By the Waters of Babylon: Australian Chamber Choir

Sunday August 20th, 2017, The Basilica of St Mary of the Angels, Geelong

Photo: Music at the Basilica

This concert was part of a national and international tour to mark the tenth anniversary of the Australian Chamber Choir’s founding by Douglas Lawrence in 2007.

By the Waters of Babylon is the text of Psalm 137, which comments upon the grief of the Israelites after the destruction of Jerusalem and forced flight to Babylonia.  This text has been used many times to express feelings of loss, dislocation and grief.  The music for the Australian Chamber Choir’s concert spans almost 600 years of music from Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525-1594) to two new works by contemporary Australian composers Luke Hutton and Tom Henry.

The Australian Chamber Choir is equally at home singing baroque motets and cantatas, the classical repertoire, and contemporary music.

The concert began with setting in German of the psalm – Chorale, BVW 267, by JS Bach, with organ accompaniment, followed by a Herbert Howells setting of the Magnificat and Nunc Dmiittis from the Anglican service of Evensong.  This work most effectively moves from unison to luscious romantic harmonies.  These two works were sung from the organ loft and accompanied by the Chamber Choir’s organist, Ria Polo, who is also a member of the alto line.

Ria Polo then played Bach’s Choral Prelude on An Wasserflüssen Babylon.

The rest of the concert was sung by choir a cappella from the steps of the nave.

The Austalian Chamber Choir is a well-balanced group of eighteen voices.  Despite small forces, the choir effortlessly broke into two choirs, with admirable blend.  Jacob Handl’s setting of Pater Noster is in eight parts, working as two choirs – one of high voices (in this performance the female voices), the second tenor and bass.  Next came a four part setting of the psalm text in Latin, set by Giovanni Palestrina.  The word painting is amazing, perhaps exemplified by the setting of the word ‘suspendimus’ where the music soars in an upward arc, evoking the vision of harps lost – suspended in the trees of Zion.

The core of the concert was two new works by composers Luke Hutton and Tom Henry.  Fern Hill by Luke Hutton is a setting of a Dylan Thomas poem celebrating the joys of youth and love of the countryside, remembered in the final approach of the chains of death.  This work requires some exacting solo singing, especially from the three main soloists.  The emotion evoked by this beautiful setting left the audience so moved that they were reluctant to break the atmosphere with applause.

Uncertain Journeys by composer Tom Henry is a work in four movements with texts taken from the psalms and modern sources.  It evokes an emotional response to the lot of refugees in their journey towards safety and a new home, united, in this instance, with long-lost family.  Tom Henry uses vocal sibilants and spoken text to set the atmosphere.  In the second movement, The waters are coming into my soul, the words ‘salva me…’ recur throughout.  The music is in waves – evoking the deep swell of the open ocean, and refugees risking life in small boats to reach an uncertain haven.  I am always waiting here follows the plight of a refugee alone in a new land, hoping for a reunion with a family left behind and facing an uncertain future.  Life is in hiatus, spelt out in staccato by the choir’s repeating ‘I am …waiting’.  The final movement Feeling Freedom voices reunification and hope.  Once again Tom Henry employs staccato, this time, to evoke falling rain on the face of a woman at long last reunited with her husband and children.

Both composers were present at this concert.  Once could not imagine a better choir than the Australian Chamber Choir to bring these beautiful works to life.

Full Fathom Five by Swiss composer Frank Martin, marked a transition back towards music of earlier times, in a 1950 setting of Full Fathom Five (from The Tempest by William Shakespeare).  Alma Rhys-Jones’s program notes inform us that the music moves from an octatonic scale to more a more chordal structure.  The alliterative notes of ‘ding, dong bell’ evoke deep water, with a deep bass resonance adding to the underwater effect.

This was followed by three sixteenth century motets by Richard Dering, William Byrd and Orlando Gibbons.  The concert finished Fürchte Dich Nicht (‘Do Not Fear’) a motet for double choir.  The first movement is a chorus for double choir, followed by a chorus and choral, with the sopranos singing the chorale over a contrapuntal chorus sung by the three under parts.

An encore, a setting of Down to the River to Pray followed the most appreciative applause.

Photo: Music at the Basilica

Music at the Basilica Choral Series

This was third in a series of choral concerts presented by Music at the Basilica.  The next concert in the series, Do I Love Thee More Than a Day,  features Vox Angelica, Geelong’s newest chamber choir, conducted by Tom Healey.  The concert is at 3pm on Sunday September 17th in the Pioneer Room 150 Yarra Street, Geelong (above St Mary’s Parish Office).

 

 

 

 

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