Ian Roach Hall, Scotch College
Sunday May 29, 2016
This group enjoys plenty of advantages: an able and inspiring director, a generally pleasing spread of colour, plenty of fire in the belly and security in their work to go with it, an enthusiastic band of supporters, and access to a fine performance space with acoustic properties that suit the character of a medium-sized body like this mixed choir.
As far as I can make out, Concordis is a Scotch College-inspired group. Conductor Andrew Hunter is a senior faculty member; accompanist Jason Ha is a distinguished old boy of the school; the two additional musicians appearing on this program also have recently graduated from the Glenferrie Road campus. Still, this source of talent cannot account for the 18 sopranos and altos currently at work in the choir’s ranks, both lines solid contributors to the group’s distinctive sound.
And it is individual in character. The output is assertive, each line clear and resonant; while there are clearly no shrinking violets, it’s rare that a singer breaks ranks and pushes his/her sound uncomfortably. It did happen last Sunday afternoon, pretty obviously from an over-enthusiastic alto in the spiritual triptych that began the program’s second part where a few sforzando blasts punctuated the typically snappy Moses Hogan/Stacey Gibbs arrangements. But moments like that were unusual and the young singers observed a discipline that made their collegial sound a pleasure to experience.
Hunter’s program ended in a wealth of Australiana, six pieces in all, while the rich world of contemporary American vocal music was represented by the previously-mentioned spirituals as well as individual pieces by Jake Runestad, Rene Clausen, Blake Henson and the trans-national Norwegian/US writer Ola Gjeilo who is clearly a Concordis favourite, three of his works punctuating the recital’s first half. The British tradition came in for unexpectedly light treatment through two Eric Whitacre settings, Oculi omnium and Lux nova, and Philip Stopford‘s pleasant if orthodox Ave verum corpus essay. An adventurous aspect of these offerings was that the nine elements in the program’s first half were all written in this century.
In fact, I found that several of these more contemporary works showed a staid approach to choral composition. Runestad’s I will lift mine eyes made a sterling introduction to Concordis’s work: well-ordered, full-bodied with some tellingly resonant bass singers, the approach informed by an earnest expressiveness. These pages made for one of the best passages of play from the choir in its wide-ranging journey around the repertoire, but you looked in vain here or elsewhere in the British or American compositions for an adventurous voice. Gjeilo’s Ubi caritas II setting plays with the original chant and Durufle’s moving arrangement but somehow misses out on breaking new ground.
Whitacre’s Oculi omnium seemed more of a challenge, particularly through the composer’s use of massed chromatic chords that demonstrated the careful preparation that Hunter and his singers had invested in a fairly challenging construct. After the mild acerbities in this motet, Clausen’s O nata lux, the setting of two-thirds of Herrick’s To Music, to becalm his Fever by Henson, and Gjeilo’s vision of O magnum mysterium with obbligato cello all made their points pretty quickly, the last of these beginning with an interesting exercise in syllabification that dissipated into a standard setting by the text’s third line. No fault of the executants, of course, but several later items also began with promise – like Whitacre’s Lux nova, which made an aggressive opening, only to sink into emotional soppiness at its extended ending which played with an imperfect cadence sequence under a soprano inverted pedal-note.
Gjeilo’s meditation on St. Augustine’s Watch, O Lord brought a saxophone/piano duo into play as a kind of commentary on the choral action. This gave the instrumentalists room to improvise, a freedom of action that was undertaken cautiously by Joshua Tram’s tenor and Jason Ha’s keyboard. Not wishing to sound too chauvinistic, I found Albury-raised Daniel Brinsmead‘s version of Hildegard’s Spiritus Sanctus vivicans vita packed with incident and sparks; if not strikingly original, it showed a fine responsiveness to the visionary’s mobile text. Later came Dan Walker‘s interpretation of the first four stanzas in James McAuley’s The Blue Horses which also employed a suitably urgent vocabulary to illustrate the Australian poet’s early depiction of social restlessness. Concordis made a fine case for this unsettling work, the sopranos and tenors in particular lending a brand of benign urgency to Walker’s multi-faceted choral tapestry.
A menu of eighteen numbers is lavish, certainly, and the Concordis choir worked with no little expertise through this program. Nevertheless, many of these scores seemed interchangeable – not surprisingly, given the provenance of the US and British works. The choir is fortunate in its members and their consistency; only a few signs of wavering pitch outweighed by the singers’ laudable attention to Hunter’s gestures. This young group’s professionalism might be increased if it put a stop to the inane practice by some audience members of taking photos mid-performance; I don’t know of any other choir which allows this, not even when done by the most doting of parents or relatives, let alone the unstoppable manic maenads who marred this particular presentation.