Hodie Christus Natus Est
Canberra Choral Society, Wesley Uniting Church, 10 December 2023
THIS is, of course, the season of end-of-year/Christmas concerts and the Canberra Choral Society’s contribution was an entertaining and varied concert of mostly Christmas themed material.
The concert opened with the choir entering the church from the back, humming and then singing a processional carol, which started off very simply and added complexity as it went along.
Two 16th century works, from William Byrd and Dutch composer Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck, accompanied on the organ by Anthony Smith followed this to complete the first section of the concert.
The choir rearranged themselves so the sections of singers were mixed up, rather than the sopranos, altos, tenors and basses grouped together. Musical director Dan Walker described this as “character building” for the choir as the singers did not have the reassurance of the person standing next to them singing the same line.
What it did produce was the most interesting group of songs in the concert, starting with an arrangement by Walker of an Appalachian hymn before a motet by the 19th century German composer Josef Rienberger where the voices were very nicely balanced.
The highlight of the concert was the setting of a medieval text, “O magnum mysterium” by the American composer Morten Lauridsen, which evolved into some fascinating passing chords of mysterious harmonies.
After another 19th century motet, this time by Anton Bruckner, the choir reverted to the usual SATB formation for an anthem by the English writer Herbert Howells from 1949 followed by four carols and a pleasantly melodic Christmas song by Canberra composer Sally Greenaway originally written for a children’s choir and sung by the sopranos and altos alone.
The concert concluded with the audience invited to sing along with two standard carols, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” and “O Come all ye Faithful”.
These were rather a delight to sing with the organ playing of Anthony Smith lifting the rhythm of the carols as a contrast to childhood memories of the dirge-like accompaniment of an elder church organist.
Canberra Choral Society and Luminescence Children's Choir, All Saints Anglican Church, 16 September 2023
THE history and provenance of JS Bach’s motets remain shrouded in mystery to this day.
From within the known collection, there are several doubtful attributions and it is not known how many he wrote. Nevertheless, they remain favourites among choirs and audiences.
The program commenced with two motets. First, the Canberra Choral Society sang “Komm, Jesu, Komm” (Come, Jesus, come). It was an excellent choice to open the concert and the singers’ voices filled the church powerfully and with great beauty.
It was followed by “Der Geist Hilft” (The Spirit Helps), surprisingly joyful and lilting, even though it had been written for a funeral. Both works were written for two-part choirs and it was fascinating to hear the contrapuntal interplay as the musical material passed from one group of singers to the other.
Then the Luminescence Children’s Choir sang “Bist Du Bei Mir” (If you are with me). This work, from the 1725 collection known as the Anna Magdalena Notebook, is based on an aria by German composer Gottfried Stölzel, a contemporary of Bach. The children sang this beautiful, melodic work with clarity and an appealing sweetness.
They followed it with “Wir eilen mit schwachen, doch emsigen Schritten” (We hurry with weak yet eager steps), originally a soprano and alto duet from Bach’s Cantata no. 78. Again, it was nicely sung and it was notable that the children sang both works in German from memory.
Bach’s motet, “Jesu Meine Freude” (Jesus, My Joy) was then sung by the combined choirs. This work, one of the most popular and widely performed of his motets, was given a strong performance by the choirs. The parts featuring the children’s voices were haunting and sung with sensitivity and the combined voices of both choirs was powerful, especially in the “Gute Nacht, o Wesen” (Good night, o earthly existence) and the finale of the work.
Both choirs also sang the Final Chorus from Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion”, giving it a colourful and emotional performance and the concert ended with the Canberra Choral Society singing a fourth motet, “Lobet Dem Herrn” (Praise The Lord). This joyful, triumphant work was given a rousing performance by the choir.
Conductor, Dan Walker, achieved great results from both choirs and also provided witty, down-to-earth comments on the music. Anthony Smith, organ, and Lindy Rekstein, continuo, also provided fine support.
