DANCE CHANT : CELEBRATING ROSS EDWARDS was a supremely entertaining event which was significant on several levels. The evening celebrated the unique voice and a portion of the prolific output of this composer in his 75th birthday year. And who better to deliver this tribute concert than Sydney Chamber Choir, which has enjoyed a productive and close relationship with Edwards and so many Australian composers in the past.
‘Dance Chant’ also fused together two of Sydney’s popular performing groups; Synergy Percussion and Sydney Chamber Choir shared the stage to deliver special soundscapes in a small sampling of Ross Edwards’ output. There were also no less than two world premiere works from new Australian composers amidst the six works from 1980 to 2009 and six other composers.
A special part of this birthday wish from Sydney Chamber Choir was the use of three conductors to present Edwards’ works and other gems on the programme. These conductors all have had a history with SCC and in turn Ross Edwards. They were Nicholas Routley (founder of SCC) Paul Stanhope (his successor) and Sam Allchurch.
The diverse and sprawling programme featuring a number of different works from the early Western tradition right up to present day was typical Sydney Chamber Choir fare. In concert this choir is qually at home singing works from the Renaissance and much earlier as well as boldly presenting very new music, and this evening was no exception.
Australian composers Josephine Gibson and Olivia Swift impressed with their new works from 2018, Let Them All Come and Dew respectively. As Ross Edwards broke boundaries some decades ago in musical communication by transforming European historical methods to create truly Australian settings, these composers are clearly forging a modern expression.Their works used settings of contemporary poetry with a concise directness which speaks volumes from our country on political or personal topics to a global audience.
Sydney Chamber Choir members performed solos and ensemble singing across the stage in a compelling version of Hildegard von Bingen’s praise of the Virgin Mary in O quam preciosa. Individual members of the choir were showcased in this and otherworks along with the stunning performances by the full choir throughout the evening.
We had the chance to hear Edwards’ Agnus Dei from Mass of the Dreaming. Here traditional Latin text settings were morphed into the atmospheric sound world of this composer, with his emphasis on ritual use of music and the timelessness of Aboriginal Dreamtime.
Other works celebrated something of a Ross Edwards inspiration in the innovative transforming of Latin text setting convention to fresh Australian expression. Paul Stanhope conducted his evocative Agnus Dei (Do not stand at my grave and weep) which seamlessly combines the ancient ‘Lamb of God’ mass text with a chilling twentieth century poem in English on the subject of grief. The choir captured both the architecture and heartbreak in this music.
Clare Maclean’s work Christ the King ended the concert’s first half. It also blended Latin ‘Alleluias’ with text in the vernacular. Beautiful melodic contours owing much to choral conventions from another time were present, as well as a keen openness of communication from the modern Southern Hemisphere.
The rich tapestry of this concert was also punctuated by short testimonial speeches by conductors and choristers saluting Ross Edwards. They gave background to the works, shared anecdotes and even referenced a time where government arts bodies funded commissions for new work. These touching moments gave valuable and gorgeous extramusical context and the roasting was a great human ingredient amongst the event’s exquisite musical buffet.
We were indeed offered quite the buffet on this occasion. Synergy began the second half with Edward’s instrumental work Prelude and Dragonfly Dance’, with a primal energy steeped in ecology and insect joy that was well-captured by the expert attack and atmosphere possible from such an expert percussion ensemble. The concert concluded with Synergy collaborating with the choir in the frenetically beautiful first Flower Song by Ross Edwards.
The Sydney Chamber Choir here demonstrated its mastery of the contemporary choral idiom in a truly ecstatic reading of the botanical names around Edwards’ challenging overlapping contours. The layer of percussion was also spontaneously produced amidst the density of texture and clever choral writing.
This finale’s energy and movement was harnessed by conductor Paul Stanhope to an exquisite and inimitable momentum. This work was a fitting final tribute to this treasured composer’s creativity and links to this land. It concluded a memorable night full of many highlights and with the wow factor always to the fore.