2011 was a great year for the Choir, with three outstanding major concerts. On Sunday, 6 May, we began our 2012 season on a brilliant note with a rousing performance of Mendelssohn’s rarely performed masterpiece, Paulus. With this concert, we celebrated our sixtieth anniversary as a Choir and Christopher Bowen’s twentieth year as our Music Director. It should be said that, when we began rehearsals in February, only one chorister could claim any familiarity with the work. This was tenor, Christoph Kaufmann, who reccomended it to the 2011Program Sub-Committee, as in 2010 he had done with the same composer’s Die Erste Walpurgisnacht, another little known Mendelssohn masterpiece, which we learned to love. It was as new to Christopher Bowen as it was to the rest of us, but with his musical understanding and intuition, he quickly mastered it and instructed us in it, as if he had been conducting it all his life
It did not take us long to realize that Paulus is a masterpiece, full of drama, grandeur and that seductive sweetness, specially characteristic of Mendelssohn’s music. It is astonishing that such an outstanding work is so little known in Australia and the English-speaking world generally, particularly when compared with the very popular Elijah, (performed by the Choir in December 2004 and in May 2009, to celebrate the Mendelssohn bicentenary.) The probable explanation of its rarity of performance is the lack of a decent English text: Elijah was written in English for a commission from Birmingham, whereas Paulus was written for a music festival in Dűsseldorf with a German libretto So, if Paulus was going to be done, it would need to be done in German. That didn’t deter a bunch of polyglots like us, and with the assistance of a pronunciation lesson from Ms. Anne-Kirsten Wohlleben, Deputy Consul-General of Germany, who came along to one of our regular rehearsals, we got stuck into it. Elke Neidhardt, the German-born opera director, who was in charge of the Adelaide Ring cycle some years ago, was in the audience and commented that she found the Choir’s diction very clear. (Colin Fox, the most professional of the ABC Classic FM music presenters, gave the performance a generous plug on his Weekend Breakfast program two weeks out from the concert but told us that he had never actually heard Paulus. We will send him a copy of the recording when it becomes available.)
Another great virtue of Mendelssohn’s score, from a chorister’s point of view, is that there is a lot of work for the chorus. . So it was a fairly tall order to learn it in from scratch in around three months and, accordingly, Christopher allocated a fair chunk of the work to the Chamber Choir, particularly a number of the seductively sweet numbers, Wir Preisen Selig, Wie lieblich sind die Boten and Sehet, welch eine Liebe, for example. Ros Moxham set about training the Chamber Choir in these and other numbers with characteristic skill, enthusiasm and discipline. This work will have a continuing benefit as Christopher intends to make these excerpts from Paulus the basis for future concerts by the Chamber Choir.
An excellent young group of soloists was assembled for the work, led by Andrew Goodwin (tenor), who sang in our performance of Die Erste Walpurgisnacht, and including fine soprano, Celeste Lazarenko, who has just returned from several years in England and will star in Pinchgut Opera’s June production of Mozart’s The Impresario, and Andrew’s Russian wife, Maria Timofeyeva (mezzo). The Choir’s policy of providing experience and opportunities for younger singers was confirmed by the engagement of young baritone, Alexander Knight, who is still studying at the Conservatorium as St. Paul (he had a small part in our Saul last August but Paulus offered a much bigger challenge). Andrew Williams, also a Con student, appeared as the Second Bass.
This ensemble did a fine job. Celeste Lazarenko showed why she has caught the eye and ear of Pinchgut Opera. Maria Timofeyeva performed creditably in her aria and ensemble work. Andrew Goodwin confirmed the outstanding impression he made twelve months ago, while Alexander Knight sang musically and with great technical assurance, and showed that he should have a future in this difficult profession – another inspired casting decision by Christopher Bowen. Andrew Williams was very solid in his small role.
The large orchestra played superbly again. From the moment the powerful tones of the old Lutheran chorale, Wachet Auf!, used by Mendelssohn in the overture, rolled out sonorously into the Great Hall, they made a wonderful contribution to the performance. Like a number of works performed recently by us, Paulus failed the John Cran test: our very experienced bassoonist had never played it. He, along with distinguished clarinettist, Deborah de Graaff, and oboist, Duncan Thorpe, had important solo work, as did principal of the cello section, John Benz. There was great work by the horn section, who once again included Tina Brain, niece of Dennis Brain, the most famous horn player in history. Stan Kornel led the orchestra for the first time.
