It was a crisp and frosty evening in the Walsh Bay Arts Precinct, home of almost a dozen resident companies producing innovative and engaging art, when audiences were invited to be warmed up in Winter Nights by the resonant voices of the Sydney Chamber Choir. Artistic director Sam Allchurch directed and conducted the performance with guest director Naomi Crellin. The pair took turns introducing upcoming pieces throughout the program, while LED lights behind them changed colour in response to the mood of the piece being performed. It was a simple gesture, but one that was highly effective throughout.
The cabaret performance was staged at The Neilson, an intimate venue that allowed for three different types of seating depending on ticket price – a selection of lamplit cabaret tables, a quartet of tiered seats with a front-on view of the choir and a series of harshly elevated seats configured on four sides of the stage. Most of the audience, young and old, seemed to engage and appreciate the musical journey and sonic craftsmanship on display (excepting a young woman in front of me who believed that a pivotal moment of Francis Poulenec’s ‘La nuit le froid la solitude’ was a great moment to start braiding her hair).
Allchurch and Crellin devised a pleasant and deceptively simple collage of music that was engaging throughout. Well-known tunes such as the buoyant ‘Windmills of Your Mind’ and Cole Porter’s ‘I Love Paris’ were interspersed with classical pieces from Debussy and Ravel. The evening also featured the premiere of Australian composer Heather Percy’s ‘Three Night Songs’, an evocative and mesmerising musical trilogy that felt slightly more cerebral and direct than the other pieces performed.
The highlight of the night was Eric Whitacre’s positively somnambulant and amusingly titled ‘Sleep’, which had this reviewer so engaged that he was leaning forward in his seat. The choir signed off the night with Edith Piaf and Louiguy’s ‘La Vie en Rose’, an obvious choice of an overplayed piece that manages to do its job as a crowd-pleasing aural treat – the choral equivalent of an after-dinner mint.
At the end of the performance, Crellin suggested that this may be the first of many cabaret-style performances by Sydney Chamber Choir. Should we perhaps expect Autumn Nights in the 2024 season? I hope so! As previously mentioned, this event was attended by a number of younger audience members, not only the older audiences one might expect from such a performance. Choir, much like ballet and opera, is an art form that is constantly trying to reinvent and modernise its offerings and this ‘greatest hits’ style selection of pieces is an excellent way to bring in new audiences, while satisfying those who are long-time lovers of choral performance.
Sydney Chamber Choir
Walsh Bay Arts Precinct
Conductor: Sam Allchurch
Guest Director: Naomi Crellin
Vocalist: Jo Lawry
Piano: Steve Barry
Double Bass: Hannah James
Drums: George Greenhill
Winter Nights was performed on 24 June 2023.