Female choristers singing
Music, News, Performing arts, Reviews

An early highlight

Perth Festival review: Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir and Australian Chamber Orchestra ⋅
Perth Concert Hall, February 13 ⋅
Review by Leon Levy ⋅

There is nothing more stimulating – nor more hoped for – in a festival than an unusual and imaginative confluence of artistic forces. This dream was doubly fulfilled on this occasion when the Perth Festival brought together a choir and orchestra who last performed on the same stage in 1999 and two composers – J.S. Bach and the Estonian Arvo Pärt – separated by 250 years.

The early composing career of Pärt came to a halt under Soviet censorship; but his research into the roots of Western music and into early choral writing brought with it fresh inspiration and a compositional style that takes off in the pre-Bach era and makes its landing in a receptive contemporary world. It is probably fair to say that few composers of the post-war era have so successfully absorbed archaic sounds and fashioned them so as to be distinctly and uniquely of our times.

All of this was reflected clearly in the opening work, Pärt’s Da Pacem Domine, a Jordi Savall commission for a 2004 Barcelona peace concert, and composed in memory of the victims of the Madrid train bombing of that year. With the choir standing in a single row in front of the orchestra and barely visible in the darkened auditorium, the short, slow plea for peace had the audience collectively holding its breath. Sparing in harmony and restrained in melodic content, voices perfectly pitched and weighted, a more arresting opening would be hard to imagine.

And then, completely without pause and with the lights raised, Bach’s motet Komm, Jesu, Komm was launched while the choir sang its way to its double chorus formation behind the orchestra. With the singers summoning freshest tone and the purity of the upper voices lending an appropriately ecstatic quality, the theme of the work – the release from earthly life into life-eternal – was perfectly evoked.

Each composer having thus made his opening statement, a pattern of short alternating works followed, Pärt’s orchestral utterances contrasting with Bach’s accompanied Lutheran motets. All were performed with high accomplishment and each was replete with memorable moments in composition and execution.

The third item, Pärt’s orchestral Summa, with its jagged lines gently intoned, suggested a quiet determination that life shall go on, following the tragedy that inspired Da pacem Domine. By contrast, Bach’s Singet dem Herr ein neues Lied then led into an unleashing of joy and energy, with solo voices emerging as though from a heavenly host!

A brief but attractive In Paradisum by Galina Grigorjeva strongly reflects her Orthodox inspiration.  In this performance it built towards a richly harmonic Slavonic climax before a finely controlled quiet close. Moving abruptly – and without chorus – into an altogether different sound world, Peter Sculthorpe’s Djilile (“Whistling Duck”) uses an Aboriginal melody from Arnhem Land that resonated strongly with the composer.  The emergence of the song from the vast landscape evoked by the cello introduction, seemed to convey love and loss of country and a spirituality no less profound than anything that had preceded it on the programme.

Pärt’s Berliner Messe was composed for the 1990 Berlin Katholikentage, a periodic gathering held in the German-speaking countries. The evening’s most substantial offering, it is a work of solemn devotion in Pärt’s tintinnabuli style and is devoid of any hint of flamboyance. Its performance reflected the qualities heard throughout the evening and, with a concluding plea for peace, brought us full circle to the theme of the opening work.

Richard Tognetti, combining masterful direction with a self-effacing presence, together with a group of truly fine orchestral and vocal artists, gave the 2019 Perth Festival an absorbing and stimulating early highlight.

The Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir can also be heard in performance at Winthrop Hall on Friday 15th February at 8pm and Saturday 16th at 3pm, with pre-concert conversations one hour before each show.

Pictured top: The Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir. Photo Kristian Kruuser.

Please follow and like us:
A barista holds a transverse flute and a soprano holds a coffee cup while browsing her phone
Music, News, Performing arts, Reviews

A perfectly poured Baroque latte

Fringe World review: Coffee Cantatas ⋅
St Andrew’s Church Subiaco, February 4 ⋅
Review by Rosalind Appleby ⋅

“If you don’t give up coffee I won’t buy you anymore Gorman dresses,” storms Lieschen’s dad.

“OK!” is her flippant reply.

The original text from Bach’s Cantata BWV 211 refers to a whalebone dress, but 300 years later it requires very little updating to resonate with the audience at St Andrew’s Church in Subiaco. There are smiles of appreciation as soprano Brianna Louwen sings Lieschen’s ode to coffee: ‘More delicious than a thousand kisses/better than muscato wine.’

Bach’s secular cantata (circa 1730) was written for a German coffee house, scored for transverse flute, three vocalists and small string ensemble. The intimate work was the perfect vehicle to showcase the talents of flautist Jonty Coy, Louwen and their ensemble in the resonant acoustic at St Andrew’s. With the help of a few coffee cups and some impromptu dances they explored the rhythmic vitality of Bach’s music and his satirical humour. Schlendrian (in German literally ‘stick in the mud’) tries everything to convince his daughter to give up her addictive habit. Even when he has success his wily daughter has the upper hand.

Louwen was an endearing Lieschen, singing with a sweetly contained soprano that floated over the audience as she wandered the church. Gabrielle Scheggia was a dynamic dancing narrator and Bass singer Jake Bigwood was suitably stern as Schlendrian although not as precise in the florid passages. Coy’s Baroque flute playing, often from memory, was clean and immaculately ornamented. They were ably supported by a string ensemble of  young tertiary graduates, underpinned by Andrew Tait on violone and Aidan Deasy on lute.

It bodes well for the future of Baroque music in Perth to see the next generation of musicians collaborating to present historical music with such creativity. And they didn’t have to take many liberties with Henrici’s libretto. Take Lieschen’s response on discovering her father would get her a husband if she gives up coffee: “At last instead of coffee before bed I can have a sturdy lover.” And this from the guy who scripted the St Matthew Passion!

Coffee Cantatas continues until February 5 as part of the classical music series at St Andrew’s Church, Subiaco.

Pictured top: Jonty Coy and Brianna Louwen. Photo David Penco.

Please follow and like us: