Supreme artistry, magnificent choral repertoire, and wide global acclaim have become the norm for the Australian Chamber Choir and its inimitable artistic director Douglas Lawrence. Although smaller ensembles within the group have sung regularly since the choir’s inception in 2007, when the ACC8 first made its mark in 2019, it could not have foreseen the heights it would reach this year with this highly memorable on-line concert. The Loreto Chapel at Mandeville Hall Toorak has become a regular performance space for ACC8, and the acoustic was simply munificent, enhancing the sonic dimensions of these talented singers and resonance of a carefully selected repertoire.
Douglas Lawrence and Elizabeth Anderson are showing inspired and creative flair with an ongoing series of live-streamed concerts, with intellectually “themed” programs with seriously spiritual and historical associations. Our virtual musical tour of European Cultural Capitals could take in only a small number of favourite cities where the ACC has performed with great success.
First to Vienna, voted the most liveable small city in the world with its grand architecture, history and artistic and intellectual legacy. Brahms’ motet O Heiland reiß die Himmel auf – Oh Saviour, tear open the heavens, was a most effective opening work, its chorale melody sung alternately by each voice against contrapuntal parts with a delightfully warm and expressive setting of the highly dramatic text. The tone quality of the ensemble was as pristine and pure as the white chapel walls, contrasting ethereal tones with darker chromaticism and uplifting joy in the final Amen. In full sympathy with the rich acoustic of Loreto Chapel, Lawrence directed Anderson’s arrangement of Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus at a calm, solemn tempo allowing the ensemble’s perfectly balanced blend and reverential sustaining power to affect our souls.
Palestrina’s Missa Aeterna Christi Muneri took us to Rome, where the individual talents and timbres of the voices excelled in the simplicity and clarity of the Kyrie, Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei. The ACC8 produced lovely crescendos as voices entered, layer upon layer, creating a joyful, stirring momentum in the Sanctus, and distinctive clarity with the beautiful polyphonic lines of Hosanna. Always, the vocal harmonies in final cadences give us a satisfying emotional, awesome feeling, with the closing Amen and Dona Nobis Pacem in particular, suggesting, not just 8 voices, but the uplifting timbres of organ pipes themselves.
Next stop, Zittau, a small but historic university town, which Anderson explained was close to the tripoint of Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic, so we could expect a bit of the Mediterranean in East Germany. With Hammerschmidt’s Alleluia, the ACC8 excelled in demonstrating the Venetian polychoral tradition with three male voices singing the verses, joined by the mixed ensemble in the refrain. Clear, united and precise rhythmic punctuation coloured the lilting triple meter sections with a dance-like energy, and stunning final chords highlighted soprano Elspeth Bawden’s silvery tone in gentle flight.
Our virtual journey took us onwards to Moscow, for the historically and culturally significant Bogoroditse Devo – Rejoice Virgin Mother of God, Rachmaninoff’s short but powerful hymn. Again the choice of piece was perfect for the ACC8 in the luxurious atmosphere of the chapel, where slow chords, long suspensions and many varying dynamic changes enhanced a deeply spiritual mood. Male voices excelled in covering a wide vocal range as the gentle traditional harmony melded into lengthy sustained final chords, which diminished, floating in the air, through pianissimo to silence.
From the exciting choral world of London, ACC8 gave us a highly polished and grand account of William Byrd’s demanding 6-part polyphonic work Sing Joyfully. Clarity and expression in pronunciation went hand in hand with colourful word painting with sopranos’ voices ringing like bells. By contrast, Elgar’s Nimrod, from Enigma Variations, is a powerful, emotionally charged symphonic portrait, which has become associated with British public bereavement, although grief was not Elgar’s musical inspiration. Elizabeth Anderson has written a unique and highly admirable arrangement, fitting the poignant traditional text Lux Aeterna from the Latin Requiem Mass to Elgar’s music. The combination of this deeply spiritual music and text, the musicality of the ensemble’s dynamics and expression of tension and emotion produced a powerful aura.
Three madrigals by Monteverdi – Lasciate mi morire, Si ch’io vorrei morire, and Cruda Amarilli brought our virtual journey to love, sex and death in Venice. With many shades of beauty the ACC8 were technically right on top with the exposed solo parts, complex rhythms, irregular metres and balanced chromaticism. Again, the sonority of the venue enhanced our excursion to Munich for Rheinberger’s Abendlied, a tranquil motet with uncomplicated hymn-like texture and Germanic lyricism. More shades of beauty.
Bach’s motet Ich lasse dich nicht for double choir was to be the official final landing in Leipzig. We applauded the ability of the eight singers to create an instrumental style with individually sustained notes held against staccato accompaniments, and joyful varied sections more akin to a triple meter dance, highly enjoyed by the group as they spontaneously swayed and moved to the engaging rhythms showing a relaxed and physical enjoyment of the work.
Always the ACC concerts provide brilliantly written program notes and full texts and translations, and always there is an encore. The ACC8 sang another creative arrangement by the talented Elizabeth Anderson: We’ll Meet Again – a tribute to Vera Lynn, but refreshingly delivered in a very upbeat swing style, with warmth and optimism, smiling as they waved us good-bye.
Julie McErlain reviewed “European Cultural Capitals” performed by Singers of the Australian Chamber Choir, A C C 8, presented by Melbourne Digital Concert Hall on June 28, 2020.