BY ALEX SIEGERS
Lamentation & Joy
St Andrew’s Cathedral, Sydney, 7 November
Conceived by Sydney Conservatorium of Music Honours student and St Andrew’s Cathedral Principal Lay Clerk Jack Stephens, Lamentation & Joy marked the return of public performance to the City of Sydney. It had some truly sublime moments, and the excitement for the return of live music filled the air of St Andrew’s Cathedral with a tangible buzz.
What I’m told started as university chamber group assignment quickly evolved into a full-scale performance featuring principal trombones of Sydney Symphony Orchestra and Opera Australia, principal trumpet of Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Sydney’s best baroque brass players, and a selection Sydney Conservatorium’s best young Historically Informed Performance students.
The ambitious 90-minute program featured a selection of baroque favourites: Gabrieli, Tallis, Tomkins, Allegri, Bach and Buxtehude, with a rotating ensemble of vocalists and instrumentalists, many of whom I sing with in The Choir of St James’ King St.
This was likely the first concert that many of the musicians had participated in, and likely the first concert many audience members had attended since March this year. And, as musicians, venues, and patrons navigate the ever-changing restrictions and guidelines to present a COVID-19-safe performance, there are bound to be some teething issues.
Even with a full suite of precautions in place – including temperature checks, hand sanitiser, and masks – the anxiety in the audience regarding social distancing before the concert was palpable. There was signage throughout the church indicating where patrons were and were not allowed to sit, used at the cathedral’s regular services: two people per pew, in every second row. However, several patrons chose to disregard this signage and the mask order, and there seemed to be confusion from the ushers (volunteer students from Sydney Conservatorium) as to whether they were following the seating recommendations used at church services in the cathedral or not.
It only took the beginning of Gabrieli’s Suscipe clementissime Deus to wash all these anxieties away and remind us what it is that we love about live performance. Conducted by soprano Chloe Lankshear, the ensemble of Michael Burden, Oscar Smith, Elias Wilson, Thomas Hallworth, Hayden Barrington, and Jack Stephens produced a fantastic sound with tenor Elias Wilson soaring through the texture, all beautifully balanced with organist Hamish Wagstaff and the troupe of trombones performing from back of the chancel.
The first bracket of music included the aforementioned Suscipe clementissime Deus, followed by Tallis’ Lamentations of Jeremiah, and Tomkins’ When David Heard. While each of these pieces had their moments of passion and beauty, they left me somewhat wanting.
Similarly, the interpretation of Allegri’s Miserere lacked the refinement of some of the pieces later in the program. Singing this work with only one singer per part is no easy feat. Sopranos Claire Burrell-McDonald and Amber Johnson’s chemistry was visible, tenor Hallworth sung a seldom-heard version of the plain chant, and Lankshear masterfully navigated the soaring high-Cs in each of the quartet verses. The final verse from the quartet “Benigne fac, Domine, in bona voluntate tua Sion, ut aedificentur muri Jerusalem” was truly heavenly, a glimpse of the divine – but unfortunately, it was interrupted with an abrupt entry from the chorus as they steamrolled through the final bars, robbing us of the moving parts and intricacies leading us to that final well-loved cadence.
The rousing rendition of Gabrieli’s Canzoni et sonate: Canzon No. 8 featured the flawless playing of Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s principal trumpet David Elton, and was the perfect contrast to the meditative Allegri. The audience had been specifically instructed to hold applause until specific points in the program, but you could feel their desperation to clap at the end of this piece.
The highlight of the evening was Bach’s Jesu Meine Freude, one of two cantatas included in the program. Featuring Samuel Giddy, organ; Sophie Funston, cello; and a chorus of Burrel-McDonald, Lankshear, Burden, Hallworth, and Stephens, the interpretation was exquisitely balanced, expertly controlled and beautifully performed. The singers poured emotion into the music, with Burden demonstrating his beautiful and clear tone in Ihr aber, and Stephens featuring his agility in Trotz den alten. The stillness and beauty of Gute Nacht was breath-taking and a true testament to the talent of this ensemble.
The final bracket of the evening included Bach’s Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich, and Buxtehude’s Der Herr ist mit mir. Vocalists were joined by the unique combination of violin, cello, bassoon, and organ. There were some notable moments – Funston breaking out of her continuo role and dazzling the audience with her agility; and violinists James Tarbotton and James Armstrong bringing the stage alive, relishing the interplay with the soprano lines.
Gabrieli’s Magnificat was the perfect end to the performance. You could feel the healing qualities of the music washing over the audience, and the utter joy radiating from the audience at being able to enjoy a concert of such fine music again. The performance, warts and all, was a real catharsis after what has been a long and difficult year for music and the arts, as well as society in general. Bravo.