In choral circles Christmas is more about revisiting old favourites and giants of the repertoire rather than trying out something new, expect perhaps for some shorter items in a weighty program. So it was with particular interest that Classic Melbourne accepted an invitation to the Hamer Singers Debut Concert – As One Who Slept, on December 3, 2017, at St Peter’s Eastern Hill. Regular reviewer Margaret Arnold accepted on our behalf and reported back as follows …
On Thursday evening, the Hamer Singers posted on social media some lovely photos from their dress rehearsal at St Patrick’s Cathedral. On Friday news broke that due to the possibility of extreme weather, concerts to be held at St Pat’s were to be either cancelled or relocated. The Hamer Singers were fortunate to transfer across the road to St Peter’s Eastern Hill. It was a challenging twist for a new choir who’d had their final rehearsal in a large resonant Cathedral space, and were now to perform in a much smaller venue with a very much lower ceiling.
St Peter’s was at capacity on Sunday afternoon, the audience arriving early as per the very efficient instructions sent to all who had already organised their tickets. More than forty choristers wearing black received a hearty welcome as they filed into place, and began with Randall Thompson’s Alleluia, a short celebratory work which immediately demonstrated a good degree of choral skill.
Conductor Jonathan Grieves-Smith is well known in choral circles locally as a former Chorus Master of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, and former Director of Music at Trinity College. Prior to that, he held significant choral posts and conducted in many settings in England and Europe. He took a moment following Alleluia to acknowledge the Hamer family’s longstanding dedication and legacy to music and the arts in Melbourne. Some family were in attendance at this Hamer Singers debut concert.
Grieves-Smith explained the program as his own “indulgence”, choosing works he loved and felt spoke well as choral pieces. He had organised an order in which the pieces connected one with the next, and requested that any applause be held until the end of the program. He asked the audience to “embrace the silence” between pieces.
He was right – it was a very indulgent program, with a diverse range of composers represented, but always with something special to offer chorally. It was a challenging program too – an hour of demanding a cappella music, in an unforgiving acoustic. But the Hamer Singers were up for the challenge! Arvo Pärt’s Bogoróditsye Dyévo and John Tavener’s Mother of God were competently performed, as was Robert Parsons’ beautiful 5-part Ave Maria.
Rachmaninov’s more famous setting of the Bogoróditsye Dyévo from his “Vespers” allowed us to hear a real fortissimo, and that climax was an excellent moment.
It felt as though the choir was settling in to the more revealing acoustic, with tuning between parts beginning to sound very secure, although the top-heavy balance was to be a handicap of sorts throughout the program. Sixteen sopranos, twelve altos, seven tenors and eight basses were named in the program, including several very experienced Melbourne choristers. The choral sound, beautifully shaped by Grieves-Smith with his expressive but never obtrusive conducting, was lovely, but quite often required a little more bass oomph.
Tonight Eternity Alone by René Clausen and Stephen Paulus’s The Day is Done, calm and tranquil pieces were sung with great sensitivity by the Hamer Singers, the first featuring two very high soprano lines, ably taken by Helena Balazs and Camilla Gorman. Another dreamlike piece by Latvian Ēriks Ešenvalds, The Heaven’s Flock featured soaring melodies. The absence of applause between items heightened the meditative qualities in these pieces.
Charles Villiers Stanford’s “Three Motets” took us back to the late 19th Century. These superb choral pieces are a joy to sing, a feature of all the music on the Hamer Singers’ program. They handled the chromaticism and reflective character of Justorum Animae very well indeed, though Caelos Ascendit Hodie, while contrasting in spirit as it should, was a little too aggressively sung to be effective. Beati Quorum Via was a different story. All five vocal lines in this beautiful motet are a joy to sing, each one having expansive melodies to enjoy, while then becoming a harmony to the melody of another voice. You could see the enjoyment in singing this piece, with several choristers swaying as they sang! This did not distract from the aural feast, as the vocal lines ebbed and flowed, superbly shaped, one part emerging seamlessly from another.
How They So Softly Rest, by Healey Willan featured some low pedal notes, while Eric Whitacre’s Sleep contained more challenging harmonic language, again well sung.
Ēriks Ešenvalds’ arrangement of Amazing Grace concluded the hour-long program. The main melody, sung effectively by soprano Veryan Croggon, is well-known and can stand effectively as monophonic folk-style song, though it was originally a hymn. This 2004 arrangement (made for the Riga Youth Choir), is very elaborate, gradually becoming a rich eight-part work. It is a favourite of many choristers, but I’m wondering if it is actually more fun to sing than to hear. It just seems a little too overdone for a lovely melody. Regardless of my personal feelings, the choir sang it well.
Finally allowed to demonstrate their appreciation, the audience gave Jonathan Grieves-Smith and the newly minted Hamer Singers a wonderful and well-deserved ovation. Hearing some of these works in the more spacious Cathedral would have been lovely, but in fact the drier acoustic of St Peter’s was more revealing of the choir’s abilities. They sing well, their diction is excellent, and Grieves-Smith is an excellent conductor. A few more voices on the lower parts would assist in keeping the upper parts more consistently uniform in tuning their chords, and of course just singing together for longer will assist this new choir to develop further.
This is a welcome addition to Melbourne’s rich choral scene and with three concerts planned for 2018, Hamer Singers deserve our support!
Editor’s n0te: We agree with Margaret after reading her comprehensive review, and look forward to future performances including, surely, at Hamer Hall!