Garden of the Soul (Sydney Chamber Choir)


Sydney Chamber Choir Soul Garden program is a highly anticipated event, which finally features the world premiere of Joseph Twist’s COVID delayed play, A cycle of Australian songs, commissioned by the choir with the support of the Maury family. Twist wrote about the play for Spotlight in June.

Joseph Twist. Photo © Pascal Haïm

In a happy whim of fate, the ensemble’s return to the show also coincides with the feast of Saint Cecilia, patron saint of music, and the birth of Benjamin Britten in 1913, both on November 22. Soul Garden, the 27-part vocal ensemble – joined for the piece Twist by pianist Jem Harding and cellist Anthea Cottee – under the musical direction of Sam Allchurch, performer of Renaissance and contemporary choral music, dedicated to cross-themes of spring and fertility, love, loss and regeneration, female icons and sustainability.

Fast forward to the centerpiece of the program, A cycle of Australian songs, unfortunately created in the absence of the composer. Twist’s setting to music the words of eight giants of Australian literature – Banjo Paterson, Henry Lawson, Judith Wright, Michael Leunig, Peter Skrzynecki, Les Murray, Jack Twist and Oodgeroo Noonuccal is a quintessentially Australian topical creation, composed by a renowned Australian composer whose star continues to rise.

Twist uses this platform not only to entertain and evolve Australian music, but also to draw attention to a message. Her vocal writing makes extensive use of voice ranging from hum and other sounds, unison and imitation lines, and narratives that are tossed between upper and lower voices. The opening measures are muffled as if to say “Listen carefully …”. A crushed note on the piano; a cello harmonic. The music swells with grouped chords and pizzicato; the voices join in a buzz supporting Sébastien Maury’s bass solo. Twist’s melodies and harmonies bring words to life, dramatically illustrated by Judith Wright’s cascading wall of sound in the waterfall Wonga vine, Lawson’s plaintive depression Andy left with cattle with solo soprano Belinda Montgomery and the punchy humor of Leunig’s solo Pie. The full glory of the vocals echoes in Paterson’s adorable “Let There Be Light” Sunrise on the coast. Skrzynecki alliterative Lorikeets attracts the giggles of young and old (what a joy to see so many juniors there), the rising modulations put in tension a fortissimo, ultimately ending with a raucous climb glissando cello.

A radical change of meter and tempo takes place at the top of the room, Ashes, the seventh verse, written by the father of Joseph Jack Twist, an author himself, followed by Noonuccal’s Hurry up. The mood is distinctly dark as the dissonance, pounding ostinato piano chords and moans messa di voce the choir’s sirens draw attention to the catastrophic loss of life in all its forms due to climate change and hammer home the message that “time is running out …”.

Composed for choir, piano and cello (although not all verses are accompanied), the use of small instrumental forces makes the song cycle accessible to a wider range of ensembles. Twist’s instrumental writing is extensive and explores the range and possibilities of the cello and keyboard adding a touch of extended technique to the keyboard part.

I may have heard it only once and have never seen the sheet music, but I think Joseph’s Twist’s A cycle of Australian songs is not only an invaluable addition to the canon of contemporary Australian choral music and culture, but is also a crucial social commentary. This one is a keeper.

No less impressive are the three Renaissance pieces by Clemens non Papa (Ego flos campi), Monteverdi (Zefiro torna) and Victoria (Vidi speciosam) in the opening parenthesis, followed by Britten Rosa Mystique, A hymn to the Virgin – with his verse staged by Britten in a macaronic style where languages ​​are combined, the choir singing in Middle English and the semi-choir singing in Latin – and Hymn to Saint Cecilia.

Allchurch draws a well-balanced flow from his vocals across the seven parts Ego flos campi, rhythmic and eloquent contrast in Zefiro torna, with elegant six-part dynamics and phrasing Vidi speciosam.

The fact that Britten lived in the modern era and received early recognition gives us unparalleled documented insight into his life and the forces that shaped him. Britten’s music is inseparable from some of his personal struggles. The steadfast pedal points of Rosa Mystique and its declaration in unison with the religious affirmation, the cries Hymn to the Virgin with its rising figures in double time and the gently playful rocking rhythms of Hymn to Saint Cecilia with its light, central scherzo fugue, are performed with exemplary flexibility and ensemble work.

In Soul Garden the Sydney Chamber Choir demonstrates its versatility from the cold, understated beauty of early music, the intricate brilliance of 20th century Britten harmony and the colors of contemporary Australia.

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