Breaking the choral drought with a Water Music program is just what the inimitable director Douglas Lawrence would design, to quench our thirst for inspiring choral music. Highly admirable are the Australian Chamber Choir’s offspring ensembles such as the ACC8 and the ACC5 as they have explored alternative programs while still delivering the exceptional and awe-inspiring sounds from superb choral music. Becoming almost a residency for these heavenly a capella singers, Loreto Chapel at Mandeville Hall, with its generous and enhancing acoustic, is a wondrous space.
The ACC5 comprises sopranos Amelia Jones and Ailsa Webb, contralto Elizabeth Anderson, tenor Anish Nair, and bass Lucien Fischer, who also conducted this highly polished and professional group.
Ave Maris Stella (Hail, Star of the Sea), in a setting of an 11th century French Gregorian chant by Tasmanian academic Jonathan Wallis, was a hypnotic and perfectly blended work. Eerie, allusive, haunting at times, the modal material and the final unison lines highlighted the pure, smooth tones of these voices. This was a most hypnotic and intriguing Gregorian chant, which, with other pre-existing material, was used as a theme in the more complex second work on the program, Missa Ave Maris Stella by Tomas Luis de Victoria (1576). In a concentration of sophisticated textures, imitation and contrapuntal lines, the three lower voices were featured in a solemn, dignified and reverential score. Both the Gloria and the Sanctus with its triple meter steps, were surprisingly sedate, but uniformly sonorous and prayerful.
Elizabeth Anderson regularly adds some quite delectable and sophisticated arrangements into ACC programs. Handel’s Air from The Water Music Suite was a colourful and rhythmically contrasting lighter piece, with the singers’ expressions showing how much fun it was to sing classical dotted rhythms with scat syllables, especially with a particularly seductive swinging bass-line adding freshness to this familiar work.
Returning to the serious business of hearing beautifully blended voices creating rich sonorities through complex polyphonic music, ACC5 performed three settings of Psalm 137, By the Waters of Babylon. First came Bach’s chorale – a formal SATB hymn setting, its German text being rich in solemnity, religious and heavy in spirit. Just four lines of the Latin text for Super Flumina Babylonis engaged our intellects with both Palestrina’s fascinating polyphonic writing and the pristine pitch, timbres and technical skills of these five highly accomplished choristers. Very striking was the final open cadence, a musically harmonious but unresolved resting place. The third setting was the contrasting melody of the well-known canon attributed to English organist Philip Hayes, who in 1786 would probably never have imagined the universal popularity the song would achieve in the hands of pop singer Don McLean with banjo accompaniment two centuries later. The folk song revival during the 1970’s brought audiences together in community song and remembrance, and in this concert we were encouraged to join in, ably led through the performance as a three part round.
Two Latin motets, Palestrina’s Sicut Cervus and Marenzio’s Tribus Miraculis returned the ACC5 to their Baroque splendour – full-bodied resonance, impressive pitch and diction, masterly delivery of rich polyphonic lines and beauty at all times. These texts allowed for an increased range of dynamics and story-telling, wonderfully balanced widely spaced chords and spine-tingling cadences. Darker tones and reflective calm were felt in the poetic French text of Orlando di Lasso’s La Nuit Froide et Sombre. Gentle imitation in all descending parts was clearly heard with the text “as sweet as honey pours from the sky”. Gentle yet fresh was Thomas Campion’s joyful ayre Never Weather-Beaten Sail, its lyrical melody and lithe rhythms reflecting the sailor’s pleas for God’s calming presence in turbulent seas. Next, Orlando Gibbons’ most famous 5-part madrigal The Silver Swan echoed in the glorious surrounds of Loreto Chapel, being a fitting “swansong” for the set of Baroque choral gems.
The Australian Chamber Choir is well-known for its faultless presentation of a full and varied program of high quality, carefully placed repertoire, illuminating program notes and full texts and translations. Full credit goes to this quintet for demonstrating such grand achievement as soloists and ensemble in varied styles of music spanning nine centuries. Being “remote” did not diminish the sense that these singers are fully “into the music” and the human connection of singing together could be clearly felt.
Three joyful arrangements of Afro-American Spirituals were a most enjoyable and welcomed thematic finale. Down By The River To Pray allowed solo voices to shine, duos added much colour and personality, and effective low sustained accompaniments lifted soprano soloists into the light. In the traditional Deep River, smooth rhythms produced a calm, respectful, spiritual resolution. An old favourite, Wade In The Water was most energetic, colourful and up tempo with percussive bass voices adding syncopated energy towards the celebratory last bars.
Elizabeth Anderson’s arrangement of the swing standard We’ll Meet Again has been the signature encore closing their Melbourne Digital Concert Hall concerts this year. Resilient, upbeat and inventive, the ACC and its fantastic offspring will certainly keep us wanting to meet them again and again.
Julie McErlain reviewed “Water Music”, performed by the Australian Chamber Choir ACC5 at Loreto Chapel, Mandeville Hall and presented online by Melbourne Digital Concert Hall on November 15, 2020.