Zelenka Redux

On Sunday, 1 December the Choir gave its third subscription concert for 2013, the major work of which was the Australian premiere of the Mass in C, (Missa Dei Patris) of the Bohemian composer, Jan Dismas Zelenka (1679-1745).  Zelenka is regarded as the most important Czech composer of the Baroque era.  His music is still little known outside the ranks of early music specialists but Christopher Bowen has had a passion for his music since his student days and took on the challenge of presenting this premiere on top of the two other major performances we had given earlier in the year (the Verdi Requiem in April and the Bach St John Passion in August).

View of Dresden from the Left Shore of the Elbe - Bernardo Bellotto

View of Dresden from the Left Shore of the Elbe – Bernardo Bellotto

Particular note must be made of the special contribution to the performance made by Christoph Kaufmann (tenor).  Apart from his musical contribution to the Tenor section, Christoph has for a number of years applied his creative talents to design of our programs, posters and flyers, an important part of the Choir’s public image.   His hard work behind the scenes helped reduce the pressure on Christopher, who was in the final intensive stage of completing the score of his Australian War Requiem, which will be the highlight of our concert activity in 2014.

While learning the work, the Choir quickly came to appreciate Zelenka’s technical mastery and originality and his flair for the unexpected.  The Chamber Choir was entrusted with a good slice of the more chorally exposed sections of the work and Ros Moxham led these rehearsals with her usual sense of responsibility and commitment.

As shown in Stan Kornel’s blog interview, our orchestra had expressed enthusiasm on learning that a work of Zelenka’s had been programmed.  When we turned up for the orchestral rehearsal the day before the concert, we could understand why.  The orchestral writing is very demanding.  As well, it is always interesting and at times beautiful.  This year has shown us, in the Verdi Requiem and now in Zelenka’s Missa Dei Patris, how fortunate the Choir is in its remarkable orchestral musicians.  Once again, they played superbly, with notable contributions from Monika Kornel (chamber organ), Dorit Herskovits (double-bass), whose part served to remind us that Zelenka was a virtuoso on this instrument, Duncan Thorpe (oboe), who frequently had solos of concerto standard, and John Benz (cello).  The whole performance was led with great expertise and style by orchestra leader, Stan Kornel, who also leads the Sydney Consort and is a specialist in Baroque violin music.

A good quartet of soloists, well-known to the Choir, was assembled: Belinda Montgomery (soprano), Anna Dowsley (alto), Pascal Herington (tenor), and Simon Lobelson (bass).  Belinda and Simon sang in our St. John Passion, Anna, highly placed in the 2012 Joan Carden Award, sang the mezzo-soprano role in our Verdi Requiem, while Pascal has sung in a number of our performances, most recently in our November 2012 Town Hall Messiah.  The soloists made an important contribution to what was a very well-received concert.

The packed Great Hall audience included our esteemed Patron, the Governor, H.E. Professor Marie Bashir AC. CVO and the Czech Consul, Mr Hani Stolina.  By coincidence, ABC Classic FM had made Zelenka their composer ‘On the Pedestal’ a couple of weeks before our concert, broadcasting a good slice of the Missa Dei Patris, and Christopher Lawrence gave us a generous plug in the week before our concert.  This may have contributed to the excellent audience, which threatened to exceed the number of seats available.

In the first part of the concert, we performed the very popular Vivaldi Gloria RV 589.  For this work, Josie Ryan (soprano) joined Belinda Montgomery and Anna Dowsley, and sang professionally and well.  The performance of this familiar old favourite was well received by the audience but the Choir’s performance perhaps left something to be desired in terms of alertness and precision, as we perhaps had half our minds on the forthcoming challenge of Zelenka.  This led to some overt self-criticism within the Choir during the interval, which seemed to have the positive effect of lifting our level of performance for the Zelenka.

After the lofty heights of Verdi and Bach, a Zelenka Mass might have been expected to be something of a let-down.  But it must be said that this obscure, mysterious composer imposed himself by his musical genius, making this Australian premiere an event of at least equal importance to our earlier performances this year, and, although physically and mentally tiring to sing, an exhilarating musical experience.

John Bowan

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One Response to Zelenka Redux

  1. Pingback: More on Zelenka | SingOn, from Sydney University Graduate Choir

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