Canberra Choral Society, Wesley Uniting Church, 17 June 2023.
FOR the third freezing evening in a row, I attended a packed-out performance in Canberra – there must be something in the winter air.
On Saturday night I saw Wesley Uniting Church packed to the rafters as Canberra vocal music lovers voted with their feet to attend an intelligent, mature performance of works both contemporary and going back to the mid-20th century.
Under the tutelage of artistic director Dan Walker and with the subtle accompaniment of seasoned pianist Anthony Smith and a small string ensemble, this 70-minute concert was obviously as much pleasure to sing as it was to listen to.
The evening began and ended with compositions by former Canberran, Sally Whitwell.
The first, “Home”, set to lyrics by Whitwell herself, provided melodic opening to the evening, and the last, “Lux Aeterna” (Light Eternal) written in memory of the 49 victims of shootings in 2016 at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, began in a manner close to plainsong, with Smith at the piano providing percussive punctuation, later moving to a fuller tone.
The biggest work of the evening was the 2007 “Sunrise Mass” for choir and string orchestra by Norwegian-born Ola Gjeilo, which brought out the full range of the Choral Society’s capacities.
Divided into four parts, “The Spheres”, “Sunrise”, “The City” and “Identity”, this substantial work was characterised by mood changes. The essentially secular work, though set to the familiar words of the Latin Mass, traced a metaphorical journey that ranged from a subtle vocal opening, through a “Gloria” featuring surprisingly swinging music, a “Credo” reaching high drama of almost filmic quality in the “Resurrexit,” to a quieter “Sanctus”.
Throughout, Walker held the choristers in the palm of his hand as they moved seamlessly between unison and part-singing.
After the drama of the “Sunrise Mass” the choir and ensemble, displaced from their regular stalls by the audience, evacuated to an adjacent room while Smith, now as solo pianist, calmed us with Peter Sculthorpe’s 1954 “Sonatina for pianoforte”, a brief three-movement work that, exactly as Sculthorpe had demanded, ranged between brisk and slow as it told the story of a sacred journey in central Australia.
It proved the perfect segue to the world premiere of Walker’s “The Last Migration”, commissioned by the society last year to commemorate its 70th anniversary.
The poem to which it is set, one of the late AD Hope’s most spare and beautiful, was “The Death of the Bird”, telling the story of a bird’s last journey.
Composed for amateur choir and ensemble with no added soloists, this tuneful yet at times austere work began with an orchestral overture performed by the ensemble, moved into very powerful singing at the lower registers, then developed to follow the journey of the bird, with music and voices soaring just as the bird soars, “on the waste leagues of air”.
At the turning point when, without warning, the spark of instinct dies in the bird, Walker’s control over the choir was masterly – almost creating a pregnant pause in the music before the subsequent descent of the bird to earth. This was moving in the extreme.
It was a little puzzling, therefore, that he chose to round off his composition following the death with a traditional vocal and orchestral conclusion, whereas, like the bird’s death, an abrupt ending might have been expected.
Haydn - The Seasons
The Seasons, Canberra Choral Society and National Capital Orchestra. At Llewellyn Hall, April 1.
Four seasons with a Canberra feeling
This was a re-imagined “all-Canberran” interpretation of Haydn’s oratorio “The Four Seasons”.
Sung by soprano Saralouise Owens, tenor Ryan O’Donnell and bass Sitiveni Talei, and conducted by Louis Sharpe, the musicians were also joined by special guest narrator Laura Tingle, whom most people would recognise as as chief political correspondent of the ABC’s “7.30” program.
The narrations, albeit a new addition, offered a unique and humorous Canberra twist, paying homage to idioms of the nation’s capital throughout the seasons. From the swooping magpies of springtime, and the summer trips down to the coast, to the iconic Canberran puffer-jackets and possums of winter, the narrations offered unique imagery and a modern interpretation of an old piece that was both refreshing and entertaining.
