A sombre seasonal prelude

ARVO PART: PASSIO

Australian Boys Choir and The Vocal Consort

Sacred Heart Church, Carlton

Sunday March 24

Dinopoulos

                                                                 Nicholas Dinopoulos

Under new conductor/artistic director Dinopoulos, the ABC singers are striking out into unexpected territory, viz. this choral chef-d’oeuvre by Estonia’s most important living composer.  Part has featured on many programs in the last decade, mainly choral or orchestral, and his compositional language –  in particular the much-extolled tintinnabuli technique – has contributed to making his voice as identifiable and distinctive as that of Peter Sculthorpe.

In a program note for this concert, Dinopoulos proposes that Part is the most performed serious composer of our time.  This could be borne out by some prominent concerts held already this year.  To open 2019, the Australian Chamber Orchestra mounted a Part-Bach celebration in collaboration with the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, winding up with the 1990/1997 Berliner Messe.   And the first event in the Organs of the Ballarat Goldfields Festival on January 11 was a performance of this work, Part’s St. John Passion, from Gary Ekkel and his Schola Cantorum.

Not attracting their usual house-full numbers, the ABC and Vocal Consort gave a steady, no-nonsense account of this remarkable score.  Part gives most of his operation over to a four-voice group representing the Evangelist, continually changing the combination from solos through to quartet.   In this version, Dinopoulos placed his chief principals – Steven Hodgson (Christ) and Spencer Chapman (Pilate)  –   in the Sacred Heart choir-loft with Rhys Boak at the William Anderson organ.   The small requisite instrumental ensemble – violin (Elizabeth Anderson), cello (Anna Pokorny), oboe (Jasper Ly), bassoon (Chris Martin) – contributed a sustained commentary with only a few patches of questionable pitching.

But the afternoon’s outstanding effort came from the Evangelists: soprano Katharine Norman, mezzo Kristy Biber, tenor Robin Parkin, baritone Lucien Fischer.  Most of these are members of The Consort of Melbourne and predictably competent at handling Part’s repetitive, circular vocal writing.

Much of the difficulty in handling this Passion’s vocal work seems to be in maintaining a sustained regularity of output.   Each line has a limited compass, little room for dynamic innovation, a circumscribed rhythmic impetus; so much so that a greater part of the complex’s interest emerges from the changing combinations of voices and the spartan character of their counterpoint.   Not even the central character is given emotional latitude, although his exchanges with Pilate came across in this performance with unexpected power, no doubt due to Part’s unwillingness to get in the way of his text.

As a forward step in the ABC’s development, this event made for a memorable occasion, a hurdle that the young (and youngish) members of both junior and senior ensembles negotiated with unexpected aplomb.   You may say that the terrors of articulation are mitigated by a close instrumental support, but vocalists still have to find their own way without lagging or waiting for reinforcement.   It helped that Dinopoulos’ mode of direction came from an emphatic and clear school; just the sort of conducting that you’d expect from a singer-musician who has learned his craft from observing both the worthwhile and the useless gestures of senior figures during his career to date.

I’m thankful to the ABC performers and their guests for working through this hour-long score with respectful probity, showing a clear-headedness of interpretation that persisted in following the composer’s bare-bones expression.   If you’re accustomed to associate musical settings of the Passion with the two canonical masterpieces by Bach, Part’s score hits you between the eyes as unsettling, intensely repetitious and a grim progress through the story without digressions or melismata.   Those moments from St. John’s Gospel that have previously summoned up dramatic climaxes, like the turba‘s exchanges with Pilate, here take on a remote ambience; the remorseless journey towards Christ’s death impresses for its uninterrupted steadiness, reinforced by the composer’s vocal and lyrical economy.

Yet, while applauding the performance’s conviction and reverence, the catharsis that some of us experience during Bach’s St. Matthew and St. John Passions is alien to Part’s intention.  This contemporary construct, after you settle into accepting its stilted ambience, is eminently accessible, without any of Bach’s rhetoric or expansiveness.  Only in the final sentence, where the composer moves away from the Johannine text, does the work’s atmosphere abruptly explode into a rich flourish of jubilant colour.  The main body of the score comprises sinuous interweaving lines from both principals and choir, the whole body operating in a state of subsumed tension that fluctuates like gentle waves – no breakers in sight.

It’s not repulsive, this music; indeed, it can be attractive, but not so much to those who know and find it hard to ignore their history.   Final accurate assessment of products from the latter-day school of musical mystics like Part, Tavener, Gorecki, Kancheli and Vasks must be left to a later generation but I can’t summon up much enthusiasm for them, chiefly because I distrust an inbuilt naivete.   If anything strikes me, it is that these proponents of minimalism in religious music are content to work at a too-simple level – perhaps to communicate directly, possibly to express their verities untrammeled by scholarship, hopefully composing with an innocence of intention.   But they appear to be reducing music to a deliberately unsophisticated base, one that discards the achievements of yesteryear.  To hear Part’s Passio after an Isaac mass is comparable to moving from Kant’s Critique of Judgment to Lobsang Rampa’s The Third Eye; somewhere along the line, intellectual and spiritual advances have gone into reverse.

Naturally, musicians have to deal with Part and his peers; for want of known competition, these writers can claim eminence on the current musical scene.  The Australian Boys Choir and Vocal Consort have negotiated their first Part encounter with distinction.  Now, Dinopoulos & Co. can push their charges’ talents even further, into more difficult music.  Nobody expects the Webern Cantatas, Schoenberg’s Psalms, or the more rugged Bartok Folksongs.  But a little investigation will uncover a wealth of choral music that moves the level of difficulty needle somewhat higher than modern-day British pap or American filler.