Choirs mass in Melbourne

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Published: 18th August, 2014

Which is more thrilling: to sing in a large massed choir, or to be in the audience for  the great works of the choral repertoire?

Classic Melbourne reviewers have clocked up many hours of choral singing between them but, on two occasions last week, sat awed in the audience to hear two of our best choirs perform famous works by Bach and Mozart.

Melbourne Recital Centre
August 7
Reviewer: Heather Leviston

It has been sixteen years since the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra last performed Bach’s sublime Mass in B minor – far too long. Perhaps they were waiting for Siobhan Stagg.

Although the choir is given the lion’s share of the music, a first rate soprano is a crucial element of a successful performance. With a chamber sized MSO under the expert direction of Stephen Layton, Stagg gave a convincing demonstration of why she is attracting an increasing number of international plaudits and invitations to perform in operas, oratorios and recitals. A radiant performer with a limpid purity of voice and resonant ease of production, she is an ideal exponent of Bach’s music. Not only was her aria beautifully sung, but her vocal command and musical sensibility resulted in a graceful and gratifying blend of voices in her duets with counter-tenor Christopher Lowery and tenor Nicholas Mulroy.

The first soprano aria, “Laudamus te”, was also notable for an elegant contribution from Concertmaster Dale Barltrop with a florid violin obbligato. Ease of execution from both performers added to the joyful character of this section of the Mass.

The following “Gratias agimus tibi” began with a finely controlled prayerful emerging of choral sound, which gradually built up to a suitably glorious trumpet and timpani laced “gloriam”. A vibrant choral soprano sound was a feature of this section as well as of the chorus work in general. Despite the heavy demands made on members of the chorus, they were able to sustain their efforts to the very end. Layton’s generally brisk speeds certainly helped to keep up the energy levels, although slow, soft chorus work was used to great effect to create contrast and evoke atmosphere. While there was the occasional uncertain moment and some blurred fast passages in the “Sanctus”, most of the choral singing was confident and disciplined.

Fine playing from a variety of solo and continuo instruments provided a series of delights. Among the highlights was a mellifluous solo flute, which joined the tenor and soprano soloists for the “Domine Deus”, the three lines intertwining to represent the Holy Trinity. In the first bass aria, the rich hues of Derek Welton’s voice were matched by a striking combination of lower instruments, and bassoons and oboes adorned the gently rolling measures of “Et in Spiritum Sanctum”.

Strength, agility, accuracy and dynamic control (the soft beginning of the “Agnus Dei” was a marvel) were among the vocal attributes that made Christopher Lowery’s performance of the alto arias and duets a huge pleasure. It is to be hoped that we will hear more of him in the near future. English tenor Nicholas Mulroy once again proved himself to be a highly accomplished exponent of Bach’s sacred music.

Under the guidance of the dedicated expertise of Stephen Layton, a well-trained MSO Chorus, an excellent lineup of soloists and a choice band of MSO instrumentalists amounted to a performance that was well worth waiting for.

Deakin Edge
August 10
Reviewer: Suzanne Yanko

Requiems are often deeply felt and personal, as Melbourne audiences have experienced for themselves in recent times. Although they are very different works, street violence prompted both Nigel Westlake’s Missa Solis – Requiem for Eli and Street Requiem, co-written and conducted by Jonathon Welch. Both have an immediacy that can hardly fail to move.

The circumstances leading to the composition of Mozart’s Requiem are surrounded by gossip and myth – which should not be allowed to detract from the sheer majesty and power of the work. We do know that his pupil Sussmayr had a strong involvement in the work after Mozart’s death (identifiable, some say, by scoring that was not up to Mozart’s standard!).

All this was forgotten in the Sing Your Own Oratorio performance that followed the RMP Finals Awards this month, except that judge Sally-Anne Russell added to the legends surrounding the work by stepping into the Alto role minutes before the performance, because of the illness of the scheduled soloist, Lotte Betts-Dean.

“Sing-Your-Own” events can often fall short of the mark, with Handel’s Messiah the usual target thanks to audiences thinking they know at least one section – the Hallelujah Chorus. Sadly, the results often give new meaning to another chorus: “All we like sheep have gone astray”. But I digress.

This performance of the Mozart Requiem was simply wonderful, as professional and well ordered as you could hope for – probably because the audience did not sing. Information from the host Royal Melbourne Philharmonic Choir gives the key to the reason for this.

“For the past four years the RMP held its annual community outreach event, “Sing Your Own Oratorio”, which enables choir singers from other choirs and the wider community workshop and rehearse with the acclaimed RMP choir for a day before joining them in the evening for a public performance at the end of the RMP Aria Competition Final. This day has proved so successful that we are running it again, bigger than ever, in 2014.”

So rehearsal was the key. But the result was still very far better than one could have hoped for, given the short lead-up time and the change of soloist. The work is notable for its beautiful quartets – Recordare and Benedictus – and its great polyphonic choruses. The voices of the four soloists – as well as Russell, Emily Uhlrich, soprano, Daniel Todd, tenor and Nicholas Dinopoulos, bass baritone – blended as beautifully as if they’d been rehearsing together for days. One could say the same of the choir. Mozart is not as famous for intricate counterpoint as is, for example, the great J S Bach, but from the solemn opening to the triumphant Lux eterna, there was a consistency of sound and purpose that, at times, was thrilling.

Conductor Andrew Wailes must be given the credit for this achievement, especially given the time constraints. How, for instance, did he gather such an impressive array of voices (particularly the often-elusive tenors) and a whole choir that was so at home with the work? At the end of the evening Wailes made an impassioned plea for support for the Royal Melbourne Philharmonic Choir, founded in 1853 and an intrinsic part of Melbourne’s musical life ever since. As the backbone of this performance, the Choir more than proved its right to be treasured.