The dramatic overture concerned itself with the transition into spring, the imagery within the music is depicted by dynamic contrasts and rapid accent passages that reference the jittering cold of the preceding winter.
The orchestra portrayed the lively imagery of nature in bloom with gentle ornamentation in the woodwinds and sprightly sounds in the strings. There were, however, a few spots of poor intonation in the violins, but this was soon forgotten with the entries of the wonderful voices of Owens, O’Donnell and Talei. The section concluded with a powerful fanfare which reappeared towards the end. The brass added a delightful bottom-end “oomph”.
Next came summer, which began with an ominous melody in the strings that rose slowly across the orchestra and choir until it developed into majestic final cadence. It was a vivid personification of the summer sun rising in the bleak morning sky. The unwavering yet dazzling heat of the midday sun is imagined by a sea of muted strings and descending passages in the woodwinds. The audience was then met with a brief reprieve from the intensity of the previous movement by a dulcet oboe.
In the final half of the piece the choir and orchestra weaved around each other in a syncopated choral fugue which was followed by a duet between Owens and O’Donnell. Next it was Talei’s turn to take the reins, singing with perfectly controlled phrases.
The concluding winter movement was filled with delicate melodies and ornamentation that evoked the bleak cold of the icy season. One of the opening movements follows a traveller lost in the snow until finding warmth in a cosy village. The ensemble made excellent use of contrasting moods and tone colours which made the story even more suspenseful and evocative.
Overall, it was a thrilling performance and great to see local musicians celebrating the nation’s capital by modernising music and giving it a Canberran twist.
Messiah - Canberra Choral Society Massed Chorus
Messiah, Canberra Choral Society Massed Chorus. At Llewellyn Hall December 3, 2022.
From the Review by Len Power, CBR City News.
Demanding ‘Messiah’ sung with skill and confidence
Composed in 1741 by George Frideric Handel, “Messiah” was first performed in Dublin, Ireland, in 1742. Since then it has become one of the best-known and most frequently performed choral works in the world.
In three parts, the first concerns itself with the prediction by the “Old Testament” prophets of the Messiah’s coming and the virgin birth. The second covers the annunciation, Christ’s passion, his death, resurrection and ascension, the first spreading of the Gospel through the world and culminates in God’s glory with the famous 'Hallelujah' chorus. In the third part, there is the promise of redemption, a prediction of the Day of Judgement, the final victory over sin and death and the acclamation of Christ.
The Canberra Choral Society Massed Choir and Orchestra plus four soloists under the baton of conductor, Dr Graeme Morton produced a memorable evening of fine music.
The orchestra began with 'Sinfony', played with assurance and skill, and this fine level of performance continued throughout the concert. Its sensitive playing of the pastoral 'Pifa' was particularly notable.
The four soloists – Susannah Lawergren, soprano; Stephanie Dillon, contralto; Andrew Goodwin, tenor, and Andrew Fysh, bass, sang with accuracy and warmth.
Lawergren’s solos in 'The Annunciation of the Shepherds' and 'Christ’s Healing and Redemption' were memorably sung, especially 'Rejoice Greatly, O daughter of Zion'.
Dillon’s solo, 'He was Despised and Rejected' and her duet in the third part with Goodwin, 'O Death Where is Thy Sting', were particularly memorable.
Goodwin gave 'Ev’ry Valley Shall be Exalted' a fine performance early in the evening. His beautiful tenor voice and fine diction brought out all the shades of meaning in the words. 'Thy Rebuke Hath Broken His Heart' in the second part was sung with great sensitivity.
Fysh, with his first solo 'Thus Saith the Lord of Hosts', proved to be in fine voice and his breath control was excellent in 'Why do the Nations so Furiously Rage Together?' and 'The Trumpet shall Sound' (with great trumpet work by Brendan Tasker) was also especially well sung.
