Voices soar in gentle waves

31 July 2023

The world premiere of a local work gives WASO Chorus an extra lift in another enterprising program, writes Leon Levy. 

WASO Chorus Sings: Serenity 
St Mary’s Cathedral, 30 July 2023 

A year after WASO Chorus filled St Mary’s Cathedral with the glorious sound of Cherubini’s Requiem, this concert’s theme of serenity presents a challenge. Clear diction and firmly sustained sound are surely the lifeblood of gentle singing, but they are qualities that can be lost in a cavernous cathedral acoustic.  

Norwegian-born (1978) composer Ola Gjeilo’s Prelude provides an arresting opening. Just three minutes in duration, it allows for and receives some lusty singing. It gives a highly effective contrast to the heartfelt Ave Maria by Alice Tegner (1864-1943), a leading Swedish teacher and composer. Her four-part a cappella setting for female voices makes its touching statement in barely three minutes, but here the unspecified keyboard accompaniment rather detracts from its impact. 

With Morten Lauridsen, a contemporary American choral composer, we are in altogether different territory. The movingly-set poem by Pablo Neruda, Soneto de la Noche, in the words of the composer, “speaks of an eternal love that transcends death while reaffirming life”. The chorus faithfully captures the mood of the text, individual parts making their mark while integrating into the whole, a beautifully controlled conclusion crowning the performance. 

J.S.Bach’s most substantial cantata, Jesu, meine Freude, with cello and organ accompaniment, is central to today’s concert. Of its 11 movements, six are versions of a 1653 chorale, interleaved with text settings from Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. The odd-numbered chorale verses seem to work best, with exultant sound, whereas the contrasting Epistle movements, with varied choral forces, respond less consistently to the cathedral acoustic. Nevertheless, the central fugue builds beautifully to a satisfying climax, as does the work as a whole. 

WASO Chorus sing an enterprising program at St Mary’s Cathedral. Photo suppled by WASO

Olivia Davies, composer in residence with the West Australian Symphony Orchestra, briefly steps up to talk about the world premiere of Murmuration and pay tribute to the poet, Thuy On, and Prue Ashurst, who commissioned her new work. The poem of the same name consists of just that one word, its components set out asymmetrically on a single page to convey the impression of a flock of starlings in flight. The ever-changing flight patterns of the birds are evoked in the variety of sounds from the choral sections, resulting in a striking work. Conductor and choir, as well as the audience, are plainly delighted to share in the unveiling. 

This unique moment does, in fact, seem to inspire the musical forces, for a second work by Ola Gjeilo, Serenity: O magnum mysterium, is something rather special, with powerful cello accompaniment by Noeleen Wright. With two vocal lines assigned to each of the four sections, the composer’s aim “to write music that has a symphonic, abundant feel … (with a) warm, lush sound that can give a feeling of space … but still be intimate” is fully realised. 

The program concludes with The Fruits of Silence, by contemporary Latvian composer Peteris Vasks. His inspiration was a short prayer by Mother Teresa that ends with ‘peace’ as the ultimate fruit of silence. Gladys Chua’s poised keyboard accompaniment suggests a brief salute to Estonian composer Arvo Part, but perhaps it is the awareness of peace as an ever-more elusive goal that seals the performance. 

Overall, it is the intelligence of planning and excellence of execution under chorus director Andrew Foote that distinguishes this concert.      

WASO Chorus are part of the West Australian Symphony Orchestra’s Magic Spirit, Perth Concert Hall, 6-7 October 2023.

Pictured top: WASO Chorus sing serenely in St Mary’s Cathedral for a delighted audience. Photo supplied by WASO

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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.

Past Articles

  • WASO Chorus gives voice to a forgotten treasure

    Cherubini’s church music compositions are today largely overlooked, but proved a fine choice for the WASO Chorus, writes Leon Levy

  • A gem revealed

    Yet another concert cancelled, but in this case the WASO Chorus and UWA Symphonic Chorus were redeployed and Leon Levy finds the program immensely rewarding.

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