For their first concert of 2019, Sydney’s Bel a cappella performed a wide ranging program of pieces from familiar composers and some unusual outliers. Performing in the quaint Victorian St Augustine’s Catholic Church, the choir were additionally joined by AirCon, a whistling group, to add another flair to typical choral singing.
The first piece to open the concert was composed by Bernat Vivancos and inspired by the prayers of Catalan Benedictine monks. “Obriu-me els llavis, Senyor” is written with five parts atop a melody by P. Gregori Estrada and was performed with the choir in a circle which helped the long opening hum resound through the church, along the tin ceiling. The lines of prayer were spoken at intervals over the singing like touchstones to this tradition of worship. Johann Sebastian Bach’s piece “Lobet den Hern, alle Heiden (BMV 230)” is a similar adaptation of a psalm but with a much more merry tone, almost carol-esque in its rollicking rhythm. The final “Alleluja” sequence maintained the uplifted, crowded quality of the piece and relieved some of the tension from the heavier opening song.
Both of the following pieces were performed in German and represented the tonal spectrum from sombre to dramatic. Gustav Mahler’s “Urlicht” from Des Knaben Wunderhorn No 12 is a slow and reflective piece written after the death of a dear friend. While, on the other hand, “Psalm 43: Richte mich, Gott” by Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy features a big, dramatic opening and powerful Romantic passages throughout. This drama is offset by light and breathy stretches that run underneath and emphasise the booming basses.
It was in the second half of this program, however, that the concert truly came to life with two extraordinary and unusual choral compositions introduced by musical director Anthony Pasquill. Pasquill explained his contemplation of these two pieces and his joy in getting the chance to bring them to the stage with Bel a cappella while also alluding to their unexpected elements.
The titular piece for the program “Sun-Dogs” by Sir James MacMillan was composed as a combination of his devout Scottish Catholicism and his unique musical talent. Comprised of five parts, the piece is a deeply symbolic exploration of a story about wild dogs roaming and causing havoc. Each movement is quite different from the others, starting with a sombre and tense description of the dogs running, looking for a victim. The choir starts in unison but breaks out into disjointed passages of mumbling, like the pattering of rain, which are pierced through with the violent images of the dogs. Throughout the piece, certain phrases are repeated for emphasis and to add drama that represents the emphatic voice of the narrator in telling this story of the dogs.
The following two movements use differing volumes and isolated voices to alternate between heraldic and sinister tones. It’s the fourth movement, where the Latin prayer of consecration is directly integrated, that is the most powerful of the piece. Pasquill spreads the choir along the centre of the church, with a group under the alter, another in the centre performance area, and a group of AirCon performers (Hazel Browne, Meredith Cheng, Karen Cortez, Connor Malanos, Thomas McCorquodale, and Sam Xu) above the audience in the back gallery. Each group sings a different passage of the movement and the overlapping and layering of rhythm and form juxtaposes them against each other. In particular, the whistling over the mumbled repeating prayer creates an eerie sense of unjustified carefree spirit while also a strong desperation to convey the message of the prayer and the story of the dogs. This movement finishes with deep, unified breathing; a deceptively relaxed and slow closing that emanates both exhaustion into sleep and a moment of stillness in the middle of a chase.
Similarly unusual, the final piece of the Sun-Dogs concert was written by Estonian composer Veljo Tormis for chorus with a shaman drum. “Curse Upon Iron (Raua Needmine)” combines inspiration from the Finnish epic Kalevala and contemporary Estonian poetry to explore the notion of knowledge and control over elements, specifically iron.
Pasquill on the drum sets a racing chant pace over which the Estonian lyrics are fierce and urgent. There is an aggressive, war cry-esque atmosphere throughout the piece that is exciting and very unexpected for an otherwise quiet Sunday concert. The repeated phrase “Ohoi sinda, rauda raiska (Ohoy, villian! Wretched iron!)” becomes intoxicating and incites a wrapt attention from the audience until the last line, “Maad meil kullalt siis molemal (There will be land enough for both)” heard an audible release of held breath.
Sun-Dogs was an exciting combination of classical and conservative choral pieces with some truly unusual and extraordinary examples of off-beat contemporary composition. Bel a cappella has demonstrated both an enormous range of performance capabilities and a lively and enthusiastic engagement with the experimental possibilities in choral pieces in their first concert for 2019.