The Choir’s orchestra manager, Pamela Traynor, was confronted by a last minute crisis, when, on the morning of the concert, the principal trumpet, who has an important part in Paulus, called in sick and unable to play. Pamela pulled off a coup by engaging Melanie McLoughlin only a couple of hours before the concert call. Melanie had performed the work in London. She did so on this occasion without benefit of rehearsal and with distinction..
Your correspondent normally refrains from comment on the quality of the choral singing, believing that to praise it would smack of special pleading, if not self-applause, while to criticize it would invite hostility from colleagues. The amount of enthusiastic praise from the audience after the performance of Paulus would make such reticence this time a serious omission. The Choir responded positively to Mendelssohn’s music, Christopher’s musical direction and training and the importance of the occasion, which was underlined by the full house which listened to us. The Governor and University Chancellor, Professor Marie Bashir, our esteemed Patron, was among the audience, as were the Vice-Chancellor, Dr Michael Spence and his wife, Rev. Beth Spence. It was very cheering to see a large number of former members of Grads, who had made the effort to be present.
From inside the Choir, it appeared that we had managed to nail Paulus, attacking confidently and accurately the large number of tricky, exposed entries Mendelssohn had left for us, and sticking together with each other and the conductor in complex contrapuntal passages and, for example, in the tumultuous acceleration called for by the composer (“nach und nach schneller”)in O welch eine Teife des Reichtums, the huge chorus which brings to an end the first half of the work. The quality of the music and the success of the performance made this a very exciting concert to participate in and, judging from the post-concert comments of those who attended, to listen to. Most people were astonished that they had just heard this magnificent work for the first time.
In view of the celebratory nature of the concert, Evelyne de Clercq, the President of the Choir, and the Committee organised a reception in the elegant space of the MacLaurin Hall, at the opposite end of the quadrangle from the Great Hall. This was a grand occasion with a static photographic display and a screen with a continuous slide show on the history of the Choir.
Evelyne made a warm welcoming speech, which inter alia congratulated Christopher on his twenty successful years, emphasised the importance the Choir attaches to its relationship with the University and in supporting younger singers through the Joan Carden Award, thanked the German Consulate-General for the support they had given for this and earlier concerts, looked forward to our ‘Sydney Sings Messiah’ concert in November, and expressed particular appreciation for Marie Bashir’s dedicated efforts as our Patron. In reply, Professor Bashir spoke of the pleasure she had derived from involvement with the Choir, describing Christopher as “one of the treasures of our musical life”, and reiterating the sense of gratitude and humility she had felt on receiving the dedication of his Songs of the Heart to verse of Christopher Brennan, a Sydney alumnus and one-time faculty member, and wished us many years of successful activity.
Then a number of Choir members spoke, Jill Faddy, Claire Dalgarno, Celia Jordan (all altos)and Kent Broadhead (bass), giving reminiscences of different periods of the Choir’s history, Jill and Claire of the time largely before Christopher’s advent, beginning with our first Music Director, George Faunce Allman, Celia and Kent from the period A.B. (after Bowen). Kent raised laughter by recounting the infamous ‘pencil in the piano’ incident from the Choir’s first performance of Rossini’s Petite Messe Solennelle, which deserves to be anthologised in any book of musical bloopers. Christopher responded with an unaccustomed burst of praise for the Choir. By the time I returned to the floor after hitting the ceiling in astonishment at this, he had finished his speech and I missed most of it. This part of the proceedings ended with the presentation to Christopher of a bound copy of the score of the Songs of the Heart. Vice-President Alan Crameri performed the task of Master-of-Ceremonies calmly and professionally.
Terrry Litchfield, Derek Harrison and Friedrike Scheppach have collaborated on the production of a book, outlining the history of the Choir. It exists at the moment only in electronic form, and a copy of the CD from which it will be printed was given to all guests at the reception as a souvenir, while a copy of the book itself was presented to Professor Bashir.
Overall, it can be said that the Choir celebrated its big anniversary in a very worthy way. Definitive judgment will have to await a hearing of the recording but it appeared that the performance of Mendelssohn’s great work was one of our best singing efforts of recent years, while the reception was very enjoyable and appropriate to the occasion. Evelyne de Clercq was confronted with a very big challenge at the outset of her Presidential term and rose splendidly to the occasion, leading the team in the detailed preparations and successfully carrying out the public responsibilities of the event with assurance and an effective mixture of determination, common sense and good humour.
Felix Mendelssohn and George Faunce Allman would no doubt have been very satisfied with the Choir’s efforts on this red letter day.