Steering a Choral Rolls-Royce

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As Sydney Chamber Choir prepares for its November concert Time & Place, its new music director Sam Allchurch reflects on his first full year in the job. 

First published online in Limelight Magazine, October 25th, 2019

In 2018, I was handed the keys to a choral Rolls-Royce, the Sydney Chamber Choir, to be both its mechanic and driver. As its new Music Director, I’m responsible for planning the seasons and developing programs to appeal to audiences and choristers in equal measure, just as a mechanic is responsible for looking after a prized car.

But I’m also responsible for driving that car in rehearsals and performances. I spent most of 2018, my year in the wings, studying the road maps – thinking through particular pieces of music, planning how I would rehearse and perform them. Then 2019 came around, and I found myself up out of the armchair and working with the singers.

More than anything, I have this year come to really understand the unique qualities of the choir and how to exploit them as much as possible. There is a high level of precision in everything they do – pitches, rhythms and clarity of text rarely cause problems. And because the singers are excellent sight-readers you can get down quickly to the business of interpretation.  

In most cases, I was able to express reasonably clearly how we might shape the music  – pieces like Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb and Bach’s Singet dem Herren seemed to flow naturally. Others, however, such as an extended renaissance motet by William Byrd, seemed very clear in my head but ended up being very difficult to express to the singers. So that’s been my opportunity to grow and learn.  

Over the year, as choir and conductor, we have grown to understand each other more deeply so that just a slight raise of the eyebrow (from either side!) can communicate volumes (I’ve been told that I have a particularly expressive vein in my temple).

Conducting Sydney Chamber Choir, is a very energising experience and when everything’s working well, you feel like you’re flying – I look forward to each rehearsal and concert with anticipation. The longer-term vision still remains important to me and the choir – to fill our concert halls with new audiences and maintain our loyal supporters, and to explore new artistic territory. Choral music still needs to be elevated in the national artistic conversation, especially at a government level, and we are keen to play a significant role in this.

 

Time and Place

The work which planted the seed for this final concert of the year was Jonathan Dove’s The Passing of the Year. I had heard some of Dove’s smaller choral pieces but this work really grabbed my attention, courtesy of a good friend.  The collection of poetry, from Blake to Dickinson, is first rate and beautifully set for the voice. What makes the piece so attractive to me is how one movement grows out of the previous one: we start with the unfolding beauty of spring, ‘The narrow bud opens her beauty to the sun’, which leads into the excited joy of an English summer in ‘Answer July’, as a dialogue between two choirs. ‘Hot sun, cool fire’ paints the shimmering haze of a baking hot summer’s day, familiar to Australian audiences, before the gentle melodic canons of ‘Ah sunflower, weary of time’.

The season changes with the loss of autumn, ‘Adieu, farewell, earth’s bliss’, a poignant lament over a ground bass, ‘Lord have mercy upon us’. If I had to choose a favourite moment, it might be the final one, a joyful setting of Tennyson’s famous ‘Ring out, wild bells’. The optimism of a new year, of the cycle beginning again, underpins this luscious double choir finale with its virtuosic piano accompaniment.

At the heart of Dove’s work is a consideration of time and place. It was premiered by the London Symphony Orchestra Chorus in 2000, and is in this sense very specific to England, with snow at Christmas and a heatwave in July. More universal, however, is its evocation of an annual cycle and so I began to think about other pieces which evoke either specific time or place or offer a broader consideration of these two concepts.

A very specific example of place is Clare Maclean’s West Irish Ballad (which is a perfect title, as it says exactly what it is and where it refers to). This piece is very personal to many in the choir, as Clare wrote it when she was member of the alto section and we sing it from her beautiful handwritten score. The poem speaks of a chasm of loneliness when one is stripped of a connection to time and place, ‘You have taken the East from me, you have taken the West from me’. Not surprisingly perhaps, Clare Maclean’s most beautiful melodies are reserved for the altos!

Morten Lauridsen’s Nocturnes explores the qualities of night, but through different languages, different places. We will sing the opening and closing movements, Sa nuit d’été and Sure on this shining night. The first, set to text by Rainer Maria Rilke, is mysterious in its juxtaposition of Lauridsen’s rich choral textures and chromatically inflected piano interludes. The second is unabashed lyricism, with soaring melodies and emotional climaxes.  

The choir has a strong relationship with Paul Stanhope’s music – Paul was a tenor in the choir and then its music director between 2005-2015.  He’s now the leading voice in choral composition in Australia and has worked with Aboriginal communities to create several pieces, most notably in 2014 with his symphonic cantata Jandamarra – Sing for the Country.  His shorter work I have not your dreaming explores the place of Australia, and the relationship between the Indigenous peoples and colonial settlers in relation to time: ‘I have not your dreaming Oodgeroo, know not the tales your people knew’.

A former student of Stanhope at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, Ella Macens is rapidly establishing herself as a successful composer across genres, having had her works performed by the Song Company and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. Her piece Stavi stivi (Stand strong oak tree), set in her native Latvian tongue, is an emotionally charged test of strength in troubled times which deserves a place in our repertoire.

We conclude the concert with David Conte’s uplifting Invocation and Dance, which sets the beautiful poetry of Walt Whitman, one of my very favourite writers. As Conte writes: ‘It is a hymn to nature and the place of death within the cycle of life on earth’. Written originally for the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus, the work has been rescored for SATB choir, piano duet and percussion. After the solemn Invocation with pulsating piano, the Dance is one of the most uplifting pieces in the repertoire, leaving choir and audience alike with a big smile.

 

Sam Allchurch is conducting Sydney Chamber Choir in Time & Place at Verbrugghen Hall, Sydney Conservatorium of Music, at 3pm on Sunday, 10 November 2019.

Tickets can be found here.