Antony Pitts directed the combined forces of The Song Company and The Choir of Trinity College in the comfortable amphitheatrical surrounds of St Michael’s Uniting Church, Collins Street, Melbourne. The program tours to Sydney (May 28 & 29) and Canberra (June 10), where other partner ensembles join The Song Company.
“There will be much repetition, but there will be much joy” was the conductor’s introductory message. But this concert was also notable for its wonderful programming and fine singing – an a cappella feast, unbroken for almost 90 minutes. The intriguing title may have been a bit enigmatic at first glance, but not once you applied the musical meaning of burden (chorus/refrain, or its cousin bourdon/ground bass/cantus firmus). The program brilliantly drew together many ideas related to chorus and repetition, and yes, even truth. In a hugely satisfying way the program itself was a piece of contrapuntal construction – multiple and transformed appearances of the same theme or motive.
The twelve-voice Song Company began proceedings with a sturdily confident performance of James M Black’s gospel hymn His Love Never Failed Me Yet. In all its four-square nineteenth century gospel style, the sound tantalisingly close to the audience, though sung from the back of the church. We soon realised that it is a version of this song which forms the cantus firmus (the “burden”) for Gavin Bryars’ Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet, to come later in the program.
Almost without pause we heard a slow giving out of the chant from Wylkynson’s Jesus autem transiens, solemnly hummed as Song Company choristers processed to the sanctuary, melded and rearranged themselves among groups of Trinity College choristers. This was our first glimpse of the “fractal” physical reassembling that was an integral feature of the whole performance.
The sung text of theplainchant was gradually added to the nine-note melody, giving us a foretaste of the “burden” of the second large scale work to come. As this melody was repeated higher in unison by the full choir a few of the younger basses disconcertingly dropped down the octave in the plainsong’s upper reaches, but the overall effect was magisterial. These two ‘introductions’ quite brilliantly served as an aural taster for both Jesus’ blood and Transiens.
A superbly balanced rendition of William Byrd’s Ave verum corpus was included, as the program note usefully reminded us, especially for its meltingly beautiful repeated final phrases “O dulcis, O pie, O Jesu fili Mariae”. The choir responded impressively to the challenge.
Alas, it was during the singing of this glorious motet one realised that we were without the full bloom of a resonant acoustic, as fitted carpet covers the whole floor of the congregational amphitheatre and sanctuary area. Indeed many times during the course of the concert I pined for the acoustic of a Trinity College Chapel – or anywhere for that matter without the grey Axminster.
As choristers seamlessly rearranged and regrouped we prepared for world premiere performances of the major works.
Gavin Bryars’ Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet first appeared in 1971 after he heard and recorded a homeless man singing a half-remembered fragment of the earlier gospel song. Originally, Bryars had made the first 13-bar section into a tape loop and added a simple accompaniment for instrumental ensemble to form “a support to the old man’s voice, respecting its dignified humanity and simple faith …an understated testimony to his optimistic spirit”. The Jesus’ Blood we were to hear was the world premiere of Gavin Bryars’ new version of the work for unaccompanied voices made especially for the Song Company.
A barely heard loop of the old man’s singing began faintly, but as it grew the choir began to support it, providing wordless harmonies to the texture. I was transported back to the first time I heard this work, on radio in the 1980s, transfixed by Bryars’ earlier (I think) string accompaniment. In the new setting, as the old man’s tremulous tune seemingly endlessly repeats, the a cappella voices accompany, harmonise and embellish the phrases. Gradually voices in counterpoint expand into the space: humming becomes vowels, lengthen into words, become phrases in canon, become riffs on phrases taken up by newer smaller groups which have formed. The aural counterpoint is impressively mirrored in the visual reforming of smaller into larger groups and vice versa. Even the abstract concepts of “augmentation” and “diminution”, first heard of in music lectures long ago, was made real in our eyes and ears. The aural pleasures increased as the work developed and grew – just as Percy Grainger fleshed out simple folk tunes into Edwardian extravagance.
Most impressively, the choir maintained its musical and physical dignity as it moved; we revelled in pitch and rhythmic accuracy throughout, even during the more complex regroupings. Not easy when the choristers in an Escher-like arrangement, are moving gracefully up and down concealed stairs to and from the galleries above, and reforming into groups using the entire sanctuary space. The choreography itself thus became a sort of counterpoint. Combined, the visual and musical effect was mesmerising.
What did I love? Some thrilling moments of soaring descanty sopranos; a lovely duet between individual voices; moments of rich Grainger-like harmonies; the inspired use of space as singers moved from sanctuary to gallery in lines or groups; the final wind-down into a vocal quintet then to a single voice in the sanctuary as the rest of the choir spread itself wordlessly like angelic sentinels in the galleries.
Overwhelmingly, I had a recollected sense of the enormous pleasure of voices singing together. I was moved as a real sense of joy flooded the amphitheatre, the old man’s voice continuing as a cantus firmus while the shifting groupings and vocal textures grew and evolved. One felt that the full glory of choral singing was being revealed.
As a companion piece to the Bryars’ work, Antony Pitts’ Transiens is an outstanding accomplishment. He has based his substantial piece on the plainchant melody Jesus autem transiens used in Robert Wylkynson’s 13-part canon on the Apostles’ Creed, as it is found in the Eton Choirbook. Not to be outdone, Pitts’ Transiens expands this to 25 voice parts, one always being the cantus firmus. This chant or ground is always apparent somewhere in the polychoral texture; we are somehow always aware of it, whether sparsely “harmonised” or otherwise elaborated by other voices. The outer two sections of Transiens revealed themselves to be a fantasia on a series of canons, which, like the Wylkynson original, focus on the twelve phrases of a much older confession of faith – the Apostles’ Creed. In the midst of all the music the Latin text of the Creed was only occasionally to be heard clearly, but it did not really matter. The evolving textures created by the counterpoint and the resulting harmonies again reinforced the joy of singing for its own sake. Pitts’ inspiration for the middle section of his “triptych” is in fact the Book of Revelation’s 24 elders singing their “new song” around the throne of the Lamb. Every one of the 25 Trinity and Song Company voices joined here in exultant and heavenly song – a rich paean.
Later, a triumphant unison chant made for another change. Thereafter, entrancing moments of vocal expression – melismas, very high notes, cheeky rhythms, “odd” notes in chords, the men’s voices suddenly singing disjunctively, and even solo voices. Finally and movingly, towards the end, as if in homage to Gavin Bryars’ old man of simple faith, the full choir reminded us in unison of the melody of his burden, Jesus’ blood never failed me yet …
The “repetition” to which were alerted at the beginning of the concert turned out to be the source of this concert’s many joys. In Transiens Antony Pitts has developed nine notes of a chant into a creation of “infinite variety”, and we feel at one with all the life forms in the universe. Even such a thing as the melody of a simple confession of faith can be reworked by a composer and fine voices into something “sufficient, beautiful, even glorious”.
Pitts conducted his piece with authority, marshalling his charges confidently, giving clear cues for the complex music and associated movements. In full voice the choirs’ combined sound was generous and exciting, despite the unfortunately carpeted space. Occasionally, some individual entries of the less mature voices were rendered almost inaudible by the same slightly muted acoustic. But I left with overwhelming gratitude for the musical art which makes for the glorious out of simplicity. The joy of excellent voices singing beautifully together hasn’t failed us yet!
Bruce Macrae reviewed “Burden of Truth”, performed by The Song Company at St Michael’s Uniting Church, Melbourne on May 21, 2021.