The large chorus sang the demanding music with skill and confidence throughout. Highlights were 'For Unto us a Child is Born', 'All we, Like Sheep, Have Gone Astray', 'Since by Man came Death', as well as an astounding performance of 'Hallelujah'.
This was a great evening of sublime music with everyone at the top of their game.
Attune - Canberra Choral Society
Attune, Canberra Choral Society. At Canberra Girls Grammar Hall, September 17, 2022.
Featuring the world premiere of two new works by Australian composers Ella Macens and Michael Dooley, the Canberra Choral Society celebrated 70 years of music-making in a concert of glorious songs, led by the multi-talented composer, conductor, singer and Music Director, Dan Walker.
CCS commissioned these works to commemorate their platinum anniversary and to add to the choral repertoire. Both works, written for SATB choir and chamber ensemble, embrace the themes of renewal and celebration that draw upon imagery from the natural world.
Originating in 1952 with just a small group of people who sang together for enjoyment, the CCS has performed hundreds of concerts over the years. With 17 musical directors since 1952, the diversity of music they perform crosses genres, and they champion new works by Australian composers. In 2002, their 50th anniversary was celebrated with the release of Peter Campbell’s book, Canberra Choral Society: A Capital Choir for a Capital City.
The assembled forces of the CCS and the CCS Instrumental Ensemble began with G.F. Handel’s Zadok the Priest. Sounding full and strong, the group offered a stirring rendition of this famous work.
Then onto Songs from the High Country by local composer Michael Dooley. This work celebrates the natural diversity of the Canberra region, its five sections representing the varying aspects of landscape and daily occurrence of life in the high country. Atmospheric and floating to begin with, the instruments fluttered across an eclectic introduction before the choir came in, changing the mood to a light and even, tonal choral work. The orchestration was light and clear, somewhat piano-led and the choir, even and plaintive. Highly coloured and refreshing, this uplifting work showed what a competent composer Dooley is.
Then came Handel’s Coronation Anthems. These psalms, filled with light and joyous music, fitted perfectly between the two contemporary pieces. Sounding wonderfully uniform and clear across all voices, the choir sang out with great emphasis, and was accompanied very well by the instrumental players. Consisting mainly of strings with one percussionist, a few brass and woodwind players, they produced a gorgeously strong, clear and balanced performance.
The final work of the night, Attune: An ode to the choir by Ella Macens with lyrics by Sarah Rice, is a highly original concept. Writing a choral work about a choir may have only been possible in this day and age. As with the Dooley piece, this work featured no soloist, due to the nature of writing for an amateur choral group.
It begins with its ode to the Soprano, then Alto, Tenor and Bass. Then one for Tutti. The themes within the work are based on renewal, reconnection, and togetherness. The Soprano is a poignant piece, and it’s not just for sopranos. It’s a warm, rich work with considerable depth. Artistic and colourful touches flowed across the instruments and each voice. It moved from uplifting to lament with echoes of Celtic music.
With no break between pieces, Alto built on what began the work, but Tenor soared with passion and grand themes, even cinematic. But Bass, for just voice, was a sad yet uplifting tune that flowed from the choir until it whispered away, literally.
The Tutti jumped into life with a high, single note on the piano. A melancholy tune from the instrumental ensemble flowed until the choir entered with a soothing song. A beautiful refrain for solo violin filled the space before both groups came together to create a powerful climax. Then, entering new territory and just before the end, the music spread its wings to sing in praise of singing.
If only more people had been there to experience this, they would have heard the culmination of 70 years of excellent choral music by the CCS. Macens, Rice and Dooley took to the stage to receive gifts and generous applause that was rightly deserved.
ATTUNE - Canberra Choral Society
ATTUNE, Canberra Choral Society. At Canberra Girls Grammar Hall, September 17, 2022.
THE Canberra Choral Society (CCS) is one of several community arts organisations (Canberra Philharmonic Society is another) this year celebrating a 70-year continuous contribution to the artistic landscape in Canberra.
