Christmas at the Town Hall

Christmas at the Town Hall has become the traditional ‘end of year’ celebration for the Grads, and so it was on this past Tuesday night (16 December).

Rehearsing 'Silent Night, Holy Night', with candles

Rehearsing ‘Silent Night, Holy Night’, with candles

The tragic circumstances of the 24 hours prior had prompted a last-minute reshaping of the program—the Waitara Voices Children’s Choir were unable to attend, and their absence was keenly felt.

However, by spoken word, and by heart-felt song, the Town Hall rang out with messages of hope and peace on earth—‘Good will to all men’.

The Sydney University Graduate Choir was joined by the Central Coast Chorale, the choir of St Johns at Wahroonga, the Orange Regional Conservatorium Symphonic Choir, and the Sydney Community College Choir. The program also featured soprano Elke Hook, the Royal Australian Navy Band, led by Lieut. Steven Stanke, and harpist Karen Hickmott. Grads Music Director Christopher Bowen conducted (aka ‘crowd-controlled’) with grace, style and a goodly dash of humour. Presiding over all, maestro Robert Ampt on the Grand Organ, the driving force behind the event.

The audience is seated, the concert is about to begin

The audience is seated, the concert is about to begin

Interspersed with readings on the nativity, some of which gave a beautifully Australian flavour to the proceedings, were some which marked the anniversary of the outbreak of the Great War. These told the story of the Christmas truce in 1914, when soldiers on came out of the trenches to exchange small tokens, and to sing the songs of Christmas that were common to both sides.

The readings were given by members of the Grads, by the Stage Manager John Maizels and the Compere Geoff Shalala.

We also paused, in silence, to remember the victims of the siege in Martin Place and our thoughts went out to their families, friends and colleagues. The contrast between these reflections and the yearning for peace so beautifully embodied in the carol that followed, ‘It came upon a midnight clear’, provided a deeply-felt conclusion for choir and audience alike to this section of the evening.

D Moser - Vice President SUGC

D Moser – Vice President SUGC and one of the evening’s readers

It was an evening that wouldn’t have been the same without Elke Hook, whose lovely soprano voice graced a number of planned musical pieces and readings, plus others that were to have been filled by the absent children’s choir. Harpist Karen Hickmott also stepped in, performing extra pieces at very short notice. The ever-enjoyable Navy Band actually found themselves with slightly less to do, but did it with a characteristic energy and style that had the whole Hall happily joining in.

The concert closed with the thunderous sound of the combined choirs and audience singing ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’—a brilliant and positive message for the Christmas season and for the New Year.

The Sydney University Graduate Choir wishes to thank you for your support this year, and look forward to seeing you again in 2015.

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An English Winter’s Evening

On Sunday, 7 December, after the huge organizational challenge of mounting the premiere of Christopher Bowen’s An Australian War Requiem in the Sydney Town Hall in August, we returned to our home ground, the Great Hall of the University, to present a modest program of English music by Gerald Finzi and Ralph Vaughan Williams, plus a few carols, for the Choir’s third subscription concert for 2014.

An English Winter's Evening

An English Winter’s Evening

There was a certain irony in the concert’s title, as the temperature in Sydney on concert day was hot and humid, with a storm threatening to break, and the conditions in the Great Hall close to their stifling worst. Choir President, David Herrero, made the most of this irony, when he welcomed the audience to the performance ‘on this chilly December afternoon.’

Both works by Finzi, the Requiem da Camera from 1923-24, and the cantata, In Terra Pax, from 1954-56, had overtones of grief and mourning from the First World War. In his music, Finzi seems to make a conscious effort to eschew big effects, while pursuing subtle sensitivity. (During the rehearsal process, I found my respect for it growing and came to regret as tasteless and boorish my initial impression that Mark Twain’s bon mot about Wagner—his music’s better than it sounds—could also be applied to Finzi). By concert time, certain parts of these works had come to sound very good indeed.

