Above: Dan Walker, whose work Yúya Karrabúra (Fire is Burning) was given a world premiere at this concert.                                                                                                                                                                               Featured image: Detail from concert programme cover design by

Just as the title for this final Sydney Chamber Choir concert of 2018 boldly calls out for our attention, the programme choices here were captivating and mostly modern in style and compositional date. Compiled by guest conductor Jonathan Grieves-Smith, the concert let us witness vivid works evoking nature, the sea, the outdoors and the spiritual or otherworldly environment.

This choir’s affinity for church and early musics delighted the crowd as well as  the group demonstrating a stunning aptitude for also performing new and contemporary choral works.

Nine of the concert’s eleven works were composed after 1977, and the evening was made particularly special by the performance of Dan Walker’s piece Yúya Karrabúra (Fire is Burning) in world premiere.

Responding to a commission request from chorister Ed Suttle and partner Jane, Walker fused his talent for pure atmosphere with communicating the heartbreakingly direct messages of hope in the poetry of Alice Eather.

The succinct lines of this poem urge a coming together of contrasting cultures on our island continent. An earnest plea for an understanding between original peoples and those who came by sea to settle is given a tender airing here. Eather’s inspiring words
were set with clarity and power by Walker’s music and sung with thought-provoking passion by the choir. The single-line refrain ‘Yúya Karrabúra’ (Fire is Burning) gained momentum with every joyously
chilling iteration from the choir.

This was a show stopper of a premiere, and surrounding it the choir and guest instrumentalists maintained the strength of communication throughout the remainder of the programme. The theme of struggle in a merciless emotional or physical environment was also reflected in the two early music works which opened each half.

In signature Sydney Chamber Choir style, the concert opened with a Gregorian chant on the text “De profundis clamavi ad te, Domine”. This text from Psalm 130, referred to by Oscar Wilde in his  writing from prison, is drenched in the desperation of one drowning in despair and predicament.

The keenly penetrating solo-voice chant was a perfect revelation of human fragility. In a fine stroke of programming, the second half’s sequence of works began with the lush textures of Nicholas Champion’s sixteenth century setting of the same text,  with crisp choral entries and finely graded broadenings of sound.

Apart from the world premiere work and these skilfully rendered gems of early music, Jonathan Grieves-Smith and choir constantly amazed and challenged us in colourful vignettes dealing with
humankind pitted against nature and vocal depictions of light and darkness from both our earthly world and beyond.

Guest conductor for this Sydney Chamber Choir concert, Jonathan Grieves-Smith.

The choir performed with timbral virtuosity and a successful flexibility of ensemble sound in works fujll of twentieth and twenty-first century innovation. These were from Australian, British, Scottish, Finnish and Latvian composers. The works presented were as colourful and diverse as the sea which surrounds our country and modern mix of cultures.

No less than four works from Scottish composer James Macmillan (composed from 1997-2008) demonstrated a capable choir able to tread a cappella water in an environment drawing on centuries-old choral tradition as well as contemporary choral comment and effect.

The 2013 work by Cecilia Mcdowell, Night Flight, written after a crossing of the English Channel just before the Titanic disaster was again a showcase for the choir’s storytelling verve. It was safely presented via a controlled navigation of the modern verse by vocalists with Grieves-Smith.

Closest to the concert title’s literal concerns, and most poignantly depicting the harshness of the sea environment was the work Canticum calamitatis maritimae (1997) by Finnish composer Jaakko
Mäntyjärvi. Using choir and soloists from its ranks, the ancient choice of Latin text resonated in the Verbruggen Hall venue as the text was beautifully enfolded on the warmth and secure group storytelling. The stage was awash as the texture and text lamented the modern tragedy of 910 passengers drowning following the sinking of the car ferry Estonia, caught in a storm en route to Stockholm in 1994.

Cellist Christopher Pidcock supplied impressive string counterpoint to the tale. He was joined in the final work of the evening  by violist Heather Lloyd in another modern evocation of death with Ēriks Esenvalds’ In Paradisum (2013) to conclude the concert and the concert year for Sydney ChamberChoir.

The two instruments, separated by one playing on stage and the other in  the gallery seating, conversed effectively to complement the choir’s  rendering of the Latin requiem mass text in hushed and well shaped additions to the instrumental and spiritual landscape.

This final work was a well-received end to a diverse concert of very  dazzling ‘sun on the water’ styled performances. The programme showcased all aspects of this choir’s continued seaworthy performance excellence. We look forward to the voyage through 2019 with such a versatile artistic crew.