By half past three on an overcast Sunday afternoon (April 15, 2018), over 200 people filled the central section of the surprisingly light-filled St Patrick’s Cathedral. Although the concert was advertised as a one hour program, the wise patrons had brought their own cushions, and were well prepared for the penitential seating. The black-clad choir of 45 filed in and formed four rows on the steps, and Artistic Director (and conductor) Jonathan Grieves-Smith took to the microphone to introduce the music.
He gave his reasons for the selection: the pieces spoke to each other across years and borders, their texts were poetic, and often the silences mattered as much as text and pitch. He requested that any applause be held until the end of the program. And so began a blissful hour of sublime music, in a fine acoustic and contemplative atmosphere, highlighting Goethe’s famous words quoted in the program note “Music is liquid architecture, architecture is frozen music.”
Estonian composer Arvo Pärt’s (born 1935) music is much loved by choral singers. His skill in making sense of religious text in his music is quite extraordinary. I Am the True Vine (1996) is a setting of the Gospel of John, chapter 15, verses 1-14. The metaphor of the vine with its patterns of branches and leaves is reflected in the patterns of pitches which remain constant while the rhythm changes to accommodate the text. Unwavering pitch and unanimous vowel sounds from the excellent sopranos made for very effective unisons, and diverging lines, which were added and subtracted, effectively illustrated the vine and its branches.
Anna Thorvaldsdóttir (born 1977) is from Iceland, a country with an astonishing richness of choral singing. Although better known for her orchestral music, this emerging composer also has high profile choirs eager to sing her works. Heyr þú oss himnum á (2005), a setting of an ancient Icelandic psalm by Olafur à Söndum (1560-1627) is simple, prayerful and hymn-like. With a beautiful male vocal tone beginning the piece, the women joined quickly in a rich choral texture. Sung in Icelandic by the Hamer Singers, the different vowel sounds were immediately obvious in the colour of the slow moving and sustained text. The richer bass sound was very welcome in underpinning the harmonies, the upper voices often sustaining 2nds, 4ths or minor 6ths0before resolving onto open 5ths.
New-York based David Lang (born 1957) is one of America’s most performed composers, well known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning “oratorio” The Little Match Girl Passion. when we were children (2013) was commissioned as a companion piece for the Match Girl. The text is from 1 Corinthians, chapter 13, verse 11: “When I was a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child”. Working at first from the King James version of the text, Lang then compiled all the different translations into English he could find, cut them, ordered them alphabetically, and used these as musical phrases, punctuated by equally important silences. The Hamer Singers produced excellent diction again, and the generous acoustic allowed even the silences to speak. With the lower voices in 4ths and 5ths, the sopranos articulated the main text, again vowels matching to create excellent intonation. A flawless counter melody emerged with young soprano voices contributing to the naivety of the piece.
In sharp contrast was the Missa Puer Natus Est Nobis: Agnus Dei by Thomas Tallis (1505-1585). The seven intricate vocal lines combine (in this 1977 performing edition) to create long polyphonic lines, shaped within the vocal part, but always overlapping so that there are extended periods of continuous musical sound.
The final piece by Latvian composer Pēteris Vasks (born 1946) Laudate Dominum (2015) used only those words until the final moments, but it also used the organ, played here effectively by Christopher Cook. The organ prelude was followed by a reverential unaccompanied chorus, with sustained note values. It was a joy to hear the Hamer Singers’ soft singing staying perfectly in tune throughout the long unaccompanied sections. Two more organ interludes answered by pianissimo choir, grew in intensity. The fourth organ statement is also increased in grandeur, and was finally answered by a huge major “Alleluia”, and now the singing was finally with the organ. The final chord was long and sustained.
The appreciative audience’s ovation was long and sustained too. The uncomfortable seat was well and truly forgotten in a concert that was as promised an hour in length. The very polished chorus took a very polished, unanimous and well-deserved bow.
The Hamer Singers clearly respond well to Jonathan Grieves-Smith’s musical leadership. His repertoire choices are giving Melbourne audiences something fresh, and the choir is singing very well indeed in only their second concert. I would still like to hear a little more volume from the tenors and basses, who are outnumbered by the women, but the sound they make is good. Looking ahead to their future concerts, with more new Latvian and Swedish works as well as some contemporary favourites, our musical diet is being well-served.