Thunder broke out overhead at a very inappropriate time in the Requiem, without for some reason spoiling the atmosphere. The lights threatened to go out, leading one member of the audience to ask if it was a special effect we had organized. If only we had the resources for stunts like that!

Vaughan Williams was represented by his very late cantata on Christmas carols, The First Nowell, and the popular orchestral piece, Fantasia on Greensleeves. In the cantata, his love for the English carols, which included God Rest you Merry Gentlemen, On Christmas Night and the Cherry Tree Carol, as well as The First Nowell, shone through, as well as his mastery as an arranger. The Fantasia gave a number of our orchestral players an opportunity to showcase their skills: Leah Lock (flute), Duncan Thorpe (oboe), Owen Torr (harp—there is always something very cheering about seeing a harp in the orchestra, especially when it is in Owen’s very capable hands), Robert Harris (viola) and Stan Kornel (violin), who once again led the orchestra with style and precision. Elsewhere in the program, Graham Nichols showed his skill on his fascinating instrument, the horn.

David Greco (Baritone) and Kathryn Williams (Soprano)

David Greco (Baritone) and Kathryn Williams (Soprano)

Two young soloists, at different stages of their careers, sang in the concert: Kathryn Williams (soprano) has recently graduated from the Sydney Conservatorium; David Greco (baritone) has sung in opera and concerts in Australia (with Opera Australia and Pinchgut and the ACO and Australian Brandenburg Orchestra) and in a number of European countries. Both made a valuable contribution to the success of the performance.

Although the threatening weather may have kept some potential concert-goers away, the audience was reasonable, if modest. Those who were there clearly enjoyed themselves. The programming of two choral arrangements by Christopher Bowen of carols (O Come, O Come, Emmanuel and the Coventry Carol) helped to create the Christmas spirit, which was further warmed when he invited the audience to join in singing O Come All Ye Faithful, Away in a Manger, Silent Night and (as if to underline the Choir’s special relationship with Felix Mendelssohn) Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.

A goodwill gesture by Christopher and the Choir to the audience, an unannounced leap into the chorus of We Wish You a Merry Christmas, achieved the desired effect despite a lack of unanimity among the choristers as to key and tempo. On the other hand, Christopher’s presentation of his bouquet with a sweeping gesture to Jill Faddy (alto), who is celebrating her fiftieth year as a member of the Choir, was greeted with unanimous acclamation.

John Bowan

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‘So great a beauty’—An English Winter’s Evening

Our year is drawing to a close—the days are growing longer and hotter, saturated in the scent of the flowers and crowned by the purple of the jacaranda. Summer and Christmas are almost here.

But in England, Autumn’s colours have blazed up, and died away; storms rage and batter coast, field and town. The country prepares for Winter’s chill—for long dark nights, hoarfrost and snow, when fields lie dormant, and man and beast seek shelter from the elements.

In our final concert for this year we will present works painting a timeless picture of pastoral England during the harvest and Christmas seasons.

Drawing on text from three well-known English, poets, the first work—Requiem da Camera—by Gerald Finzi, counterpoints delicately phrased impressions of autumn and harvest with reflections on the long shadows thrown by the War that had just decimated Finzi’s generation.

At the outbreak of the Great War John Masefield penned August 1914, building in words an indelible sequence of images: from the great beauty of pastoral England, filled with the gentle sounds of evening –birdsong, the music of the sheep bells in the fold, the whisper of the pines. Masefield then removes us to the ‘the misery of the soaking trench, the freezing in the rigging, the despair in the revolting second of the wrench when a blind soul is flung upon the air’ in a way that was almost prescient.

Masefield himself served as an orderly with the Red Cross during 1915-1916, his experiences at the front, and in writing reports about the Somme and Gallipoli campaigns, giving the proof to the shadows and growing darkness in this, his only war-time poem.