The choir had humble beginnings. A note was placed on the music room at the now Brassey Hotel, then a guesthouse, inviting “anyone who can sing” to attend the first meeting of the Canberra Choral Group. That band of singers grew into the CCS presenting two major symphonic choral works each year as well as smaller, more intimate concerts of a cappella singing and piano or organ accompanied pieces.
Formation year was 1952, just as Australia welcomed a new Queen. She was crowned Elizabeth II a year later so it was appropriate that the brilliant Handel coronation anthem “Zadok the Priest”, originally written for the 1727 coronation of George II and Queen Caroline, should open this anniversary concert.
Choirs have been the musical combination perhaps hardest hit by the covid virus over the last three years. Canberra’s chorister numbers have been more than halved in virtually all choirs and re-growth is only now slowly on the uptake. “Zadok” is normally performed with a choir of 200 or so singers plus a full orchestra – quite incredible forces with a resultant massive sound. Thanks to the virus the current choir strength is just a quarter of that size so, despite well disciplined and dynamically controlled playing from the still complete orchestra, voices were understandably somewhat overwhelmed.
Not so in “Songs from the High Country”, a work commissioned by the choir especially for this concert. Written by talented Canberra composer Michael Dooley this work is a musical portrayal of natural landscapes around Canberra and the Snowy Mountains and an interpretation of how getting “out in the bush” brings peace and solitude. The opening “Dawn Chorus” set the scene perfectly with flute, oboe and strings creating a blissful dawn picture, brass imitating bush creatures and the choir singing such haunting words as: “Beneath the sky’s stained glass windows the avian superstars perform”.
A magical atmosphere was captured with glockenspiel raindrops in “Early Morning Rain” then a peaceful and tranquil oboe in “Besides Still Waters”. Pulsating voices and instruments signified “Cascades”, it was easy to envisage eucalypts as “Sentinels” then a broad and pastoral orchestral backing to the choir singing of gullies, valleys and hills in the “Outcrop” finale. This work is a fine addition to Australian choral repertoire, which it is hoped is afforded many performance opportunities in coming years.
The second of Handel’s coronation anthems, “Let Thy Hand be Strengthened” was a touch heavy and ponderous and lacked vocal power and projection, but the final anthem “My Heart is Inditing” was better balanced with greater surety and confidence.
The second commissioned work was “Attune”, written by Sydney-based composer Ella Macens in collaboration with Canberra poet Sarah Rice. The piece reflects on the themes of renewal, reconnection and togetherness and is an ode to the “parts” of the choir that join together to create the “whole”. At times, it was difficult to discern the words but the text was provided in the program, which was appreciated. The soprano “part” sang: “Flying high in a shining winter / Along each branch a glittering of lacework frost / You catch the light” and this moving phrase was indicative of the sharing of common values contained within the text.
There were some tentative entries, but all vocal work was solid in tutti passages and the rich full sound of the choir was most evident in the unaccompanied “You are treasure in the garden”. This complex work requires further listening before gaining a more complete understanding of its grace and subtle nature but it is certainly another welcome addition to the Australian library of orchestra/choral works.
The orchestra was well led by Tim Wickham with fine playing in all sections highlighted by a wonderfully blended and balanced woodwind team.
Dan Walker provided clean, clear and decisive direction to both choir and orchestra and he brought an obvious passion and enthusiasm to his conducting.
CCS rightly deserves sincere thanks for its lengthy contribution to music in Canberra. Congratulations to all members, past and present, for a fine 70 years of sharing the joy of music making and providing musical pleasure. Long may it continue!
Petite Messe Solennelle - Canberra Choral Society & National Capital Orchestra
Petite Messe Solennelle, Canberra Choral Society. At Llewellyn Hall, Canberra June 25, 2022.
As the stage of Llewellyn Hall filled with dozens of musicians and singers, it became apparent to the expectant audience that this performance of Gioachino Rossini’s ‘Petite Messe Solennelle’ (Little Solemn Mass) was not going to be ‘little’.
