Gloriana Chamber Choir: Lamentations

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Published: 19th March, 2019
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Though it was St Patrick’s Day and a Grand Prix jet flew over at one stage, little of the Irish celebrations or the Formula 1 races intruded upon the sacred space of Sacred Heart Church, Carlton during Gloriana’s presentation of “Lamentations” on this Sunday afternoon. The program comprised a varied and well-chosen selection of works, old and new, familiar and less well-known, supported by excellent extensive program notes from the Musical Director that added to our understanding and appreciation.

Palestrina’s Stabat Mater for double choir made an ideal opening for the program. The church was the perfect acoustic for the choir’s warm and well-balanced sound. The blend within and between the two choirs was excellent, which is not always the case with choirs that have a mix of young and older voices. A couple of entry notes were slightly miss-pitched, and occasionally some sopranos forced the tone, making for somewhat of an edginess in the higher register. Overall though the choir was impressive, particularly in the last verse as the listeners are invited into Paradise, and the Palestrina augured well for the rest of the program.

It was followed by the second of Tallis’s Lamentations of Jeremiah. The choir is blessed with a particularly clear and accurate tenor line, which must be the envy of many ensembles, and in the opening of this piece the tenors were as one voice. Their excellent conductor Andrew Raiskums conducts with clarity and fluidity and he brought out the effect of Tallis’s false relations beautifully. Raiskums encourages his charges to sing with full and rich tone, but in the church’s very resonant acoustic we felt the singing could in places afford to have more delicacy and restraint, so that parts are not blurred into the overall sonic bloom. Such a quieter and more transparent sound was wonderfully evident in the glorious final bars.

At first glance it was surprising to see a Gloria during a Lenten program when many churches dispense with this movement liturgically during Lent. However we soon realised that this movement from Antoine Brumel’s mighty “Earthquake” Mass was entirely relevant to the season, as musically it is based on an antiphon which refers to the “movement of the earth” which follows Christ’s death. It is an extraordinary edifice from the cusp of the 15th and 16th centuries, its complex polyphony and grand structures thrillingly realised by the choir, showing great virtuosity, despite occasional moments of muddiness in the men’s part of the antiphonal qui tollis section. The division into three choirs occasionally resulted in a less impressive vocal blend.

Befitting the second Sunday of Lent, two very different settings of parts of Psalm 51 bracketed the interval. The first half finished with the Psalm 51 fragment beginning “O Lord open my lips”, set in Catalan by Bernat Vivancos as “Obriu-me els llavis, Senyor”, and saw the choir completely encircling the altar right inside the sanctuary. The opening was distinguished by the gradual revelation of a quiet but exquisite sound palette, the choir humming and vocalising harmonically, Tibetan monk-style, from which spoken text and up to 32 separate vocal lines emerged, coalesced, and separated again. Sometimes the effect was akin to listening to musical instruments rather than voices. Or to use a visual metaphor, it was rather like looking at Psalm 51 through a kaleidoscope. It would have been quite a task for Andrew Raiskums to coordinate, and his conducting was exemplary. The positioning of the choir in the more enclosed rectangle of the sanctuary made for a pleasing and concentrated sonority, although at the same time the vagaries of the resonant acoustic meant that various solo lines of text, whether spoken or sung, did not always emerge with perfect clarity. A tour-de-force, nonetheless, and Paris and Oslo-trained Vivancos is a contemporary composer of whom we must hear more.

The performance of Allegri’s Miserere which opened the second half was very effective in its spatial and sonic separation, with solid main choir in the sanctuary, excellent plainsong quartet in the west gallery, and small solo choir (with its famous soprano high C perfectly captured by Katherine Healy) tantalisingly unseen and distant somewhere behind closed doors (in the gallery stairwell?). The joining of these three forces in the final “Tunc acceptabis” verse was spine-tingling (though could perhaps have been more hushed). The Allegri is so well-known that it inevitably invites comparison with performances by much better known and professional choirs, and Gloriana’s was very creditable indeed. Aside from some minor flagging in the solo quartet’s intonation in their later verses, and slight asynchrony in the first plainsong verse, the choir and its director demonstrated an exceptional ability to maintain a coordinated and exhilarating sound.

A highlight of the program was the three Tenebrae Responsories of James MacMillan, which closed the concert. The three descriptions and reflections of Jesus’s last hour is masterful choral writing. Great cries of desolation and the nervous trickiness and deceitfulness of Jesus’ betrayer and judges were realised in a full display of vocal effects from women humming despairingly, to flashing disjunctive tenor riffs, to the multiple plottings and mutterings of the Scribes and Pharisees. The singers showed their versatility in negotiating the often-changing textures and dynamics. Some insecurity was displayed in the less tonal sections, but overall the responsories were performed excitingly with strong emotional range. Whether or not the composer requested it, the final walking down the central aisle of alto soloist Louisa Billeter as she keened the words “Peter followed him from a distance, to see the end” was devastatingly effective, as was the suspension for many seconds before the conductor signalled the end of this wonderful piece. Bravo Gloriana!

This was Gloriana’s first concert in its 2019 season, and we look forward to hearing more from this well-established choir with its well-deserved reputation on the Melbourne choral scene.

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Both Bruce and Kristina Macrae reviewed the performance of Lamentations given by Gloriana Chamber Choir at Sacred Heart Roman Catholic Church, Carlton on March 17, 2019.