Adelaide Festival. St Peter’s Cathedral. 15 Mar 2023
The Adelaide Chamber Singers is one of the brightest lights on our cultural landscape. Indeed, they are world class and have commendations to prove it. They are outstanding, and their latest concert – interestingly titled Celestial – is out of this world. Conductor and Artistic Director Christie Anderson’s informative program notes state that the concert “… is about looking up and out, to the natural harmony of the heavens, and its relationship to our earthly lives.” This theme is evident in a number of the sung texts, and just as ancients would wonder at the stars in awe, so do we gaze into the infinity of the heavens and contemplate our relative insignificance, and even with our modern scientific knowledge of the natural world, we too marvel about our place in the wider scheme of things.
Celestial is a sung through event – no pauses, no applause until the end. As the lighting in the cathedral is dimmed, the choir enters from all corners and the pinpoint reading lamps on their scores light their way as they process to the front. Anderson joins them and begins the concert with the medieval Dou Way Robyn/Sancta Mater Gratiae. The bass and tenor gentle drone suffused the vast space of the cathedral with a sense of expectancy. The choir moves up into the quire and sings Ubi caritas that was commissioned for William and Catherine’s royal wedding in 2011. The sung text is medieval, but Paul Mealor’s music is fresh with modern harmonic language. The softest softs gently drift upwards into the cosmos.
Stars, with century old text by Sara Teasdale and music by Latvian composer Ēriks Ešenvalds composed barely a decade ago, is accompanied by water-tuned wine glasses that produce long sounds almost like a delicate chamber organ. The marriage of voices and tuned glasses produces a sound colour that is quite ethereal. Z Randall Stroope’s We Beheld Once Again The Stars is an apt segue and the gentleness of Stars is replaced by sonorous intonations that become a little blurry as the reverberation inherent in the expanse of the cathedral’s interior puts itself on notice.
Rhonda Sandberg’s arrangement of Bach (again) Come Sweet Death is sung by the choir without direction from the conductor. Singing from memory and without books, the choristers gesture with their hands and add meaning to particular words in the text. Some beseech and beckon (‘come sweet death’), others gently rest their hands on their chests (‘come blessed rest’). The effect is soothing and transporting.
Grammy Award-winning composer Eric Whiteacre’s Sleep is captivating, and like many of his compositions, the music embellishes individual words. With the closing line ‘…I surrender unto sleep’, the music gently floated away, soft and pure.
Videte Miraculum by sixteenth century Tudor composer Thomas Tallis features tenor David Hamer. The choir sings with controlled intensity, especially the basses, and Hamer responds with excellent articulation and gentleness, but also with unassuming authority.
The familiar poem Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep is sung by the choir from the behind the audience at the back of the filled cathedral. Many turned to view the choir, but most gazed forward and appreciated Anderson’s artistic decision to allow Joe Twist’s arrangements to gently wash over them as if from a seemingly familiar but in reality an unknown and mysterious place. The words felt like silk being tenderly drawn across our necks and faces.
Immortal Bach arranged by Norwegian composer Knut Nystedt is another re-imagining of Bach’s Come Sweet Death. It is complex and features sections of the choir singing various texts at different tempi. It is vaguely unsettling to listen to, and the audience seeks resolution. Indeed it comes with a wonderful performance of a choral arrangements of the iconic Nimrod from Elgar’s Enigma variations sung to the Lux Aeterna text from the catholic Requiem Mass.
Silence followed, and then thunderous applause as the large audience rose to its feet and expressed great joy and appreciation for what was a wonderful concert.
Where: St Peter’s Cathedral