Originally scored in 1863 for two pianos, harmonium and voices, the Canberra Choral Society and the National Capital Orchestra performed the fully orchestrated 1867 version of the work with orchestra, chorus and four solo singers.
Commencing with the ‘Kyrie’, the chorus gave a nicely controlled performance of this sombre first part of the work. The dramatic start of the ‘Gloria’ which followed showed the full power of the chorus. The sound was rich and colourful and the addition of the four soloists added a charming dimension.
‘Gratias agimus’ (We Give Thanks to Thee) was beautifully sung by Sonia Anfiloff (alto), Ryan O’Donnell (tenor) and Hayden Barrington (bass). O’Donnell’s tenor aria ‘Domine Deus’ (O Lord God) that followed was also given a performance full of feeling.
The sublime blend of the voices of soprano, Sarahlouise Owens, and alto, Sonia Anfiloff, in “Qui tollis peccata mundi’ (Who takest away the sins of the world) was a major highlight of the ‘Gloria’ section of the work. The conclusion of the ‘Gloria’ by the chorus, ‘Cum Sancto Spiritu’ (With The Holy Spirit), was powerful and exciting.
There were numerous other memorable moments throughout the performance. Hayden Barrington’s rich baritone gave ‘Quoniam tu solus sanctus’ (For Thou Only Art Holy) a pleasing authority and soprano, Sarahlouise Owens, sang ‘Crusifixus’ (He was crucified) with great control and depth of feeling.
The Offertorium section was played very well by organist, James Porteous, and ‘Sanctus’ (Holy, Holy, Holy) was the major highlight of the later part of the work with soloists, chorus and orchestra blending perfectly to produce a powerful and thrilling sound.
Louis Sharpe, did an excellent job conducting this huge number of singers and musicians. The accuracy and beauty of the singing by the chorus was a credit to Chorus Master, Dan Walker.
This major undertaking proved to be a highly memorable concert by all involved. They fully deserved the enthusiastic and prolonged applause by the audience at the conclusion.
Petite Messe Solennelle - Canberra Choral Society & National Capital Orchestra
Pure, refreshing and simply magical
Petite Messe Solennelle, Canberra Choral Society. At Llewellyn Hall, Canberra June 25, 2022.
THE concert of the National Capital Orchestra and Canberra Choral Society, featured soprano Saralouise Owens; alto Sonia Anfiloff; tenor Ryan O’Donnell and baritone Hayden Barrington in a beautiful presentation of Gioachino Rossini’s “Petite Messe Solennelle”.
Written in Rossini’s twilight years, the composer described the piece as “the last of my sins of old age” in which he combines beautiful music with his renowned sense of comic irony.
Despite the title, there is nothing petite or solemn about this piece. The first Messe (Mass) opens with a dark, ominous sounding ostinato in the bassoon, cello and bass lines and sets up the scene for the chorus. This was played with a sense of atmospheric conviction that conveyed a nice contrast to the development of the harmony that later transitions into a major key.
The soloists sung with confidence and tender emotion which contributed to the overall grandeur and spirited nature of the performance. It was a pleasant and sonorous opening to the concert. “Gloria” began with a powerful and majestic fanfare.
This energy was maintained throughout the next movements that made the performance exciting to listen to. The lower brass added some healthy bottom-end sustenance to the sound as the woodwind and strings playfully interjected with moments of graceful melodic flourishes.
It is perhaps a little strange that Rossini did not write this movement for the end of the Messe, as its majestic nature implies some sense of finality and resolution. One may put this down to the composer’s irrefutable use of irony in his music. Whichever the case, this was by far one of the most exciting movements performed during the concert.
The “Credo” section was greatly amplified by the unity of the chorus and brass which added a nuanced depth and sprightliness to the overall performance. Although the softer sections from the strings were shy and timid to begin with, it picked up with the entry of the resplendent solo voices, which were soon accompanied by the woodwind, violins and chorus.
