“A concert full of miniature masterpieces” is how Rick Prakhoff, the conductor of Melbourne Bach Chamber Choir, described the program for their concert, and that is what we got. In the resonant acoustic and attractive architecture of St. Andrew’s Anglican Church in Brighton we were served up an hour of beautiful music.
The concert began with three motets by Bruckner, who was renowned for writing huge works but was also a master of small works such as these. First was that beautiful motet “Locus iste” which was a suitable start to the program with its meaning of “This place was made by God”. The four-part sound of the choir, especially in soft passages, was exquisite and greatly helped by the acoustic of the church. In the following piece, the motet “Christus factus est”, the men were very strong and the whole choir again produced beautiful soft singing. Interesting key changes were handled very well. In Bruckner’s “Ave Maria” the soprano-alto entries, followed by the tenors and basses echoing them, were held together cleanly and the four-part singing was more successfully balanced by this time. I had goose bumps on the first entry at “ora pro nobis” as the harmony was so beautiful.
Next, the choir performed J.S.Bach’s “Christ ist erstanden”. They were accompanied by Don Immel, Joshua Dulfer, Jessica Gilham and James Farrough on trombone, which gave the sound a round richness that so suits church music. It seemed to be quite a Romantic reading of the Bach piece, but was most enjoyable.
Dr.Calvin Bowman, who is now the Music Director at St. Andrew’s, followed the sung “Christ ist erstanden” with the organ chorale prelude of the same name. After the warmth and relative softness of the choral sound, the organ at full volume was a huge contrast. Having heard so many organ concerts at this church given by Thomas Heywood in past years, it was wonderful to hear the War Memorial Grand Organ again. Dr. Bowman used the foundation-rumbling full-length wooden reed stop – the 32-foot Contra Bombarde, during the playing of the chorale prelude. The organ is in great need of restoration and the church currently has a fund-raiser to pay for the needed work. Perhaps readers of Classic Melbourne might consider a donation to the fund. There were occasions throughout the concert when some organ notes were definitely out of tune but Dr.Bowman is a Master organist and managed to tame the huge beast and show it to its best advantage.
Four trombone “Aequale” pieces followed – three by Beethoven with four players, and one by Bruckner with three players. Mr.Prakhoff told us that “Aequale”, roughly meaning “equal parts”, were played in churches and at funerals “as they could walk and play at the same time”. The trombonists produced a beautifully mellow tone that suited the church’s acoustics perfectly. There was a build-up of tension in the pieces, then a soft and gentle resolution throughout. There were interesting changes from major to minor in the third Aequale and almost Pastoral-sounding imitation between the instruments. The Bruckner piece was short and definitely not sweet – quite a different contrast to the Beethoven. It was a strange interweaving of happy/sad, major/minor, and harmonic clashes/resolutions and was conducted by Don Immel, the leader of the trombone quartet and currently Associate Director (Performances) for the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music. It was very short and I would have liked to hear it again.
Brahms is another composer who is well known for writing huge works, but he was also a master of the small form. His Geistliches Lied Op.30 for choir and organ was well sung with the organ part weaving around the singers. The Amen was gorgeous, as promised by the conductor, with a full vocal and organ sound.
Dr.Calvin Bowman is a prolific composer and three of his works were performed for the first time at this concert. His “Ave Maria” opened with a lovely sopranos and altos entry, followed by the whole choir. An effective key change followed and the soft singing at “et Benedictus” was well balanced. The ladies produced a clear, open sound that was reminiscent of the sound of an English cathedral choir. The mystery of “Sancta Maria, mater Dei” was expressed in harmonic changes, and the re-entry of the ladies’ voices, as at the beginning of the piece, gave a unified, fresh sound to the whole. “Regina caeli” started with the whole choir singing forte and had quite a different harmonic structure to the “Ave Maria”. The timing of the repeated “Alleluias” gave the choir some trouble. Dr.Bowman wrote in the program that his writing of the two motets was “redolent of my love of the choral music of Poulenc”. The clarity of his compositions is certainly reminiscent of Poulenc’s choral music so perhaps the ladies’ sound was more like that of a French cathedral choir.
Dr.Bowman followed his own compositions with another Bach Chorale prelude on organ, and although his playing was flawless, the organ did let him down.
Dr.Bowman’s “Pater Noster” was a delightful finish to an enjoyable concert. It was written in 2020 when nobody knew when choirs would be allowed to perform again, so it was written with the idea that the singers would be spread out around the church. The ladies were accompanied by the organ and the men by the trombones. At this concert Mr.Prakhoff said that the choir was delighted to be standing together! The choral writing is divided into two choirs of four parts each. The “Pater Noster” had that sound that you want and expect in a church. Angelic female voices, robust trombones, full organ, a short male solo, and a full choral sound. I very much look forward to hearing Dr.Bowman’s three pieces again.
I have heard other Choral concerts at this venue and would suggest that at their next concert the singers in Melbourne Bach Chamber Choir stand on risers so that their sound is better projected. I could not see all the singers as they were standing on the floor, and being in line with the tenors meant that their sound was often loudest. Although there were only seven of them (that constant bug-bear of amateur choirs – we need more tenors!! – they sang very strongly and clearly. In fact the acoustic of the church really favoured the tenors.
After last year when all choirs had to stop rehearsing and performing, it was so good to see amateur musicians back together making music. People have such a strong need to sing together in so many different styles of choirs. I did not think that people would return to their choirs after such a long time away, but they have!
The concert was live-streamed so many more people than those in the almost packed church were able to enjoy the Melbourne Bach Chamber Choir’s concert.
Jennifer Turner reviewed “Bach to Bowman”, performed by the Melbourne Bach Chamber Choir at St Andrew’s Anglican Church, Brighton on May 22, 2021.