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Reviews/Music

Choral ensemble debut with world premiere

3 December 2021

A new work by Lydia Gardiner performed by new vocal ensemble Sonus Angelorum attracts a full house at St George’s Cathedral. Rosalind Appleby reports on the fresh sounds.

A Ceremony of Carols, Sonus Angelorum ·
St Georges Cathedral, 2 Decemer 2021 ·

The concert series at St George’s Cathedral regularly attracts a full house, but in this case the prospect of a new work by Lydia Gardiner performed by new vocal ensemble Sonus Angelorum meant the concert sold out weeks in advance.

The program opened with Britten’s Ceremony of Carols, a setting of ten Middle English carols written in 1942 for treble voices and harp. The work has an archaic simplicity, using clean harmonies that resonate openly. It is often performed by a children’s choir but it made the perfect debut for the Sonus Angelorum, which features the 15 female singers from the Cathedral Consort. The sageness of the women, not to mention the extraordinarily accurate pitch and pure blend of their voices, made for a stunning performance.

Each of Britten’s short carols has a unique feel and the choir exploited them in turn. The open octave singing of the Gregorian chant in “Procession” introduced the unity and collective warmth of the blended voices. Various soloists showcased different timbres of the female voice, from crystalline sweetness to grainy plaintiveness. Conductor Joseph Nolan brought his trademark dramatic flair: “Wolcum Yole” had a bright boldness, the famous lullaby “Bululalow” a gently rocking lilt and the battling overlapping phrases in “This Little Babe” were sung with crisp fury.

Bonnie de la Hunty and Lydia Gardiner. Photo: Greg Hocking

Yi-Yun Loei provided a harp accompaniment that matched the delicate clarity of the voices and propelled them forward. Her solo performance of Henriette Renié’s Contemplation, following on from the Britten, was a chance to hear the full splendour of the harp. Renie is an overlooked French composer and harpist from the early 20th century and her romantic, expressive harp composition with its Chopin-esque lyricism was a wonderful discovery.

Perth composer Lydia Gardiner is more familiar. She is a regular performer with the Cathedral Consort and I’ve heard short works of hers performed by that ensemble and the Giovanni Consort which were all too fleeting. This concert provided the opportunity to hear the 22-year-old composer at length. Her new commission A New Ceremony of Carols used the same texts and instrumentation as Britten; a tall order indeed! It was evident from the outset, however that Gardiner goes her own way, and her distinctive writing style was immediately engaging.

Gardiner’s more modern harmonic palette explores close harmonies and the resultant clash of notes were used to dramatic effect. Like Britten, she draws on ancient musical techniques, referencing plainchant and folk song in her melodies and rhythms. She also has Britten’s skill for setting text; in each song there was clarity of mood and text.

However Gardiner’s work has a more operatic sense of dramatic pacing. She uses silence poetically and pares some carols down to simply one or two solo voices. Brianna Louwen’s solo rendition of “There Is No Rose” was particularly striking with its mix of plainchant, extremely large intervals and complete silence. Louwen sang with purity, power and vulnerability and had the audience transfixed.

The harp had an independent role, often at odds harmonically with the choir which created a denser texture. The solo harp interlude included complicated glissandi and half pedalling which Loei navigated with ease, asserting a repeated motif with the potency of an unanswered question.

A New Ceremony of Carols reveals a composer who is both reflective and incisive. Gardiner draws on her experience as a choral singer, utilising the best of modern and ancient methods of writing for the voice. It’s clear she knows intimately the voices she is writing for and how best to showcase them. In many ways her Ceremony of Carols felt like a gift of tribute to the women standing around her. It heralds the arrival of an ensemble and a composer who bring welcome diversity and authority to Western Australia’s choral scene.

The St George’s Cathedral Concert Series program continues in 2022.

Pictured top: Sonus Angelorum and Yi-Yun Loei conducted by Dr Joseph Nolan. Photo: Greg Hocking

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Author —
Rosalind Appleby

Rosalind Appleby is an arts journalist, author and speaker. She is co-editor of Seesaw Magazine, author of Women of Note, and has written for The West Australian, The Guardian, The Australian, Limelight magazine and Opera magazine. She loves the percussion instruments which can be found in the uber cool parks.

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