Spring was most definitely in the air as music lovers made their way to a host of venues around Melbourne for music making reminiscent of what used to be called a Pleasant Sunday Afternoon. In many cases the afternoon was much more than pleasant; stimulating, uplifting or simply awe-inspiring would be more adequate descriptors of what was on offer.
For this reviewer, Arvo Pärt’s Passio with Gloriana Chamber Choir and Players held the greatest attraction, but it was a difficult choice. Australian Octet promised to be a pretty exciting experience with their Souvenir de Florence program, especially with the inclusion of a new work by Paul Stanhope; the Melbourne Bach Choir featured Michael Haydn’s Requiem with an inviting line-up of soloists including Antoinette Halloran; the brilliant coloratura soprano Elena Xanthoudakis was singing Bach’s Wedding Cantata with Frank Pam’s Melbourne Musicians; and Nathan Lay featured in a recital presented by the Lieder Society of Victoria. And that was just for starters. At least satisfaction could be guaranteed, whatever the choice.
A performance of Arvo Pärt’s Passio Nostri Jesu Christi secundum Joannem may have seemed a rather solemn way to celebrate the great Estonian composer’s 80th birthday, but a work of such spiritual power could not have been more appropriate. Composed in 1982, with a text taken from the Gospel According to St John, it is his first large-scale work in his tintinnabuli style, a name that refers to the bell-like sound of the notes in a triad. It is a technique where, according to Pärt, “the melody and the accompaniment are one. One plus one is one – it is not two”. It also relies on an acute sense of pitch and prodigious breath control on the part of the performers.
The story of Christ’s passion is narrated by an “Evangelist Quartet”: soprano, alto, tenor and bass, accompanied by a quartet of instruments: violin, oboe, cello and bassoon. With most of the material sung by the Evangelist Quartet, who also joined the choir for the crowd scenes, reliable musicianship and secure vocal technique were called upon and delivered. Whether as soloists or in various combinations, Sue Wuttke, Louisa Billeter, Ben Owen and Jerzy Kozlowski all sang well with Kozlowksi making a particularly effective contribution. Although Passio has not been performed in Melbourne for some time, this was his fifth performance in some capacity and it showed. Always musically assured his mellow, relaxed bass baritone resonated splendidly as he began the narrative after the short but potent introduction by the choir.
One of the main attractions of this venue is in fact the resonant acoustic. Sacred Heart has two organs and the gallery organ was chosen for this occasion. Having the organ behind the audience and the choir, Evangelist Quartet and four instruments at the front of the church resulted in a quite startling effect; a warm blanket of sound seemed to envelop the audience for this opening chorus.
Since Jesus and Pilate only sing with the organ, they too were placed in the gallery. Presenting disembodied voices may have reduced their impact in some respects, but Nicholas Dinopoulos (bass baritone) and Jacob Lawrence (tenor) had the vocal wherewithal to give a highly persuasive account of their respective roles. Both singers sang expressively, with warmth and impressive control, giving due weight to the subtleties of Pärt’s treatment of the Latin text.
Perhaps it was appropriate that these central characters should be heard rather than seen, given Pärt’s emphasis on the text. In his helpful, erudite program notes, Gloriana’s musical director, Andrew Raiskums, highlighted the importance of the text with a quote from Pärt: “The text is more important than the music because the text is stronger and has given food for hundreds and thousands of composers, and it will continue so”. Richard Strauss may not have embraced this notion so whole-heartedly, but Pärt’s work certainly supports his contention.
While the organ and quartet of instruments were at the service of Pärt’s conception of the text, this performance benefitted from the quality of the instrumentalists as such. In addition to Rhys Arvidson at the organ, oboist Ben Opie stood out as a player of uncommon refinement. The acoustic amplified his clear, supple tone without making it overly dominant. Zachary Johnston (violin), Kim Worley, (cello) and Matthew Kneale (bassoon) were generally comparatively reticent but played effectively nonetheless.
In some respects Passio is a deceptively simple work with its forward moving narrative, its austere repetition inspired by a Slavonic variation of mediaeval plainchant and its mathematical construction, but Pärt’s declamatory treatment of the text produced some dramatic moments heightened by striking musical effects.
By the end of this 75-minute performance many members of the large and appreciative audience felt as though they had come from a deeply spiritual meditation as they stepped into the balmy spring air. What could have been more appropriate on this very pleasant Sunday afternoon?
Arvo Part’s Passio was performed by Gloriana Chamber Choir & Players at Sacred Heart Catholic Church, Carlton (pictured), on September 20.