Eavesdropping on heaven: a music review by Fraser Beath McEwing

February 6, 2019 by Fraser Beath McEwing
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When a concert series combining the Australian Chamber Orchestra and the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir was announced, I had to be there – and so did a lot of other music lovers, judging by its sell-out.

This only happens occasionally in the concert calendar. Like all the arts, (not to forget football codes), there are too many performers and not enough audiences.

Since the Sydney concerts offered a choice between the Angel Place Recital Hall and the soon to be renovated Opera House concert hall, I chose the Recital Hall as being more acoustically suitable for chamber music. As it turned out, the 23 Estonian choristers and 16 ACO string players were able to fill the Recital Hall to the ceiling with sound but, perhaps more importantly, when they dropped down to a feathery pianissimo, nothing was lost.

Apart from the shining reputations of both orchestra and choir, a program comprising compositions by Arvo Part, Johann Sebastian Bach, Galina Grigorieva and Peter Sculthorpe promised a feast of ethereal music. I came away with the impression that I had been eavesdropping on heaven.

Richard Tognetti and the ACO

The Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir has been in existence for nearly 40 years – obviously with changes of singers and conductors, but it has maintained a reputation for superlative singing, especially of Gregorian chant and the works of celebrated Estonian composer, Arvo Part. In 2007 it won a Grammy award for its performance of Part’s Da pacem Domine, which was included in the Australian tour program.

Although this was not a concert aimed at the religious, if you wanted to take it that way, you could. Richard Tognetti is a professed atheist, yet he lovingly conducts this music for its sheer secular beauty. Rachmaninov was not religious either but produced his set of celestial Vespers. 

The opening work set the tone. With the house lights down and the stage illuminated in deep blue, the choir sang Part’s Da pacem Domine backed by some quiet keel support from the orchestra. And although there were several offerings of religious exuberance from Bach, including four of his motets, the heavenward soaring and mysticism came from Part, Grigorjeva and, interestingly, Sculthorpe. His short piece, Djilile, became spiritual in the hands of the strings, in particular, Timo-Veilkko Valve’s superb cello playing which seemed to own the performance space when he soloed.

Fraser Beath McEwing

A short work from female Estonian composer, Galina Grigorjeva, indicated that she has been influenced by Part’s compositional style. Called In Paradisum, it is the finale of a canonic mass for the dead. As they ascend to heaven it relies on close choral harmonies to build a mystical structure that fades into nothing.

With the exception of the finale, most of the pieces were short and were played as a continuum in each half of the program. Thus, the spell was interrupted only by the interval.

Even though there were sublime passages throughout the concert, the focal point was clearly Arvo Part’s Berliner Messe, a Latin mass with the familiar eight sections, that took up the final 25 minutes. The work, written in 1990, probably summed up what this atypical musical event was all about. Despite plenty of participation by the orchestra, the mass really belonged to the choir. The Agnus Dei, which brought Berliner Messeto a close, returned us to the unworldly beginning as it softened into silence, Tognetti’s hands raised high to hold the moment for just a little longer.

The popularity of this concert series illustrates the power of the unusual when it hits the Australian music lovers’ sweet spot. Richard Tognetti and his ACO have a knack of picking it, which is why, apart from an exceptional level of musicianship, they have gained such popularity.

Sydney City Recital Hall ACO concert, 5 February 2019

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