The “Offertoire” played by solo organ served as a welcome reprieve from the intensity of the surrounding movements. It was performed tenderly and with elegance.
The final movements of the Messe – the “Sanctus”, “O salutaris hostia” and the “Agnus Dei” – were sung with haunting charm and beauty by the chorus and the soloists. There was something about the sound that was, in its essence, so pure and refreshing. It was simply magical.
Judging by the sustained and rapturous applause, the concert was thoroughly enjoyed by the audience.
Rejoice in the Lamb - Canberra Choral Society
Rejoice in the Lamb, Canberra Choral Society. At Wesley Uniting Church, Canberra April 8, 2022.
THE Canberra Choral Society – a Canberra-based symphonic choir turning 70 years old this year – has returned to the stage for the first time since July. In the first of four planned concerts for 2022, the more than 50-member choir presented an exciting selection of lesser-known and perhaps underrated works from the 19th and 20th century English sacred music tradition, much of it the product of the English musical renaissance occurring at the time. A full house at the Wesley Uniting Church welcomed back the choir, evidently excited to hear the sound of choral music that has been so lacking from concert halls since the onset of the pandemic.
The choir, conducted by music director Dan Walker and accompanied by organist Sam Giddy, sang passionately and brought out the contrast and character of each work. The ensemble underscored the quality of the music from the 19th to 20th century English musical renaissance, which Walker explained was spearheaded by or greatly influenced many of the composers in the program.
The concert began with a joyous anthem by the 20th century composer Gerald Finzi titled “God is Gone Up”. The anthem began with an exciting organ fanfare and was followed by the joyous sound of the choir. It was a superb beginning to the concert.
... Organist Sam Giddy performed a short work for solo organ by the contemporary English composer Paul Ayres. “Fantasia 150 for Organ (Toccata for Eric)” was an exciting piece full of repetitive rhythmic patterns and colourful harmonies underneath, and Giddy delivered a commanding performance.
... Despite the significant challenges of COVID-19, the Canberra Choral Society presented an excellent first concert of 2022 that showcased the beauty of 19th and 20th century English sacred music. With 2022 being the Choral Society’s 70th birthday, it is shaping up to be an exciting year for the ensemble. [...]
Ein Deutsches Requiem - Canberra Choral Society and National Capital Orchestra
Ein Deutsches Requiem, National Capital Orchestra and Canberra Choral Society. At Llewellyn Hall, ANU, July 24, 2021
Brahms' German Requiem performed by the Canberra Choral Society and National Capital Orchestra was a real blessing during these trying times. Brahms’ Ein Deutsches Requiem, presented by the National Capital Orchestra (NCO) under the baton of Leonard Weiss, with soprano Rachel Mink and bass Andrew Fysh, and chorus master Dan Walker leading the Canberra Choral Society (CCS), was just the blessing needed during these trying times. Performed before a large audience in the Llewellyn Hall in Canberra, this was one of the few concerts going on in Australia at the moment due to COVID lockdowns.
When first performed on 1 December 1867 in Vienna, Ein Deutsches Requiem (‘A German Requiem’) by Johannes Brahms was a scaled-down version of what we know today ... The growing melody for orchestra that envelops the opening part of Ein Deutsches Requiem soon built to include the 60-strong choir. The orchestra is almost subservient to the choir throughout this work. The unique orchestration in the opening part sees the first and second violins with little to do. This created a penetrating sound where the choir and woodwind led.
There’s so much for the voices to do in this requiem, it could be easily imagined for a solo choir performance only. When all performers and players came together, their monumental sound cut deep. There’s nothing like a live performance of this work to get the blood flowing ...
The first soloist, bass Andrew Fysh, is an imposing figure. His clear powerful voice, along with his height, made his part stand out. As a conductor, Weiss is a close observer and listener. His skills and empathy for the music and for the performers are quite evident. He always pays close attention to the introduction of new parts and relating that to the players. He has done so much during rehearsals and also given many online pre-concert talks about the German Requiem, which he knows well and loves.
