Carols in the Chapel

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Published: 14th December, 2018

Directed by well loved and respected choral legend, Faye Dumont, the Melbourne Women’s Choir performed a highly colourful variety of festive works in the Abbotsford Convent Chapel, in this, their 25th year of singing. Songs from many lands and eras, songs from East and West, past and present, songs with audience participation, songs which were a cappella, accompanied or coloured with percussion, texts from the expression of the solemnity of the Virgin Birth to the ubiquitous and popular “figgy pudding”, songs in many languages, all were served with warmth in this celebration of women’s voices.

An entertaining welcoming song Merry Christmas to You All was staged with a core group on stage leading the parts as the other vocalists processed in, each harmony part entering with light-hearted greetings and a touch of informality.

Our attention was re-captured immediately with the more formal opening, Deo Gratias composed by Jim Leininger, a work with regularly changing pulse groupings, with 7-time being dominant. Accompanied by a single drum, there were suggestions of Spanish or Indian folk music flavours and an exciting contemporary medieval feel. Colin Brumby’s Magnificat & Nunc Dimittis followed, revealing the choir’s ability to extol finely blended unison singing, with contoured dynamics, and beautiful softnesses. Excellent and exact in her accompanying, May Gavin was possibly let down by the occasional misbehaviour of the electric piano sound whose tone wasn’t quite so beautiful, but overall this was a very well sung work, and a landmark composition in the program.

We then travelled back five hundred years to a fine early 16th Century Latin and Biblical text, O Magnum Mysterium (de Morales), where confident leading lines came from the first sopranos in a well-balanced setting. The Melbourne Women’s Choir demonstrated excellent control of varied textures, and a uniformly blended tone quality, evident in repertoire such as Ristori’s O Admirabile Mysterium. Belinda Gillam Derry opened this with a quite rhythmic recitative section, her solo voice ringing with clear bell tones, and a dancing Pastorale movement added the momentum of a lively dance.

Director Faye Dumont always delights in the discovery of historically interesting, sometimes buried treasures that are often overlooked in the known choral tradition. If Brahms wrote his Ave Maria while he was young, was he breaking new ground writing for female voices? While some critics find this part-writing to be ponderous, and the accompaniment being scored for orchestra or organ, in this program it provided contrast, with its many rich luscious chords and a warm and romantic flow. Then to a modern setting of a 15th C text There Is No Rose by Joshua Himes, a delightfully free, expressive, engaging piece allowing sopranos again to be the leading lights. The wide spacing between the parts allowed lovely low hues from low, low altos, impressing the audience with the depth of the final cadence.

Both Jesus, Jesus, Rest Your Head (an Appalachian carol) and the gently modern song The Stars Point the Way provided further contrast and variety of styles and colour. In the latter piece soprano Elaine Potter excelled in her interpretation and expression as a soloist, with the choir responding sensitively to the ebb and flow of phrases.

Other simple gifts of beauty were the popular Italian carol Gesu Bambino (Pietro Yon), the gentle French carol The Shepherd’s Carol, and the more modern Sweet Little Jesus Boy, (R. MacGimsey), all relaxed, lyrical and expressive, sopranos again leading with strong ascending chord tones.

The choir members raised the spirit of the evening with smiles and increased energy when presenting their favourites – Hope For Resolution – a song dedicated to Nelson Mandela using multiple layers derived from a 10thC chant, and paired with an African freedom song. Selected audience members joined in adding vitality with male voices and percussion, and the audience forgot the heat of the evening and the hard church pews. There was much enjoyment in this gospel style call for peace, and the confident jazz spirit and percussion continued with the popular Jazz Gloria; in these contemporary pieces the electric piano was more comfortably at home.

But the carol which “took the cake” was the Spanish traditional song Bring a Torch Isabella, as the women produced the happiest and sweetest tones of the evening, with a rhythmic yet light energy, unified and well-balanced, expressing pure softnesses in diminuendos and clean punctuation.

Rounding off the variety in the program was the inclusion of lighter popular songs – Mel Torme’s The Christmas Song and Irving Berlin’s White Christmas.

Truly there was much variety in this wholesome and fulfilling program, including five traditional carols for choir and audience, with each verse offering a different musical setting, be it unison, traditional harmony or the addition of interesting descant lines. Add the wonderful acoustics, art and architecture of this fine historical venue to the diverse and plentiful program, and the result was an excellent evening for all participants.

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Julie McErlain attended the Melbourne Women’s Choir, directed by Faye Dumont at the Abbotsford Convent Chapel on December 8, 201