Concerto for Choir | Bel a capella

For their second concert of 2019, Bel a capella again mixes pieces of old and new in a program that explores the sound and colour of choral music. Performed in the refined Cardinal Cerretti Memorial Chapel, the program centred “Concerto for Choir” by Alfred Schnittke for a balance of experimental and powerful pieces.

Opening with an unusual piece from avant-garde composer John Cage, “ear for EAR (Antiphonies)” saw soloist Ben Mullaney singing across the chapel to the rest of the choir with their backs to him, customary of Bel a capella’s inventive presentation style. The piece is written as an antiphony with Mullaney and the choir alternating, singing in response to each other, and only using the letters of the word “ear”. Combined with a later piece from the concert, also by John Cage, titled “Four2” they demonstrate a different approach to the voice and the possibilities of choral music by making the voice more instrumental, even less human at times.

In “Four2” the choir was spread in four opposing lines along the chapel like competing teams before a game. This piece similarly plays with sound, written with Cage’s unique “time bracket” technique which dictates the length of the performance but allowing some freedom in the internal timing. Each line of the choir sings out its note and fills the air with a deep hum that wavers and grows or shrinks over time. Considering the theme of colour, this style is like a sound gradient where the overall flow and wave of the piece is what impresses.

Other stand-out pieces from the first half of the concert included David Lang’s “I Lie” sung by just the women of the group. The composition uses the lyrics of a Yiddish folk song about a girl waiting for her lover to visit her but with a dark undercurrent. The stretched vowels and small rhythmic repetitions build in tension before breaking apart into disparate voices. Pepe Newton’s solo cuts through near the end of the piece and, in her urgency, feels like a sinister calling out with no response.

The hymn “I’ll Fly Away”, written by Albert E Brumley, is said to be the most recorded gospel song of all time and here Bel a capella presented another rendition arranged by Caroline Shaw titled “Fly Away I”. The piece is somewhat simple but, at the same time, the insistent repetitions become like incantations, growing in power over the course of the song. The coming together and shooting apart in the choir’s harmonising maintains interest in the imagery while the lightness and intermittent grandeur hint at a bluesy influence, unusual compared to the other pieces of this concert.

The second half of the concert was entirely dedicated to the epic “Concerto for Choir”. In four movements, the piece uses text from Book of Lamentations by St Gregory of Narek, translated into Russian. At over 40 minutes, the piece is a real marathon to perform and represents the grand traditional tone expected from religious choral pieces. In the first movement, the forceful waves of the basses work against the swelling high moments where the entire choir joins together. This backwards and forwards with added textural layering adds plenty of narrative interest.

Similarly, the second movement maintains the deep underlying sequences with a repeated “Hallelujah” overtop like a steady forward beat. Combined, the piece takes on an unsettled and nervous tone which fades into soft whispers, perhaps representing the humble attitude of the composer in his attempts to write for all listeners. The third movement intensifies feelings of suspense with an extended bass sequence broken by a piercing soprano which initiates an eerie alternating between racing climbs and falls into chanting.

The final movement finishes on a more sombre note solidifying the bass as the backbone and direction of the piece overall. In a gentle close, the final “Amen” was repeated, seeming to be handed off around the choir in a moment of reflection and closure.

With pieces across three centuries and seven composers, the Concerto for Choir concert program again demonstrates Bel a capella’s investment in representing the favourites and oddities of choral music.

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