In July 2019, the ACC toured their glorious program Terra Australis – Land of the Imagination though Europe, receiving much approval and admiration for the thematic historical connections of music which ran parallel with earthly exploration and voyages of discovery. So it could have been almost expected that the creative designs of director Douglas Lawrence would transport the ACC and its audience musically and spiritually from terra firma to the firmament above with this new program. In the Sistine Chapel, a fresco by Perugino depicts Christ with the twelve Apostles, handing Peter “the keys of the kingdom of heaven”.
This program selected certainly is spiritual and divine. Today in St Mary’s Basilica the angels sang.
Palestrina’s Tue es Petrus began our sonic journey, with the female voices first establishing prayerful, calm, smooth call and response statements. Rising scale passages demonstrated the exemplary word painting in Palestrina’s setting of St. Matthew’s biblical lines, and the imitation of the voices established today’s spiritual and dreamlike setting. Canon-like entries were beautiful and equally balanced, touching our spirits with purity and grace in the Ave Maria of Josquin des Prez, as the four voices flowed with a light and airy quality. The Amen was full of grace with a floating, lingering, suspension of sound in the final chord.
It must be tempting for some concert performances of the traditional Catholic Mass to exaggerate the powerful colours of the text of the Gloria, to become jubilant and forthright in the Sanctus, Benedictus and Hosanna, or be grounded and dramatic in the suffering and death of Christ in the lines of the Credo. Palestrina’s Missa Aeterna Christi Munera allowed the ACC to perform with a flowing consistency of gentleness, simplicity and flowing light and grace. Music for the soul. Crescendos in rising scale passages were effective but gently restrained, and peace and calm prevailed. The Hosanna showed more affirmation but maintained today’s atmosphere of peace and the continuity of calm prayerfulness.
Most striking was the skilful vocal technique of the ACC shown in the final lines of Agnus Dei, dona nobis pacem, as the contrasting verse seemed to pause on a cloud with sudden softness and stillness. Each voice made a more accented and pronounced entry with the first notes of the phrase, before retreating and blending back into the polyphonic lines. Stars emerged and stars faded brilliantly.
Following the Interval, two well-loved and famous a capella classics – Allegri’s Miserere and Victoria’s O Magnum Mysterium – allowed the ACC more intense expression and breadth of tone as the rich sonorities and passion in the voices resonated through the church’s arched vaults. Misere was a fine demonstration of blend and colour, notably here with the male voices, and truly celestial was the luminous voice of soprano Elspeth Bawden, as her fine solo lines today were outstanding. There was bell-like magic in the final chords, and a beautifully conducted tempo, restrained yet free in expression as the lines of the text were spaced to enhance the silences between entries. O Magnum Mysterium was also an example of the best execution of late Renaissance polyphony, with reverential, soaring lines. During the appreciative applause, one devoted concert-goer to the ACC’s many programs said, “They really nailed that one!”
By the Italian master of the unaccompanied madrigal, Luca Marenzio, three texts provided the scope for sensuous melody, clear-cut harmony and rhythm, and colourful expression. These secular texts still provided rich vocal word-painting and dramatic contrasts, often with one voice to a part, never a problem for this accomplished ensemble. The melancholic Crudel, perche mi fuggi? (Heartless woman why do you avoid me?) contrasted with the more earthy punctuation of rhythm and pulse in Scaldava il sol di mezzo (The Midday Sun) and the poetry and delicacy of Non Vidi . (I never see the wandering stars move.)
With over 250 performances and 7 concert tours of Europe since it was established in 2007, the ACC continues its path to heavenly heights with an excellently curated choice of music, precise technical skill and beautiful expression which never fails to take our spirits to another place. The final work, written by Allegri for the Sistine Chapel, was the motet for double choir, Christus Resurgens, sung with the grandeur and rich vocal timbres of a reverential hymn, rejoicing the Resurrection of Christ. The connection of earth to heaven today was complete with the high spirited final Alleluia which ended the program.
Always generous and responding to the enthusiasm from the ever-growing audience in Geelong, Lawrence continued the journey with an encore which provided another out-of-this world vocal experience: the 8-part Nunc Dimittis (Lord, Now let thy servant depart in peace…) by Gustav Holst, written for the choir of Westminster Cathedral and first performed in 1915 on Easter Sunday. Widely spaced blocks of chord are hymn-like, the plainchant is timeless, and the parts eventually move in contrary motion to a close and final resolution. One more ethereal delight in Keys of Heaven.
Keys to Heaven will be again performed
Macedon Sat 16th Nov
Brighton Sun 17th Nov
Middle Park Sun 24th Nov
Julie McErlain reviewed the Australian Chamber Choir’s Keys to Heaven at the Basilica of St Mary of the Angels, Geelong, on Sunday 3 November, 2019. Classic Melbourne apologises for the delay in publishing Julie’s excellent review.
Photo: The crest on the Basilica of St Mary of the Angels, Geelong.