Vox out of the box: a music review by Fraser Beath McEwing

May 23, 2021 by Fraser Beath McEwing
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The Sydney Philharmonia Choirs could hardly have offered a more popular choral work than Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana as the centrepiece of their concert in the Sydney Town Hall yesterday.


Photo: Robert Catto

Also on the program were Sun Music by Peter Sculthorpe and The Earth that Fire Touches by John Peterson.

Rather than a full symphony orchestra, the choirs were accompanied by two grand pianos and percussion which, for lovers of the finer points of choral performance, made for better listening.

Sculthorpe’s Sun Music opened the program. It was well suited to this unusual vocal version. In its orchestral form, Sun Music is impressionistic, and it translated seamlessly into the marriage of voices and percussion. When you realise that this piece was written in 1966, Sculthorpe’s imagery was way ahead of its time. The Philharmonia Choirs made it sound even more so with an interpretation that voiced sounds without words, while the grand piano was played by striking the strings with timpani drum sticks and hands. While it may seem weird, this treatment worked magic with Sculthorpe’s Sun Music.

Brett Weymark Photo: Robert Catto

Although John Peterson was a student and musical assistant to Peter Sculthorpe his music is quite different. There were 40 years between them in age but we could have forgiven Peterson for continuing Sculthorpe’s ground-breaking Australian evocation.  The Earth that Fire Touches is scored for soprano, two pianos and chorus. Like Sculthorpe, it seeks to conjure up the Australian outback, in this case devastated by bushfires and then regenerated with new life. The work adopts conventional harmonic development, with the two pianos providing a background continuo. The soprano part introduced the superb voice of Penelope Mills. Both in this work and Carmina Burana, she filled the Town Hall to its ornate roof.

Then to the main attraction: Carmina Burana.

Carl Orff would not have imagined that the ‘O Fortuna’ opening and closing passages of his Carmina Burana, written 1937, would become music that so many people recognise – without knowing where it came from. Neither would many realise that it bookends a substantial hour-long work calling for a massive choir (in this case more than 170 singers), a soprano (Penelope Mills), tenor (Kanen Breen) and baritone (Jose Carbo). The original also calls for a symphony orchestra, but conductor Brett Weymark opted for an adaption by Wilhelm Killmayer (one of Orff’s students) for percussion plus two lidless grand pianos – no doubt voiced for raw power. Just assembling these forces for Weymark to conduct was a feat in itself. The Sydney Philharmonia Choirs (at the time called the Hurlstone Choral Society) presented the Australian premiere of this work back in 1956. They have performed it many times since.

Photo Robert Catto

The text that inspired Bavarian-born Carl Orff to write the music came from ‘Songs of Beuern’, a medieval manuscript discovered hidden in a monastery. It tells of the humorous and often raunchy episodes in the lives of drop-out monks, who wrote about fornication, nature, feasting and drinking. No wonder the text was hidden.

But it was very publicly presented in Carmina Burana through a kaleidoscope of driving rhythms, love songs, grand events and contemplative quietness. It is divided into three scenes, emphasising Orff’s feeling for a visual as well as a musical impression. They are In Springtime, In the Tavern and The Court of Love.

Fraser Beath McEwing

This was a stand-out performance, with Weymark extracting pinpoint accuracy and complex tonal colours from his singers, while the percussion put a supportive superstructure around it. Soprano Penelope Mills continued to excel in her passages while Jose Carbo produced some of the richest baritone singing I’ve heard in a long time. His range was astonishing, able to go from blistering forte to passages of sweet falsetto.

The score also called for a tenor who, in this performance, was dressed like a Rocky Horror Show character and sang as he walked crazily down the isle of the Town Hall stalls. The patrons initially reacted as though he was a deranged intruder until the penny dropped and they enjoyed the set-up.

The return of the opening ‘O Fortuna’ bars made a triumphant finale, bringing the capacity audience to its feet for a long, standing ovation.

Sydney Philharmonia Choirs, Sydney Town Hall 22 May 2021

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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