The second piece of text is from Thomas Hardy’s 1915 In time of ‘The breaking of the Nations’. It also alludes to the timelessness of the land, helping to build the picture that wars may rage, and men—and empires—may fall, but the cycles of the earth, of nature, will triumph and endure.

The Requiem concludes with A Lament from by Wilfrid Wilson Gibson, published in 1918, which poses the question that so many who endured and survived the 1914-1918 conflict must have asked themselves: How shall we look on these beautiful things without remembering those we lost who loved them too?

The second work by Finzi—In Terra Pax—juxtaposes text by English poet Robert Bridges with the story of the Nativity as told in St Luke’s Gospel. We are taken to a frosty, clear Christmas Eve in the English countryside, where the distant sound of bells echoes across the landscape and out into the starry firmament. From our solitary listener the story unfolds to tell of those long-ago shepherds, and their wonder at the heavenly chorus singing in glory of the Christ-child’s birth.

The concert will feature two works by Ralph Vaughan Williams, an important influence on, and mentor of, Finzi: the joyful The First Nowell, written late in Vaughan Williams life, and also the popular Fantasia on Greensleeves.

We hope you can join us for what promises to be a beautiful conclusion to a year of wonderful music.

 August 1914 – John Masefield (from Philip the King, and Other Poems, published 1914)

How still this quiet cornfield is to-night!
By an intenser glow the evening falls,
Bringing, not darkness, but a deeper light;
Among the stooks a partridge covey calls.
The windows glitter on the distant hill;
Beyond the hedge the sheep-bells in the fold
Stumble on sudden music and are still;
The forlorn pinewoods droop above the wold.

 An endless quiet valley reaches out
Past the blue hills into the evening sky;
Over the stubble, cawing, goes a rout
Of rooks from harvest, flagging as they fly.

 So beautiful it is, I never saw
So great a beauty on these English fields,
Touched by the twilight’s coming into awe,
Ripe to the soul and rich with summer’s yields.

 These homes, this valley spread below me here,
The rooks, the tilted stacks, the beasts in pen,
Have been the heartfelt things, past-speaking dear
To unknown generations of dead men,

 Who, century after century, held these farms,
And, looking out to watch the changing sky,
Heard, as we hear, the rumours and alarms
Of war at hand and danger pressing nigh.

 And knew, as we know, that the message meant
The breaking off of ties, the loss of friends,
Death, like a miser getting in his rent,
And no new stones laid where the trackway ends.

 The harvest not yet won, the empty bin,
The friendly horses taken from the stalls,
The fallow on the hill not yet brought in,
The cracks unplastered in the leaking walls.

 Yet heard the news, and went discouraged home,
And brooded by the fire with heavy mind,
With such dumb loving of the Berkshire loam
As breaks the dumb hearts of the English kind,

 Then sadly rose and left the well-loved Downs,
And so by ship to sea, and knew no more
The fields of home, the byres, the market towns,
Nor the dear outline of the English shore,

 But knew the misery of the soaking trench,
The freezing in the rigging, the despair
In the revolting second of the wrench
When the blind soul is flung upon the air,

 And died (uncouthly, most) in foreign lands
For some idea but dimly understood
Of an English city never built by hands
Which love of England prompted and made good.

 If there be any life beyond the grave,
It must be near the men and things we love,
Some power of quick suggestion how to save,
Touching the living soul as from above.

 An influence from the Earth from those dead hearts
So passionate once, so deep, so truly kind,
That in the living child the spirit starts,
Feeling companioned still, not left behind.

 Surely above these fields a spirit broods
A sense of many watchers muttering near
Of the lone Downland with the forlorn woods
Loved to the death, inestimably dear.

 A muttering from beyond the veils of Death
From long-dead men, to whom this quiet scene
Came among blinding tears with the last breath,
The dying soldier’s vision of his queen.

 All the unspoken worship of those lives
Spent in forgotten wars at other calls
Glimmers upon these fields where evening drives
Beauty like breath, so gently darkness falls.

