St Paul’s Church, Geelong, was the perfect venue for this concert of 19th and 20th century choral music, with Dion Henman as organist and guest artist. St Paul’s has an amazing acoustic for choral music: one can sing as softly as a whisper and still be heard perfectly. The church fills with sound when loud singing is required, and there is enough resonance for a satisfying echo, despite the relatively small size of the building. There was a large audience, filling all the pews with some overflow onto seating at the sides.
As the title suggests, the music selected was French and English. Not so obvious was that the program was of religious music, even though several of the composers were non-believers, according to director, Allister Cox’s informative introductions to each bracket.
The first half of the concert was devoted to English music, beginning with Hubert Parry’s anthem for the Coronation of King Edward VII in 1902, I Was Glad. The work is for double choir and organ, with brass fanfare (played by the organ in this performance). This showed that the choir has a wide vocal range – from soft and contemplative, to a full and joyous fortissimo. The second piece was a contrast. John Taverner’s Song for Athene, the most modern piece on the program, was composed in 1993, and became popular after being sung at the funeral of Princess Diana in 1997. Gentle, blended a cappella sing is required. The Geelong Chorale’s performance was most moving. The first bracket concluded with Gerald Finzi’s joyous God is Gone Up, composed in 1951. This demonstrated off a choir’s fine unison, and required a full range of dynamics and perfect diction from the choir and a wide range of stops from the organ.
Dion Henman, organist and guest artist, played two pieces in the concert. The first was Herbert Howells Prelude on Psalm 37, v 11. This gentle work meanders around a theme. Dion Henman allowed the final chord to fade in a perfect diminuendo to silence. For the French segment, the organ piece was Louis Boellmann’s Toccata from Suite Gothique (1895). This is a workout for feet and fingers – typically romantic French music. Despite the difficulties of playing an electronic organ, Dion Henman’s performance filled the church with amazingly divers sounds and a satisfying final crescendo of chords. (St Paul’s pipe organ is undergoing a major refurbishment.)
The final two English works in the program were Ralph Vaughan Williams Valliant for Truth and Gustav Holst’s setting of Psalm 148. Vaughan Williams unaccompanied work opens with the altos in unison, and includes a section for basses. These sections were blended as one voice, with excellent diction. Psalm 148 begins with unison singing of the hymn tune ‘Old hundredth’ building in intensity verse by verse to a final ecstatic ‘Alleluia’ .
After interval we’d crossed the channel for French music. The first offering was four unaccompanied motets based on Gregorian chants by Maurice Durufle, composed in 1960. The lower voices shone again in Ubi Caritas which starts and ends with the lower parts in harmony. Tota Pulchra Es allows the women’s voices to shine, with some ethereal (and very French) harmonies. The final of the four, Tu es Petrus, has a spectacular final chord, which reverberated around the church.
The concert conclude with Louis Veirne’s Solemn Mass. The mass was composed in 1906 for choir and organ. It includes the Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus & Benedictus and Agnus Dei. The Sanctus and Benedictus are theatrical and romantic. The declamatory Sanctus is followed by a Hosanna with a progression of luscious building chords that would not be amiss in a Hollywood extravaganza. The choir showed a warmth of tone in the gentler Benedictus. Dion Henman made the best of the colour available on the organ in the gentle, but quite eerie descending organ interludes. A bridging passage from the contemplative mood of the Benedictus, on the text ‘hosanna’, brings a reprise of the expansive Hosanna of the Sanctus. The final Angus Dei is calm and soft – showing the Chorale’s beautiful tone in soft singing to perfection. The concert ended on this gentle note. The applause that followed was thunderous and prolonged.
The Chorale is to be congratulated for this beautiful singing. Allister Cox, after four years as director, has developed the group into a finely tuned ensemble.
Read Colin Mockett’s review of the concert on at Entertainment Geelong .
The Chorale’s next performance is a cafe concert, entitled When Icicles Hang, on July 30th.