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Reviews/Music

A choir that knows how to party

26 May 2021

The UWA Choral Society are still going strong at 90, says Leon Levy who witnessed their musical celebration.

“90th Birthday Gala Concert”, University of Western Australia Choral Society ·
Winthrop Hall, 23 May 2021 ·

90 may not have quite the same ring to it as does 100, but the UWA Choral Society was right to celebrate, not only the achievement of a milestone anniversary, but also the re-emergence of vigorous musical life out of the pandemic. And nonagenarian though it may be, the choir certainly knows how to throw a musical party.

On the face of it, a programme drawing on the established choral repertoire, peppered with a selection of disconnected arias, was going to be risky. And yet, thanks to fine artistic judgement, the seemingly random repertoire came together as a satisfying whole. Staples from the choir’s past were recognised through the presence of Handel, Bach and Haydn, but also via a sprinkling of recognisable choral faces that saw service as far back as the 1980s (and perhaps even earlier) under the distinguished baton of John Winstanley. Also acknowledged was the role played by the society in introducing emerging artists, for the four soloists – Sara Macliver, Fiona Campbell, Paul O’Neill and Mark Alderson – were all given performing opportunities by UWACS early in their careers.

Four singers in concert dress stand smiling in front of an orchestra
L-R: Mark Alderson, Paul O’Neill, Fiona Campbell and Sara Macliver returned to perform with the choir as soloists. Photo supplied

And so to the programme. Handel’s Zadok the Priest and Parry’s I Was Glad are rousing anthems associated with moments of great public celebration. In the opening item the thrilling choral tone that is ideally needed for that chill-down-the-spine experience was not quite fully realised, but the second work most certainly delivered the required frisson. The short choral pieces that formed part of the first half all found the choir on terra firma. The “Lacrimosa” from Mozart’s Requiem, Bach’s “Jesus bleibet meine Freude”(popularly known asJesu Joy“) and Bruckner’s brief motet Locus iste, were performed with singing of limpid beauty.

It was not predictable that the massive Zadok opening chorus could be successfully followed by one of Mozart’s most sublime creations, the trio of farewell from Così fan Tutte (“Soave sia il vento”), and yet Macliver, Campbell and Alderson did just that. And in perhaps an even more remarkable example of compelling artistic focus, Campbell went straight to the heart of Handel’s hapless Theodora in singing of concentration and conviction that then continued into a duet with Macliver.

If all of this sounds rather sedate for a birthday party, it was certainly not the prevailing mood. Tenor Paul O’Neill showered the audience with high Cs in “Ah, mes amis” from Donizetti’s La Fille du Régiment, his thrilling tone bringing the house down in the process. No less stirring was his moment as Wagner’s Lohengrin in the aria “In fernem land”. Bizet’s “Toreador”(Alderson) and one of Strauss’s Four Last Songs, (Macliver) rounded out the soloists’ individual contributions.

Finally – and standing in sharp relief to all that had preceded it – came the culmination of the afternoon. Vaughan Williams’s Serenade to Music is a setting of Shakespeare’s meditation on the power of music and is arguably a unique work. It brought the celebration to a happy conclusion by uniting conductor, soloists, chorus and the first-class orchestra alike. Concertmaster Shaun Lee-Chen’s exceedingly fine extended violin solo set the tone for an assured and sympathetic performance, which itself was a fine portrait of where the choir now stands under its conductor Kristin Bowtell. This rendition set the seal on a successful afternoon of music-making and could perhaps be seen as a benediction on the choir as it celebrates its auspicious milestone.

UWA Choral Society’s birthday celebrations continue with “The Big Sing Messiah” and “Mozart Great Mass” in September and a Christmas celebration “In Terra Pax” in December.

Read more about the Choral Society’s history in “Ninety and still on song”.

Pictured top: Kristin Bowtell conducts the University of Western Australia Choral Society and orchestra. Photo supplied

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Author —
Leon Levy

Leon Levy‘s career was spent in commerce, but in retirement continues a lifetime’s interest in the arts generally and choral singing in particular. He enjoys occasional reviewing with its challenge of giving total focus to each performance. Leon remains attracted to playground slides under the cover of supervising his grandchildren.

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