Darkness that makes the meadows holier still,
The elm-trees sadden in the hedge, a sigh
Moves in the beech-clump on the haunted hill,
The rising planets deepen in the sky,

 And silence broods like spirit on the brae,
A glimmering moon begins, the moonlight runs
Over the grasses of the ancient way
Rutted this morning by the passing guns.

 In time of ‘The breaking of the Nations’ – Thomas Hardy, published in the Saturday Review, January 1916

I
Only a man harrowing clods
In a slow silent walk
With an old horse that stumbles and nods
Half asleep as they stalk.

II
Only thin smoke without flame
From the heaps of couch-grass;
Yet this will go onward the same
Though Dynasties pass.

III
Yonder a maid and her wight
Come whispering by:
War’s annals will cloud into night
Ere their story die.

A Lament – Wilfrid Wilson Gibson, published in Whin, 1918

We who are left, how shall we look again
Happily on the sun or feel the rain
Without remembering how they who went
Ungrudgingly and spent
Their lives for us loved, too, the sun and rain?

 A bird among the rain-wet lilac sings -
But we, how shall we turn to little things
And listen to the birds and winds and streams
Made holy by their dreams,
Nor feel the heart-break in the heart of things?

 

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Haydn in Woy Woy

Last Sunday on an unusually hot November’s day, the Chamber Choir joined the Central Coast Chorale and orchestra, conducted by Music Director Christopher Bowen, for a performance of Michael Haydn’s wonderful Requiem in C – Mass for the late Archbishop Sigismund. The concert took place in St John the Baptist Church in Woy Woy, a beautiful building opened in 2007. applause Haydn CCC

The church interior is round, and the domed roof combined with polished wood and stone surfaces provided a rich and unusually resonant acoustic.

The first half of the concert featured a number of shorter pieces performed by smaller groups of musicians. The orchestra commenced with Mozart’s 6 Ländlerische Tänze, establishing a light and lively tone. Mozart’s Ave Verum followed, introducing the whole choir and orchestra. Mozart’s lied An Chloë provided soprano soloist Elke Hook with her first opportunity of the afternoon to use the acoustic, effortlessly casting perfectly formed notes into the dome, each floating there just long enough to be enjoyed until the next one arrived.

Tiana Dimech, whose voice enhances both the Central Coast Chorale and Sydney University Graduate Choir soprano sections, followed with lovely renditions of two more Mozart lieder, Oiseaux, si tous les ans and Das Veilchen (the violet), and the Central Coast Women’s Ensemble charmed the audience with Brahms’ Ave Maria.

The first half was rounded off by the SUGC Chamber Choir singing Inter natos mulierum a final Mozart piece that – appropriately in that building – told of the life of John the Baptist.

The second half of the program was dedicated to Haydn’s Requiem in C – Mass for the late Archbishop Sigismund. Archbishop Sigismund was Haydn’s patron in Salzburg, and was much admired by the composer. The requiem is heartfelt, with a real sense of loss alongside passages of hope and affirmation. If audience feedback is to be believed, the soloists (Elke Hook, joined by accomplished colleagues alto Jill Erem, tenor Richard Butler and bass Daniel Macey), combined choirs and orchestra conveyed all of this, with a confident performance that really did justice to this modest masterpiece. Much of the credit for this must go to conductor Christopher Bowen who – as he so often does – focused the performers in such a way that distractions and possible problems (including an outside temperature of about 40° that was severely testing the church’s air conditioning) were set aside and we all ‘lived’ the requiem for that special  afternoon.

David Moser, with thanks to Pamela Traynor for the photo.

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Next Sunday – Michael Haydn’s Requiem

CCC Haydn RequiemNext Sunday, November 23rd, the Central Coast Chorale, augmented by the SUGC’s Chamber Choir, will be performing Michael Haydn’s Requiem in C (MH155), a ‘Mass for the late Archbishop Sigismund’, Archbishop of Salzburg and Haydn’s patron. Reminiscent of, and probably an influence on, Mozart’s Requiem written 20 years later, this is a great work that will be enjoyed by all lovers of the classical period.

