Plenty of Perth talent

25 November 2020

West Australian musicians shine as national chamber music organisation Musica Viva returns to the Perth Concert Hall. Sandra Bowdler reflects on the state’s impressive talent pool.

“Reconnect: Sara Macliver & St George’s Cathedral Consort”, Musica Viva Australia ·
Perth Concert Hall, 23 November 2020 ·

Perth has been lucky, and privileged, to enjoy a small stream – a bit more than a trickle – of classical concerts over the last six months or so, as Seesaw readers will be aware. What could better signal a return to near-normalcy than a Baroque concert in the Perth Concert Hall?  Short it may have been (65 minutes), and with an audience spread out by social distancing, it was still a program to gladden the heart, and of the highest musical quality.

Under the aegis of the national organisation Musica Viva and the guiding artistic hand of conductor/keyboard player/choirmaster Joseph Nolan, the program comprised two aspects: sumptuous vocal pieces from high Baroque master Handel bracketed an ethereal selection of seventeenth century choral works. The small but excellent forces comprised Shaun Lee-Chen and Zak Rowntree (violins), Noeleen Wright (cello), Jennifer Coleman (trumpet) and featured the brilliant voice of soprano Sara Macliver. Not for the first time during this period of isolation, one could reflect on the bountiful talent we are blessed with here at the edge of the world.

The concert opened with the magisterial if totally familiar Toccata and Fugue in D minor by Bach (BWV 565), played by Nolan on the Concert Hall’s own pipe organ. For people who like that sort of thing, it was a thundering good outing. In a well-chosen change of mood, it was followed by Handel’s “Eternal source of Light Divine” (from the Ode for the Birthday of Queen Anne, HWV 74), effectively a duet for soprano and trumpet, beautifully rendered by Macliver and Coleman, and moving us towards the earlier stylings of William Byrd. “Sing joyfully” was sung with appropriate exuberance by the Consort, and this was followed by two more polyphonic offerings, Lobo’s “Versa est in luctum” and Parsons’ “Ave Maria”. These featured strongly propelled soprano lines soaring above a resonant bass, with the choir doing full justice to the required ethereality but overall robust sound.

The work known as Handel’s Gloria (HWV deest) was discovered less than twenty years ago, in the library of the Royal Academy of Music in London, bound with some other (known) Handel arias. Current scholarship seems rather against Handel’s authorship, but it is an enjoyable work in its own right, scored for soprano, two violins and basso continuo (as here, but often featuring a full string orchestra). It appears to date to 1706, during Handel’s sojourn in Rome, and certainly reflects Italian style of the period, as pointed out by Stewart Smith in his accessible but erudite pre-concert talk.  Again, Sara Macliver deployed her sumptuous tone and pinpoint accuracy, the first movement (“Glora in excelsis Deo”) dazzling with cascading high notes, and dramatizing the emotional highs and lows throughout, culminating in a lively picking up of the pace in the last movement (“Quoniam tu solus sanctus”), with a scintillating series of Amens.  Mention should also be made of Lee-Chen’s virtuosic violin contributions.

The Gloria was followed by a work also from Handel’s early repertoire, but just after his move to England, where he was entertained as court musician at Cannons, the residence of the Duke of Chandos. As well as producing one of his absolute masterpieces (Acis and Galatea) during his stay there, we also benefit from the 11 (or 12) Chandos anthems.  Excerpts from number 9, “O praise the Lord with one consent” (HWV 254), was a generally quite jolly affair, with the soprano aria “God’s tender mercy” delivered by Macliver with nicely judged gentleness.

The concluding item was the aria “Let the bright seraphim”  from Handel’s oratorio Samson (HWV 57, 1741) scored for soprano and trumpet. This was performed almost as a competition between voice and brass, with extravagant ornaments offered by both Macliver and Coleman, but concluding as one to provide an exciting and uplifting conclusion.

Pictured top: Musica Viva reconnects with its audience in this concert featuring Sara Macliver, Joseph Nolan, the St George’s Cathedral Consort and ensemble. Photo supplied.

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Author —
Sandra Bowdler

Sandra Bowdler is an archaeologist who has been writing about music for some twenty years, most recently for Opera magazine (UK), Bachtrack and Handel News. She is also the author of “Handel’s Operas in Australia, a performance history” Händel Jarhbuch (2017). Her favourite piece of playground equipment would be the picnic bench with smoked salmon sandwiches and champagne.

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