Like many performers around Australia, the COVID-19 pandemic has taken its toll on Bel a cappella; preventing and postponing performances due to lockdowns and throwing up obstacles for the choir and its audiences left and right. Ancient Lands was scheduled as a triumphant return to full programs again but for more unexpected hurdles.
The concert program for Ancient Lands included a wide mix of pieces from across the 20th and 21st centuries with ample representation from living composers. A number of the pieces were selected for Bel a cappella concerts that were cancelled due to COVID-19 so the choir was excited to finally be performing them for a keen audience. However, the pandemic hasn’t quite released its grip on Australia’s performers and artists, and the days prior to this concert saw multiple musicians unable to perform. As such, Bel a cappella went forward with the performance in a more relaxed and intimate manner to share some semblance of celebration with their dedicated audience.
The opening piece was an experimental number by Australian composer Kate Moore titled “Eclipsed Vision”. The choir members entered the hall of the cathedral and walked the perimeter before exiting through another door, all the while singing a single, repeating note that differed for each singer. This process repeated multiple times, with the performers escalating from a hum to much higher pitched notes before scaling back down again. Moore was inspired by circuits or rotations found in nature like the planets orbiting the sun or blood travelling around the body. The steady and gradual shift in tone not only while the performers exited the hall but also through the doppler affect as they moved around the audience produced a highly unusual sensation of vibrating movement while remaining perfectly still within the audience. These kinds of exciting and experimental works are a favourite of Bel a cappella and this performance in particular recalled one of their 2019 concerts featuring the compositions of avant-garde composer John Cage. The abstract compositions demonstrate the playfulness of the Bel a cappella choir and their interest in beautiful and unusual forms.
Fittingly then, in their performance of “Earth teaches me quiet” by Latvian composer Ēriks Ešenvalds incorporated both a marimba, played by Josh Hill, and water-filled glasses played by the choir as a kind of glass harp. The lyrics, written as a prayer for the Ute people in what is now known as North America, are written using anaphora to list all the graces Earth is able to teach such as quiet, courage, and acceptance. In the singing, these lyrics became repetitious and hypnotic, only emphasised by the earthy and ethereal resonance of the marimba and the supernatural ringing of the glasses. Together, the instruments came to represent the elements of Earth from the earth and trees of the marimba, to the water in the glasses, to the air of the choir’s voices. It was a beautifully holistic performance that operated on multiple planes.
Mixed in amongst the unusual was a more traditional piece by Einojuhani Rautavaara, “Missa a Cappella”, which was split into three parts across the concert. This piece probably suffered the most from missing choir members considering the range of voices required but those on stage managed to convey the complexity of the movements well. “Kyrie” began very high with the bass section of the choir maintaining a deep underlying resonance but this transitioned through the second movement into a much bitier third movement. The fourth and fifth movements had something of a chant quality about them which was appropriate to the settings and history of choral compositions.
The final piece of the Ancient Lands program was particularly memorable for its combination of three languages and an impressive solo performance from soprano Margot McLaughlin. Joseph Twist’s “Hymn of Ancient Lands”, from which the program garnered its name, began in Old English which was remarkably refreshing when choirs so often perform in Latin. The unusual early language added vibrant texture to the concert and was confidently handled by McLaughlin who added her own personality to the performance. The surrounding choir provided the support in both Latin and English for a wonderful clashing of tones and languages that sharpened the differences between them while slipping into unexpected common sonority. This piece also echoed earlier uses of humming and chanting for a variety of modes which made for an exciting and encapsulating closing number.
Despite its setbacks, the Bel a cappella choir offered an eclectic and engaging concert with promises of more experimentation and enjoyment to come.
Ancient Lands was performed at St Augustine’s Catholic Church on May 8th
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