Accompanying the Requiem will be two shorter pieces by Mozart himself – Ave Verum Corpus and Inter Natos Mulierum.

Choir and orchestra will be directed and conducted by Christopher Bowen OAM, in the beautiful setting of St John the Baptist Church, Blackwall Road, Woy Woy.

Both for those who heard the Requiem and Inter Natos Mulierum performed by the Grads in the Great Hall of Sydney University last May and for those who did not, this is an opportunity to become better acquainted with these very lovely choral works.

The performance will take place at 2:30pm. Tickets will be available at the door: $30 Adults; $25 Concessions; $10 Students; under 12’s free of charge. Further information from the Chorale.

 

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The Merry Widow

Longtime Grads soprano and sometime Rockdale Opera Chorus Member, Dawn Plasto, has brought this upcoming event (in which she is appearing) to our attention:

The Rockdale Opera Company is back in production with a stunning production of Franz Lehar’s Merry Widow to be presented in the beautifully refurbished. Rockdale Town Hall on November 8, 9, 15, 16. The production is by Bob Peet and the Musical Director is Sadaharu Muramatsu who was the Musical Director for the company’s very successful production of Lucia di Lammermoor in 2011.

The Merry Widow

The Merry Widow

French Soprano Silvie Humphries will perform ‘Anna’. Now living in Australia, Sylvie completed an advanced diploma of Opera at the Sydney Conservatorium in 2013. Most recently she was a highly recommended finalist in the McDonald’s Operatic Aria competition.

‘Count Danilowitsch’ will be played by the very dashing Michael Johnson, who recently performed that role with Carl Rafferty productions in Canberra’s historic Albert Hall. Michael is well known around the Sydney community theatre scene and has played leading roles in many musicals including ‘Antony’ in Sweeney Todd.

The Rockdale Opera Company was established in 1949 and in that time—very much like the Sydney University Graduate Choir—it has become a stepping stone for many talented artists who have gone on to make a name for themselves in Australia and overseas.

Visit the Rockdale Opera website for details on how to book.

Dawn

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Ten Years of Grads’ Recordings

This year marks ten years since SUGC began to record its concerts.

As the then President, clearly a very wise person, said in reporting to the 2005 AGM:

These recordings will serve as important documents for the Choir as an institution and for us individually as singers.  So long as they remain affordable, which requires the bulk of our members making the effort to buy them, they should become as normal a part of our concert processes as producing the program.

In general, it can be said that the hope expressed all those years ago has been realized.

In truth, our very first foray into the world of recording was somewhat shaky. This was our concert, entitled ‘Heavenly Harmonies’ of May 2004, in which we performed the Mozart Vesperae Solennes de Confessore (one of his most ravishingly beautiful creations) and Bruckner’s early and little known Requiem in D Minor. The Mozart performance stands up well, but a technical hitch struck the Bruckner recording when the recordist, a volunteer provided by 2MBS FM (now known as Fine Music 102.5), who, somewhat surprisingly, was using tape, ran out of it with a couple of movements to go. No doubt, the afore-mentioned President was left to rue his sententious words after this minor tragedy.

In any event, the situation was improved later in the year, when Greg Ghavalas made his recording debut with us, for our December performance of Mendelssohn’s Elijah. At that stage, Greg was also a volunteer with 2MBS FM, but has subsequently taken up recording concerts as a post-retirement profession. For many years now, his business-like, quietly cheerful, unflappable personage has become a source of reassurance to us as we go through the nervous process of rehearsing with the orchestra and giving concerts in the Great Hall. Greg has consistently done a high quality job for the choir, including on the bigger, and more technically challenging stage of the Sydney Town Hall with our April 2013 Sydney Sings: Verdi Requiem. The ‘Highlights’ disc of that performance is of an excellent technical quality and a worthy souvenir of that landmark event in the choir’s history. A non-expert listen to the first cut of Christopher Bowen’s An Australian War Requiem, recorded in the Town Hall on 10 August, suggests that Greg has pulled off another recording coup.

