On Sunday, 7 December, after the huge organizational challenge of mounting the premiere of Christopher Bowen’s An Australian War Requiem in the Sydney Town Hall in August, we returned to our home ground, the Great Hall of the University, to present a modest program of English music by Gerald Finzi and Ralph Vaughan Williams, plus a few carols, for the Choir’s third subscription concert for 2014.
There was a certain irony in the concert’s title, as the temperature in Sydney on concert day was hot and humid, with a storm threatening to break, and the conditions in the Great Hall close to their stifling worst. Choir President, David Herrero, made the most of this irony, when he welcomed the audience to the performance ‘on this chilly December afternoon.’
Both works by Finzi, the Requiem da Camera from 1923-24, and the cantata, In Terra Pax, from 1954-56, had overtones of grief and mourning from the First World War. In his music, Finzi seems to make a conscious effort to eschew big effects, while pursuing subtle sensitivity. (During the rehearsal process, I found my respect for it growing and came to regret as tasteless and boorish my initial impression that Mark Twain’s bon mot about Wagner—his music’s better than it sounds—could also be applied to Finzi). By concert time, certain parts of these works had come to sound very good indeed.
Thunder broke out overhead at a very inappropriate time in the Requiem, without for some reason spoiling the atmosphere. The lights threatened to go out, leading one member of the audience to ask if it was a special effect we had organized. If only we had the resources for stunts like that!
Vaughan Williams was represented by his very late cantata on Christmas carols, The First Nowell, and the popular orchestral piece, Fantasia on Greensleeves. In the cantata, his love for the English carols, which included God Rest you Merry Gentlemen, On Christmas Night and the Cherry Tree Carol, as well as The First Nowell, shone through, as well as his mastery as an arranger. The Fantasia gave a number of our orchestral players an opportunity to showcase their skills: Leah Lock (flute), Duncan Thorpe (oboe), Owen Torr (harp—there is always something very cheering about seeing a harp in the orchestra, especially when it is in Owen’s very capable hands), Robert Harris (viola) and Stan Kornel (violin), who once again led the orchestra with style and precision. Elsewhere in the program, Graham Nichols showed his skill on his fascinating instrument, the horn.
Two young soloists, at different stages of their careers, sang in the concert: Kathryn Williams (soprano) has recently graduated from the Sydney Conservatorium; David Greco (baritone) has sung in opera and concerts in Australia (with Opera Australia and Pinchgut and the ACO and Australian Brandenburg Orchestra) and in a number of European countries. Both made a valuable contribution to the success of the performance.
Although the threatening weather may have kept some potential concert-goers away, the audience was reasonable, if modest. Those who were there clearly enjoyed themselves. The programming of two choral arrangements by Christopher Bowen of carols (O Come, O Come, Emmanuel and the Coventry Carol) helped to create the Christmas spirit, which was further warmed when he invited the audience to join in singing O Come All Ye Faithful, Away in a Manger, Silent Night and (as if to underline the Choir’s special relationship with Felix Mendelssohn) Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.
A goodwill gesture by Christopher and the Choir to the audience, an unannounced leap into the chorus of We Wish You a Merry Christmas, achieved the desired effect despite a lack of unanimity among the choristers as to key and tempo. On the other hand, Christopher’s presentation of his bouquet with a sweeping gesture to Jill Faddy (alto), who is celebrating her fiftieth year as a member of the Choir, was greeted with unanimous acclamation.