Incidental music on the way to heaven: a music review by Fraser Beath McEwing

March 14, 2021 by Fraser Beath McEwing
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Although I’ve often heard the full-strength Sydney Philharmonia Choirs in the Sydney Opera House, it was nearly always teamed with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra in some major, combination work.

The Sydney Philharmonia Choir. Photo: Keith Saunders

This time, however, we were treated to one of the Philharmonia choirs, the ‘Vox Youth Chorus’ performing in St Andrews Cathedral, adjacent to the Sydney Town Hall and quite a bit older. There were 55 Vox singers – all under the age of 30 – which seems to ensure senior choristers of successors.

Elizabeth Scott

Needless to say, the acoustics were spectacular. Where better to hear a choir than in a soaring old cathedral? The program leaned heavily on contemporary religious music, with five of the nine works by Arvo Part and Eriks Esenvalds. The Sydney Philharmonia Orchestra provided a modest 12 instrument accompaniment.

The concert opened with the Deborah Cheetham & Matthew Doyle brief work called Tarimi nulay – long-time living here. It is usually performed at the beginning of Philharmonia performances to acknowledge Australia’s original owners and is certainly preferable to the standard sombre announcement from an unseen speaker.

Many music lovers would be surprised to know that Estonian, Arvo Part, was the most performed living composer in the world after 2011. Based on Gregorian chant, his music is unhurried, minimalistic in structure but at all times accessible. His Berliner Messe was the central work of the program. I’d heard it before with the small Estonian Choir and it benefitted from the extra Vox voices. There is something ethereal about a powerful choir singing softly – and this was no exception. It lifted the soul. Part’s other two works were relatively brief: Morning Star and Da Pacem Domine – my favourite Part work.

Fraser Beath McEwing

Still in the Baltic states, but this time Latvia, the music of 44-year-old Eriks Esenvalds reflected his popularity. He was a three-time winner of the Latvian Great Music Award in 2005, 2007 and 2015. For this concert, two brief choral works of his were performed: The Heaven’s Flock and Only in Sleep. Esenvalds came across as more passionate and praise-giving, and a little less contemplative than that of Part, although some passages still projected a comforting, dream-like effect.

Another senior Latvian composer, Peteris Vasks, contributed Pater Noster, a four-part piece probably intended for a small number of voices but when taken up by the whole choir took on a new dimension. In the Arvo Part style, it was slow, moving and reverential.

Aija Draguns’ Lux æterna and Matthew Orlovich’s Joyful Joyful! were premiered at the concert. Twenty-One-year-old Draguns’ piece broke the symmetrical mould as it burrowed into dark harmonies and challenged the choir’s precision. Interestingly, the composer was one of the Vox singers and took a bow from her front-row position.

Orlocvich’s work provided a resounding send-off for the concert, with its fanfare-like optimism.

The 340 Covid-capacity audience had been treated to first class performance both in execution and in program choice. Elizabeth Scott conducted, with Fiona Ziegler as concertmaster.

Fraser Beath McEwing is a pianist, commentator on classical music performance and is a founding member of The theme & Variations Foundation which assists talented young Australian pianists. His professional background is in journalism, editing and publishing. He is also the author of five novels and a Governor of the Sir Moses Montefiore Home. A body of his work can be found on www.frasersblography.com

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