Soprano Rachel Mink is new on the Australian music scene ... Hailing from the US, Mink has a quality that shines through and she let her voice act out all that was required.
For a community-based group, the NCO has developed to create several decent performances. Some sections are stronger than others, but together they generate an emphatic sound. Weiss works well with the orchestra, and they offer their best for every performance.
The Canberra Choral Society is an auditioned symphonic choir. Originating in 1952, it has grown from a small group to a large choir that offers a close to professional sound – very much thanks to the fine chorus master Dan Walker, who is also an excellent singer, composer and conductor. In this requiem they made the heavy task of the extended singing sound superb.
The NCO and the CCS are a natural fit; I wish we could hear more of both. The final rousing movements show off Brahms’ supreme skills. The orchestra and choir built to a thrilling climax through some exciting, rhythmic and colourful tunes before it comes full circle and returns to mirror the quiet opening.
Even if Brahms was just 33 when he wrote this – and in some parts, it does show he was still a young composer – this work pushed him into the territory where he would soon become known as an eminent music maker. A German Requiem is a solemn and joyful piece. It never fails to move any listener. The extended appreciation from the audience let the players know that this concert was much loved, much needed and a success”.
Masterful performance of ‘A German Requiem’
Ein Deutsches Requiem, National Capital Orchestra and Canberra Choral Society. At Llewellyn Hall, ANU, July 24, 2021.
Despite its decade-long gestation, unusual construction. multiple revisions and early controversies, Johannes Brahms’ “Ein Deutsches Requiem” (“A German Requiem”) has stood the test of time and remains one of the most popular choral works in the catalogue, especially from the Romantic music period. This performance, by the National Capital Orchestra and the Canberra Choral Society, not only drew on that popularity, but respected Brahms’ pen mightily.
After a slightly shaky start, in which the horns and lower strings struggled to find the right balance and volume (it was pianissimo – or very soft), the whole ensemble soon settled into a masterful performance under the direction of conductor, Leonard Weiss.
The much-awarded Weiss has been back in Australia for almost a year, after a year in the US studying with celebrated conductor, Marin Alsop. Happily, Weiss has not lost his fluid conducting style, but it has become much more nuanced, expressive and subtle. He now has an almost minimalist style, and yet there is no mistaking what he asks of the orchestra. Of note in this performance was his control of orchestral dynamics, keeping excellent balance within the orchestra and never once allowing the orchestra to overpower the choir.
It was particularly lovely to watch his left hand conducting the choir. His calm gestures flowed with the music while his baton-wielding right hand maintained the time and tempo. He gently encouraged the sopranos to their highest notes and gave authoritative entry and cut-off cues to individual sections and the whole choir.
Chorus master, Dan Walker, had prepared the choir superbly, achieving lovely tone and balance and silky-smooth dynamics. The 4th movement chorus, “How lovely are your dwellings” stood out for its beautiful, flowing lyricism.
Although the two soloists don’t have much work in this piece, we Canberrans are very lucky that we have such a depth of talent on which to draw. Soprano, Rachel Mink, and bass-baritone, Andrew Fysh, had stepped in almost at the last minute to replace the intended international artists. Fysh has a very fine voice, but, quite uncharacteristically, in the first of his two solos, “Lord, teach me”, his projection did not carry so well over the orchestra. His second solo, “For we have no permanent home here”, was much better with his clear and resonant voice easily making it up into the audience.
Almost sadly, there is only one solo for the soprano, but Rachel Mink’s crystal-clear voice had “You are sorrowful now” floating effortlessly above the orchestra, and the audience, in beautifully-controlled, melodious tones.
“A German Requiem” is a quite long work – almost an hour – but this performance held its audience in a state of bliss from beginning to end. Its excellence was duly rewarded with long and sustained applause.