United Kingdom Unaccompanied Choral Music: The Australian Voices, St. Michael and All Angels with St. Mark’s Church, Preston, Lancashire 16.9.2012 (MC)
William Barton, arr. Gordon Hamilton – Kalkadunga Yurdu
Orlando de Lassus – Adoramus te, Christie (Christ we Adore Thee)
Anton Bruckner – Os Justi (The Mouth of the Just)
Nigel Butterley – Exultate Domino
Lisa Young – Other Plans
Tomas Luis de Victoria – O vos omnes
Gordon Hamilton – To an Early-Flowering Almond
Stephen Leek – Ngana
Stephen Leek – Morning Tide
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – Ave Verum Corpus
Sergei Rachmaninov – Bogoroditse Devo
Gordon Hamilton – Toy Story 3 = Awesome!
This Preston concert from six members of the a-cappella vocal ensemble The Australian Voices formed part of their epic world tour that takes in 80 towns and cities in the UK alone and continues until the end of November when they move on to sing in Germany. The performance of ensemble at the Edinburgh Fringe has already garnered the talented singers significant acclaim. In addition at the end of August the choir also appeared on Sean Rafferty’s BBC Radio 3 programme ‘In Tune’. It must be a logistical nightmare publicising the tour with as many dates as this and consequently the quality of their performances deserve far larger audiences than they attracted at Preston.
It seems that in their 19 year history The Australian Voices have commissioned and premièred over two hundred home grown works. This massive number of commissions is testament to the priority that The Australian Voices clearly place on contemporary works.
With two or three slight reservations I thoroughly enjoyed their programme a broad mix of sacred and secular compositions from Bruckner to Lisa Young, from Rachmaninov to Gordon Hamilton and from Mozart to Nigel Butterly. The choir was set up with 2 sopranos and 1 alto, 2 tenors and 1 bass. A nice touch was that each of the 6 choir members took turns to offer a little bit of information about the song they were singing next.
This Preston programme commenced with a contemporary work Kalkadunga Yurdu (Kalkadunga Man) by William Barton in an arrangement by Gordon Hamilton, the choir’s artistic director. Incidentally Kalkadunga Yurdu originally featured a part for a traditional didjeridu. In the action packed Kalkadunga Yurdu with its didjeridu-like drone, choir member Scott Griffin employed the extraordinary voice technique known as ‘overtone singing’ also known as ‘harmonic singing’; ‘throat singing’ and overtone chanting’.
Next from the late Renaissance period Franco/Flemish composer Orlando de Lassus writing in a mature polyphonic style was represented by Adoramus te, Christie (Christ we Adore Thee). Intended for Passiontide and the Feasts of the Holy Cross the motet was sung with real confidence and devotional intensity with individual threads of the polyphony radiating clearly through. A psalm setting from 1879 Austrian Romantic composer Bruckner’s motet Os Justi (The Mouth of the Just) was highly convincing, sung with a real sense of sacred elation. Nigel Butterley’s setting of psalm 100 Exultate Domino was fascinating for the contrasts between its edgy and smooth vocal writing.
On first hearing I didn’t much care for the work Other Plans by Melbourne composer Lisa Young. Containing traditional Indian rhythms and syllables the score was inspired by the composer’s stay in South India. However I couldn’t really feel the jazz and scat rhythms that we were told to listen out for in the score. Sixteenth century Spanish Renaissance composer Tomas Luis de Victoria’s O vos omnes is from his set of Tenebrae Responsories here the polyphony was underlined by warm and expressive singing.
A recent work from 2010 Gordon Hamilton’s To an Early-Flowering Almond to a text by poet John Shaw Neilson contained a short solo for mezzo and for bass. Conceived as a contemporary chorale inspired by chorales by J.S. Bach the attractive score made a considerable impression, a simply glorious outpouring of harmonic sound. Following on were two songs by Stephen Leek who co-founded The Australian Voices in 1993 and became the ensemble’s artistic director and conductor from 1996 to 2009. Clearly a difficult piece, Leek’s Ngana features rapidly repeated words as motifs to remarkable effect. Next was Leek’s Morning Tide, an approachable rousing score which is an arrangement of a Torres Strait Island folk song.
From the Classical era in Vienna Mozart was represented by his glorious late 1791 motet Ave Verum Corpus, K618. This was a real highlight of the evening demonstrating the choir’s remarkable tonal clarity singing the score so sublimely I felt I was floating on air. The choir clearly love the score too and immediately sang it through again.
Rachmaninov’s Bogoroditse Devo for the Russian Orthodox Church forms part of his 1916 set of Vespers. This lesser known delight of sacred music had the choir conveying an unerring sense of awe. The final work of the evening was another score by Gordon Hamilton his colourfully named Toy-Story 3 = Awesome! (The Facebook Song). Commencing with a short narration this uplifting piece contains a rather abrupt climax in the middle with a driving but short episode close to the conclusion.
For their UK tour I’m a little surprised a space could not be found in the programme for a late-Romantic work from the Anglican Church tradition such as Stanford, Vaughan Williams, Howells, Britten et al. For the same reason it would have been fitting to have squeezed in a score from one of those great sixteenth-century English master church composers Thomas Tallis and William Byrd. The Preston concert was held at St. Michael and All Angels with St. Mark’s Church, an early twentieth-century building designed by architects H. J. Austin and H. Paley. Visiting the church for the first time and seeing its high roof and large timber trusses I was highly impressed by the excellent acoustics with very little reverberation for a church acoustic.
Impeccably prepared with immaculate and exquisite singing the 6 outstanding singers of The Australian Voices provided deeply expressive and near flawless performances. The choir provided a real sense of enjoying their music as if singing from the heart. I particularly admired the youthful choir’s unity of ensemble and wonderfully blended tone. Amid all this unison a keen ear was still able to hear the contrasting timbres of the individual voices. In the sacred pieces I loved the way that a sincere reverential expression was communicated. Spread the word: The Australian Voices just have to be seen on their UK tour.
For details of their UK tour venues and dates please contact 0203 286 6786 or www.theaustralianvoices.com.