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SYDNEY CHAMBER CHOIR: FIRESIDE @THE NEILSON, ACO PIER 2/3

Above: As in 2023 for the choir’s ‘Winter Nights’ performances, ‘Fireside’ brought us high quality vocal ensemble and choir music in a wide range of styles. Photo Credit : Robert Catto.

From the moment audience entered The Neilson on Saturday June 29, they could feel the warmth and that something was very different at this Sydney Chamber Choir concert.  A jazz trio was playing, half the regular seating had been replaced with lamplit cabaret tables, and the choir members were already in the space moving to the groove of the Kevin Hunt Trio (Kevin Hunt, piano, Karl Dunnicliff, double bass and Dave Goodman, drums.)

This more relaxed and cosy format for the Fireside concert shared a huge range of musical styles and languages. It showed us not only the diverse range of this choir but also that music from different  backgrounds  when sung and directed with expert attention to detail, can communicate brilliantly side by side in the same endearing, effective concert.

This concert was co-conducted by Artistic Director of Sydney Chamber Choir, Sam Allchurch and regular collaborator Naomi Crellin of Idea of North fame. Their partnership exposed us to a huge range of music. It also brought innovative pieces written for overseas vocal ensembles to be enjoyed in this intimate Australian setting.

This singalong brought us the lyrically soundscape of Mia Makaroff’s ‘Butterfly’, an exquisite communication  first performed by the Finnish group Rajaton. The clever, comic, destined-to-shock effects tweaking Mozart’s Symphony No 40 motifs in Gee!Mine or Mozart’s? from  The Real Group ensemble’s repertoire sat very well as a fireside party piece here.

Scandinavian music fleshed out much of the concert. The crowd followed this regional thread in a swoop that illustrated the SCC’s mastery of intensity of tone and textures plus colourful utterances in Norwegian, Finnish, Swedidsh and Icelandic. Mia Makaroff’s Finnish language setting of the folk fable on marriage- ‘Why do you clatter, grindstone’ spun in the inimitable chatter colour of Finnish folk music.

Above: Members of the Sydney Chamber Choir. Photo credit: Robert Catto.

It would not be a fireside singalong without some beautiful moments of stare-into-the-fire stillness. Moments such as Greig’s Ave maria stella, the Sommarpsalm, that favourite hymn of the Swedes and the riveting Icelandic hymn from the thirteenth century, Heyr, himna smidur, were mesmerising swathes of sentiment, presented in clean richness here. The beautiful blend of this choir, its magnificent control across many nuance levels, textures and from backgrounds various were senduring features of their large and now smaller venue communication.

This fireside sing changed gear into party mode, with exciting effect. The jazz trio entertained with an exquisite impro of Bach’s orchestral music reworked. The trio then provided backing for some great versions of popular music classics. Seeing the choir come to a different, sparlkling life under the directorship of Naomi Crellin was a thrill. Early on in the fireside party, her version of Norwegian Wood with Norwegian lyrics to augment the well-known lilt was a master stroke.

The groove being warmed up when I entered the venue to the ambience of the Kevin Hunt Trio was extended with fun firecracker effect in Ward Swingle’s scat singing take on JS Bach’s Prelude no 9 from The Well-Tempered Klavier. The biggest, out-of-the-box surprise came with the dramatic blast of a performance of It’s Oh So Quiet. This big-band choir voice impressed, and the pirece was a good choice, recently reworked for us by the musically diverse Scandinavian pop star, Björk. Sydney Chamber Choir brought out the swagger, the vulnerability and sudden zing boom blasts to make this a crowd fave.

The inclusion of music by the Latvian Eriks Esenvalds was always going to provide peaceful, layered soundscape. His Only in Sleep was perfectly rendered, featuring soprano soloists. and some sensitive choral accompaniment. The choir performed this and other hymns in the contemporary classical vein with signature clarity and clear-line direction.

Crellin brought this cosy kaleidoscope of a concert close to the fire to finish, with an elegant and eloquent rendering of La Vie En Rose. Here once more, the gentle, colourful care given to a familiar classic made for a beautiful moment by the fire.

This intimate concert version should endure in ths choir’s yearly season- maybe a recording to immortalise the programmed diversity would be a nice take-away. Such a finely-chiselled, warm pastiche will always be rewarded by audiences, even if a bright version is developed for the spring or summer months in future also. But for now its fire burned brightly over a much needed winter weekend.

 

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