Music Review: Cycles, Sydney Chamber Choir (Sydney Festival)

Seasons, stars and the scent of eucalyptus trees.

The Sydney Chamber Choir’s first concert this year was a presentation for the Sydney Festival. The 70-minute performance of Cycles took place within the dry-as-a-biscuit acoustic of the York Theatre of the Seymour Centre. It comprised seven recent works by six composers including two Australian women, Brenda Gifford (a first performance) and Brooke Shelley.

Formed by Nicholas Routley in 1975 as the Sydney University Chamber Choir, the SCC, on this occasion consisted of some 29 vocalists directed by Sam Allchurch. It presented as a mixture of strong, familiar freelance choristers with training and technique in abundance, alongside enthusiastic colleagues firmly on the learning curve. In the main, upper voices pleased for line and tuning while lower were often disappointing, particularly within this unflattering acoustic, not helped by an annoying and ever-present sound “enhancement” supplied by an unnamed technician.

A mixture of strong, familiar freelance choristers with training and technique in abundance.

The program was billed as ‘celebrating the universal experience of transition and renewal: the changing of the seasons, the passing of one year to the next, the great cycle of birth and death’. It opened with the first performance of Minga bagan for unspecified choir by Yuin woman Brenda Gifford that emerged from stillness with a wash of bowed vibraphone evocative of the composer’s home Wreck Beach, north of Newcastle, replete with dolphins and migrating whales. Chest slapping accompanied earnest repetitions of the text: ‘Take care of Mother Earth’.  The work took its own time to unfold and received an appreciative hearing.   

Read: Music Review: Tempora Mutantur, Australian Haydn Ensemble

Paul Stanhope, a former conductor and currently artistic advisor of the SCC, was represented by two of his compositions: The Land is Healed | Ban.garay! written in 2014, and I Have Not Your Dreaming of 2005. Long inspired by the cultures of the First Peoples, The Land is Healed | Ban.garay! sets text by Steve Hawke writing in collaboration with the Bunuba people that speaks of their renewal after Colonial conflict.  Scored for upper voices alone, I Have Not Your Dreaming, sets text by Margaret Glendenning from a poem honouring Oodgeroo Noonuccal (Kath Walker). It delicately celebrates the beauty of birdlife, stars and the scent of the eucalypt.

Jonathan Dove’s choral cycle The Passing of the Year (2000) for double chorus and piano, setting poetry by William Blake, Emily Dickinson, George Peele, Thomas Nash, and Alfred Lord Tennyson, eloquently addressed the cycle of the passing seasons. I was left with the impression, however, that the poetry overshadowed Dove’s setting, though Tennyson’s ‘Ring out, wild bells’ brimmed with  vocal exuberance.

The Sydney Chamber Choir’s Cycles conducted by Sam Allchurch. Photo by Yaya Stempler.

Within the context of so much work exploring Indigenous cultures, it was interesting to hear Brooke Shelley’s new work setting text from the Psalms, commissioned for and firmly in the Anglican choral liturgical tradition. A deeply sensitive composer, Shelley’s well-crafted work flowed elegantly, though somewhat formally, setting seven joyful verses from Psalm 147.  From reading her biography I look forward to hearing this emerging and modest composer’s more untamed adventures into Scandinavian metal music combined with improvised classical organ.

The venue brought back memories of Sydney University’s Music Department formerly at the back of the Theatre which once had a faculty including Peter Sculthorpe, Ross Edwards and Anne Boyd, three composers who celebrated Australian-ness in jubilation and elation, meditation and tranquillity. It seemed that Ross Edwards’s Tranquil from his cycle Flower Songs commissioned for the SCC in 1987 gently provided much compositional source material for the whole program. This classic vocal setting of graceful brevity, enhanced by two percussionists, led me to wish that the work’s ebullient first movement had also been included.

By comparison I found American composer David Conte’s Invocation and Dance (1986, rev. 1989), an outpouring of grief at approaching death and the exhilarating wonder of the endless universe, somewhat hyperactive, histrionic and extreme.

Digital concert guide notes by Nathalie Shea were excellent.

3½ stars out of 5 ★★

Sydney Chamber Choir
Conductor: Sam Allchurch
Presented by the Sydney Festival, York Theatre, Seymour Centre
21 January 2021


David Barmby
About the Author
David Barmby is former head of artistic planning of Musica Viva Australia, director of music at St James' Anglican Church, King Street, artistic administrator of Bach 2000 (Melbourne Festival), the Australian National Academy of Music and Melbourne Recital Centre.