather surrounding the central upstage candelabra. Thus began some of the most entrancing effects of the evening. Based on the “pasiputput” of the Taiwanese Bunan tribe, which composer Jody Talbot heard on BBC radio when he was a teenager, low voices rise in volume and pitch over an extended period, creating random overtones. This was a spectacular opening.

 Path of Miracles, premièred in 2005, was written by Jody Talbot to a text by Robert Dickinson which includes quotations from the Bible and medieval sources. It is the pilgrim’s journey from France to Santiago de Compostela, the resting place of the body of St James, and Finisterre the coastal town beyond, where the medieval notion was that the earth merged into heaven. The journey takes the pilgrim through Roncesvalles to Burgos, Leon and Santiago.

This is a substantial choral work, which incorporates the pilgrim’s hymn from the Jacobean chant Dum Pater Familias, a babel of languages, chord clusters, discords, psalms, a medieval French tune, and a celebratory idea from the Carmina Burana. It is meditative, reflective, sometimes plods along as if a tired pilgrim, sometimes soars seemingly effortlessly like the hopes and aspirations of the traveller below. Music scored for seventeen voices, exciting rhythms, changing syllable stresses, spectacular staccato chords, subterranean bass notes, ethereal solos, and earthy ones too – there are so many opportunities to showcase the breathtaking skills of this exceptional choir.

Unaccompanied (with crotales used to reinforce a bell-like quality briefly on a couple of occasions), the choir used the hall to full effect, some members moving seamlessly into the auditorium several times to sing from behind the stalls seats, or to surround the space with sound. They carried scores, but sang some sections from memory, journeying slowly within the space.

Nigel Short conducted with understated authority, and held the silences at the ends of sections to full effect. The Path of Miracles led finally to the gradual disappearance of the pilgrim’s hymn as the choir disappeared over the horizon, and all was silent for a substantial time. As Short finally lowered his arms, loud cheers rang out in the hall, and nearly all stood immediately, applauding without stop for quite some time, as the ensemble returned to the stage several times.

This was one of those rare concerts where time had stood still. Transported to another plane I had no idea how long we had been there. The program had been promoted in some places as 1 hour 20 minutes, and on the Festival’s program for the evening 1 hour. It was in fact 1 hour 40 mins, something of a surprise to a large group seated in our row who bolted out quickly to another commitment.

Many Melbourne choristers were in the audiences, and those who were not missed a master class in choral performance. This is perhaps the best choral performance I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing.

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Reviewer Margaret Arnold heard this performance of Path of Miracles on Saturday October 21, 2017 at the Melbourne Recital Centre.