This year the closeness of Easter to Anzac Day encouraged choirs to explore the repertoire for music that was both solemn and uplifting, and many took up the challenge. Director of the Royal Melbourne Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra, Andrew Wailes, found a treasure of traditional and contemporary music to build into a concert.
Performed on one night only at the acoustically and artistically beautiful St Paul’s Cathedral in the heart of Melbourne, the concert comprised six items, one of which was the entire Mozart Requiem. Several items were for orchestra only, a thoughtful move as the very fine orchestra was otherwise likely to be sidelined, so impressive was the choir.
The concert was named Requiem for the Fallen, and the Cathedral was ablaze with knitted poppies with a moving history of their own. The choir members also had the red flowers on their black outfits, with the ladies of the choir going a step further with their choice of lipstick, appropriately bright red. The other noticeable aspect of the performers was their youth, particularly the orchestra, which was in itself a comment about the lingering importance of Anzac Day in Australia.
Laurence Binyon’s poem For the Fallen was twice used in the lyrics, and the relevance of the words, “They shall not grow old as we that are left grow old” was palpable. They were first heard in music by Elgar, his “For the Fallen” (the main movement of his wartime cantata The Spirit of England – first premiered by the RMP in Australia in 1918!).
There followed Elgar’s iconic “Nimrod” is a movement from his orchestral work Enigma Variations. Wailes tells us these pieces are not usually heard together, but on this occasion he chose to follow one with the other as he felt they fitted the situation.
The strings with an overlay of brass and wind achieved the solemnity of the piece with the balance of the ensemble mirrored in the performance of the choir. Wailes saw to it that the piece was a model of balance with particular attention given to the dynamics. The music was hymn-like for the most part with some suggestion of a march that would accompany battle. The familiar melody was beautifully executed by the strings with brass and drum, and enhanced by the involvement of the choir. Soprano Celeste Lazarenko had the strength and sweetness of voice that made her the ideal soloist for this concert.
Wailes under cover of applause appeared in the pulpit to read a poem, the first of two on the program. It was simply entitled Anzacs and was by John Le Brereton. Later in the evening we heard a poem by Ernestine Northover, entitled Poppies. After Anzacs, Wailes made his way back to the rostrum to lead the orchestra in the first famous adagio of the evening, the Adagio in G minor for violin, strings and organ continuo, attributed to Albinoni, but completed by his biographer Remo Giazotti. Both its composition and its link with the Peter Weir film Gallipoli have their own story which is told in the program notes. (At this point this handsome document -at only $8 – must be acknowledged for its wealth of information about every important aspect of this concert. It’s definitely a keeper and the RMP is to be congratulated for devoting its limited funds to such a beautiful and interesting program guide).
However, this is a review of the music we heard and I am in the happy position of reporting it was hard to imagine a better concert than this. Binyon’s words this time also gave the title to the choir’s next item We Will Remember Them, with music by Christopher Willcock. Lazarenko stepped forward for the second time to join the choir in a piece notable for its stately tempo and rich harmonic structure. Such was the passion and strength that Wailes drew from the choir that you could easily believe the work was by Elgar, but Wailes turning towards the audience and acknowledging someone made it evident that the composer was with us on the night: this was Christopher Willcock SJ (whose story was yet another welcome item in the program as mentioned).
Having sensitively accompanied the choir in this work, the orchestra – or at least a significant section of it – was again on centre stage for perhaps the most famous Adagio of modern times, Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings. This work is so well known and loved that it was an ambitious choice but Wailes showed himself to be as much an instrumental conductor as a choral director. The music was beautifully shaped and steady, at times a little louder than expected up (but as we mostly know this work through recordings that is hard to judge). It was particularly moving in this context.
The conductor again gave us a poem, this time about poppies, and then there were two more works before interval in this generous concert. Evening Hymn and Last Post by Sibelius was arranged by Major Peter Jackson to give full force to the sound of the trumpet playing the last post. The brass component of the orchestra came into its own as the trumpet solo was an antiphon to the traditional hymn, Be still my soul. This was performed with such feeling that it was impossible not to be moved by it and although the final item in this half, John Williams’ Hymn to the Fallen, was less well known it too evoked the sorrow of war although there were no words. Snare drum, brass, and heartfelt harmony from the choir were enough.
After interval, to my amazement came the Mozart Requiem – the entire work. It had been advertised – but who would have thought the performers had the stamina for it after the six demanding works already generously given to us? In the interests of keeping this review to a manageable length I will simply acknowledge that the performance of the Requiem was both as good as the choir’s usual renditions of major works, and a very satisfying conclusion to a night off beautiful and emotionally powerful music.
I would like to acknowledge the important contribution of the soloists – Lazarenko, of course, and mezzo Sally- Anne Russell, as at home with Mozart as with Handel (being much in demand for Messiah every year!), tenor Timothy Reynolds and bass baritone Christopher Richardson. With no less than four quartets in the Requiem, the choice of these four singers was inspired, as the voices blended so smoothly with each other – and, several times, as “soloists” with the choir.
It is difficult to imagine anything more “Mozartian” than the RMP’s rendition of “Benedictus”, with Russell setting the tone for choir and orchestra to follow, not just in articulation, phrasing and so on, but in emotional depth and power. Lazarenko was charged with leading the ensemble into the concluding “Lux aeterna”, a triumphant end to the performance, not just of the major work, but every part of this immensely satisfying concert.
If this review seems overloaded with superlatives, here are more. The RMP has not only been serving Victoria with glorious choral music for 165 years. Under the direction of Andrew Wailes it presents a fine choir and orchestra supported by a generosity of spirit and a sense of history which makes it a precious asset to the city of Melbourne. It must be supported – for the next 150 years at least!
Editor’s note: Audiences have a great opportunity to hear Wailes and the RMP again very soon when they present the Verdi Requiem in Hamer Hall on Sunday 14 May. For details and tickets contact artscentremelbourne.com.au or Ticketmaster.