Seasoned song

21 December 2019

Review: Voyces, ‘The Three Wise Men’ ·
Christ Church Grammar School Chapel, December 20, 2019 ·
Review by Rosalind Appleby ·

There’s something extra special about hearing sacred music during the season for which it was written. Voyces ensemble structured their final concert for the year around seven 5th century chants known as the O Antiphons, texts historically recited during the last seven days of Advent.

But there was a twist.

The texts were re-imagined by a group of contemporary European composers, bringing a sharpened focus to the ancient tradition. It’s part of Voyces’ unique contribution to the West Australian music scene, with their commitment to commissioning and performing contemporary music which tells the stories of today.

I’d forgotten how immersive vocal music is, producing sound waves that reverberate right through the body. The perfect antidote to the pre-Christmas rush. Thirty-four young voices floated acapella through the Christ Church Grammar Chapel with a purity that was as refreshing as the Fremantle Doctor which was blowing white caps on the river below.

The Merton College Antiphons, as they are known, include arrangements by illustrious composers such as John Tavener, whose O Adonai was built over a luscious pedal note in the basses, and Ēriks Ešenvalds, whose O Emmanuel featured a delicate alto chant. The male singers impressed in Rihards Dubra’s O Radix, showcasing the breadth of the ensemble’s sound. O Oriens, by Cecilia McDowall was also favourite, with its Brittenesque close harmonies and elegant lyricism.

Carols were interspersed along the way which, while festive, did interrupt the contemplative mystery of the Antiphons. The carols would’ve worked better clustered before and after, enabling the Antiphons to flow without pause, and uninterrupted by long pauses to acknowledge applause.

The choir, conducted by Robert Braham, exploited the contrasts between the various carols: Roxanna Panufnik’s Cradle Song rocked gently between major and minor tonalities, Adrian Peacock’s Venite Gaudete had a bright energy and Ian Assersohn’s Make We Joy Now In This Fest skipped along with joyful humour. Perth composer Perry Joyce contributed two pleasant arrangements of Silent Night and Ding Dong Merrily On High, demonstrating his skill in writing for voice; the tubular bells (performed by Jackson Vickery) were a nice touch. Jonathan Bradley accompanied the choir on piano for several songs, although the sheer volume and density Voyces produced required little extra support.

In fact the dynamic range was a little too impressive in sections; a tendency to over-sing on the climaxes added a strained edge to the otherwise crisp and warm ensemble sound. Correcting the occasional pitch issues in exposed soprano lines would add the final polish to this brave and professional ensemble, who brought us such a spiritually inspiring program.

Pictured top: Voyces ensemble. Photo Nik Babic.

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Author —
Rosalind Appleby

Rosalind is an arts journalist, author and speaker. She was co-managing editor and founding board member of Seesaw Magazine 2018 – 2023, is author of Women of Note, and has written for The West Australian, The Guardian, The Australian, Limelight magazine and Opera magazine (UK). She loves park percussion instruments.

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