Music review: The Human Spirit, Sydney Conservatorium of Music

The human spirit is evoked through the human voice.
A conductor on the left conducting the Sydney Chamber Choir on the right.

Sydney Chamber Choir’s latest concert was given the theme of ‘the human spirit’ and, in a night of expressive choral work, beckoned the audience to engage in a blend of contemporary works that run the gamut of human emotion and bring to life the spiritual and sacred that lies within us all. The concern was performed within the Verbrugghen Hall of the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, where both the audience and cast seemed enveloped by the large, open space (and, frankly, many empty seats) of the hall. 

Not to compare this too much to Sydney Chamber Choir’s previous offering, the exquisitely toasty Winter Nights, but it seemed as if, in an attempt to indulge in a much larger scope (in terms of cast, subject matter and vocal complexity), a little something was lost along the way. Winter Nights was a joyous evening divided by interludes where conductor Sam Allchurch explained and guided the audience through the works as they were performed.

In comparison, The Human Spirit took a colder approach, with each piece performed sans context, and little audience acknowledgement. Having some direction throughout the performance may have supported bringing all these pieces together. 

Despite all this, the power and technique of the vocals throughout the night were undeniable. Allchurch put together an evocative set list that took the audience on quite a journey. Highlights included the world premiere of Elizabeth Younan’s Espoir, which set to music three poems by Lebanese-Palestinian poet and essayist May Ziadeh. The first song presented was sung for the moon, followed by a delicate piece for a muse, and culminating in a song about nature and hope. In texture these three pieces played and built upon one another in a way that was impressive and evocative. At only 28 years old, Younan is already highly accomplished, with an impressive resumé. She is surely a talent to keep an eye on.

The evening ended with a cycle of eight pieces by Joseph Twist, which set to music classic Australian bush poetry. Poems by Banjo Paterson, Henry Lawson and Oodgeroo Noonuccal, among others, were chosen to represent the images, sounds and feelings of Australian life. It was another impressive set featuring a vast range of choral effects. The penultimate track, Ashes, was a bold reimagining that brought to mind images of the 2019/2020 Black Summer fire season. Wei Jiang’s solo during this piece was strong and impactful.

Read: Book review: We Only Want What’s Best, Carolyn Swindell

Sydney Chamber Choir’s ability to arrange and depict complexity and expressive textures remains unmatched, but it was unfortunately let down by matters of presentation and venue.

The Human Spirit
Sydney Chamber Choir
Conductor: Sam Allchurch
Piano: Jem Harding

The Human Spirit was performed on 23 September 2023 at Verbrugghen Hall, Sydney Conservatorium of Music. It will be streamed on Australian Digital Concert Hall Thursday28 September 2023 at 7.30pm.

Matthew is a writer, director, actor, and critic from Newcastle. He holds a Bachelor of Arts (English Writing), and is now studying a Master of Applied Linguistics. You can find him on Instagram @matthewcollinsesq