How wonderful it has been to welcome almost normal programs of live music performances by all of the performing arts back into our lives. When Australian schools closed during the pandemic, students of brass, woodwind, voice and their ensembles were hardest hit. Emerging from their lockdowns, many choirs had to debate whether to perform in public wearing masks. Brass and woodwind instruments had no choice with that one, but were kept away from the public eye with their forbidden music making. Instrumental soloists and small ensembles were able to make their presence felt in on-line performances, but were some music makers in their creative secret chambers, perhaps singing or playing their brass and woodwind instruments together?
“Secret Chamber” is a most alluring title for the Australian Chamber Choir’s latest magical program. The indomitable Douglas Lawrence took his musical inspiration from the period from 1570 in England, when the practice of the Catholic faith was forbidden. Illicit liturgies were held in secret in private houses, allowing some leading composers of the day to also be writing music for both the official Anglican rite as well as for the covert Catholic ritual.
Not quite a secret is the Loreto Chapel in the splendid historic and awe-inspiring grounds of Mandeville Hall. In this historic place of worship, the modern painted white walls of the chapel are peaceful and dignified. The vaulted space guarantees a resonant and deeply felt enhanced acoustic blend, perfect for the ACC’s ten vocalists. Lawrence always controls the tempos sensitively with great respect for achieving clear enunciation of texts, which can be lost in such a magically amplified environment.
Sobriety and grace was felt in the William Byrd’s Mass For Five Voices, where a most sedate, calm and steady pulse flowed through this fine Renaissance polyphonic writing. In secret, the Gloria asked singers to maintained a modest and dignified expression, without exuberance, just quietly and perfectly balanced. ACC’s basses in particular added a profound depth to the word-painting of the strong Latin text “gratias agimus tibi propter”, while the final “miserere nobis” showed the sopranos reaching out, pleading to the heavens for mercy, in a more intense rising scale. Sanctus and Benedictus retained a gentle, pure and dignified tempo, keeping an even spiritual flow, with just the Agnus Dei easing tempo and dynamics to a soulful and sustaining close.
Byrd’s Sing Joyfully let the ACC reveal their well-disciplined energetic and fulsome tone that filled the Chapel so effortlessly. With the text “Blow the trumpet in the new moon” their voices did ring loudly enough to reveal the hiding place for any congregation in a secret garden, but today the audience totally enjoyed the jubilant ringing tone of this exemplary vocal ensemble. Ave Verum Corpus gave us deeply contrasting, hushed and darker tones, with just a single word “miserere” making a profound effect on the listener as it was repeated dramatically in each voice, finally resolving on a magnificent and shining final major chord. Byrd’s message to his fellow countrymen in his Vigilate was wise: “Keep Watch”. Always attentive to the text, ACC expressed some interesting vocal staccato activity and agitation with the text “Keep watch…(at dead of night) at cock crow, at dawn” in this otherwise, solemn motet.
Very beautiful motets followed, allowing the audience to be surrounded by the ACC’s enviable vocal blend and balance. Byrd’s eminent friend Thomas Tallis composed the popular If ye Love Me in the mid 16th Century; today it still sounded remarkably fresh and classical with a gorgeous lyrical melody. Composer Thomas Tomkins suffered through the English Civil War and saw cathedrals and their choirs and organs desecrated, but today his voice was heard in a serious, intensely felt setting of I Know that my Redeemer Liveth. Sopranos added much colour to When David heard that Absalom was slain and beautifully controlled weaving inner voices flowed seamlessly into a languorous cadence. Tomkins’ longer setting of the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis from the Second Service conjured up a mesmerising, hypnotic aura, which today gave us a contemplative escape from our 21st Century worldly concerns.
A student of Byrd, Peter Philips took his Catholic allegiance to Belgium in 1597. Both his 5 voice Ascendit Deus and Ecce vicit leo, were performed with excellent, vibrant word-painting, the ACC expressing buoyant animation in a lighter allegretto, with a sweet and silvery toned“Alleluia”. Robert White’s Christe, qui lux es et dies created a feeling of medieval simplicity in a reverential setting for five male and two female voices, with the men leading in gloriously blended chant, then alternating with a strong religious full choral response. Their impressive tone brought much appreciative applause.
Shorter gems completed this unique program: Robert White’s Christe qui lux es et dies, and Thomas Morley’s madrigals – April is in my mistress’ face, Now must I die recureless, (a lament for trio – Kristina Lang, Oliver Crofts and Sam Rowe), and the closing rhythmic, exuberant and quite classy favourite, Now Is the Month of Maying. Enjoying the merriment, ACC were delighted to give us a reprise of this uplifting madrigal, with maestro Lawrence cheekily asking the audience how many of us sang this in our schooldays?
Julie McErlain reviewed “Secret Chamber” performed by the Australian Chamber Choir at Mandeville Hall, Toorak, on February 27, 2022.