Sales of the recordings do normally cover costs, and complimentary copies are an excellent way of presenting the choir to VIPs, potential sponsors and potential new audience members. Every member will have his or her favourites. Recorded concerts that stand out in my mind are of works by the somewhat underrated composers, Haydn and Mendelssohn. Particularly noteworthy: Haydn’s Die Schöpfung, from August 2007, when a very talented trio of young soloists—Bernadette Fisher, Stuart Haycock and Andrew Finden—perhaps inspired the Choir to a particularly high standard of performance, and Die Jahreszeiten of August 2009, when Amy Corkery made her unforgettable debut with us. In the same vein, Mendelssohn’s Die Erste Walpurgisnacht from December 2011, and Paulus from May 2012, two unfamiliar masterpieces elicited outstanding performances from the choir and featured outstanding soloists—Celeste Lazarenko, Andrew Goodwin, Morgan Pearse and Alexander Knight. Encouragingly, in view of the musical challenge it represented, our recording of Bach’s Johannes Passion, from August 2013, stands out as a very impressive effort, with excellent soloists—Jenny Duck-Chong, Belinda Montgomery Richard Butler, Henry Choo, Morgan Pearse and Simon Lobelson—and some very decent singing from the Grads.

Recording, of course captures, glitches for posterity as well as triumphs. The most striking of these occurred in our performance of Brahms’s Ein Deutsches Requiem in December 2005. In the dramatic sixth movement, when the Last Trump is sounded, the choir managed to get a beat ahead of the orchestra and, with remarkable precision, to stay there for about thirty seconds, including across a bar’s rest, teetering on the verge of collapse. Thanks largely to Christopher Bowen’s steely professionalism, the apparently inevitable disaster was averted and the vocal and instrumental forces got together again, only to suffer the intrusion of exploding fireworks from nearby Victoria Park during Brahms’s ethereal finale Selig sind die Toten. Fortunately, a later (December 2013) performance of this great choral masterpiece gave us a shot at redemption, which, happily, we took successfully, to the satisfaction, among others, of then Governor Marie Bashir and former Prime Minister Paul Keating.

Our Music Director, Christopher Bowen, sets high standards for himself and expects the same of the choir. On only two occasions has he availed himself of his conductor’s prerogative of vetoing release of recorded performances: of the difficult Bruckner Mass in E Minor, of August 2010 and the much more familiar but deceptively tricky Vivaldi Gloria of December 2013.

The Chamber Choir has been recorded on a number of occasions and, it must be said, has generally come up very well, despite regular changes in its personnel. My favourite among its recordings is Purcell’s spine-chilling Funeral Music for Queen Mary, performed as part of the ‘Music for Kings and Queens’ concert from December 2009, in which Steve Machamer’s timpani are given an unusual spotlight.

Mention of Steve serves to remind me of one of the elements that consistently performs at a high standard in our recorded performances—the orchestra. The orchestral musicians provide high quality accompaniment to the choir, as a matter of course. What they are really capable of becomes clear when one listens to recordings of them playing purely instrumental works, such as the Overture to Verdi’s Force of Destiny from May 2010, Beethoven’s Egmont Overture from May 2011, and, most remarkably of all, Debussy’s Prélude a l’Après-Midi d’un Faune from December 2011. These recordings underline the enormous contribution the orchestra makes to the experience of singing with Grads and of attending our concerts, a fact underlined by their outstanding playing once again in An Australian War Requiem.

With that wonderful musical experience behind us, we can look back with satisfaction on a decade of work, the recordings from which confirm that the choir has progressed well and is on an upward trajectory.

John Bowan

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