Review: Adelaide Chamber Singers’ Magnificent O

Adelaide Chamber Singers’ performance of Magnificent O demonstrates why they enjoy recognition as one of Australia’s finest chamber choirs and that we’re lucky they call Adelaide home.

In their 30 year history, the accomplished choir has achieved international reach with appearances in Europe, the UK, North America and Asia, and picked up two Choir of the World awards as well as the Grand Prize in Italy’s Musica Sacra a Roma International Choir Festival and Competition. Among a slew of collaborations, they have lent their voices to acts as diverse as the Rolling Stones, the Hilltop Hoods and Kronos Quartet.

In Magnificent O, the latest offering in their 2017 subscription program, the ensemble brought together Bob Chilcott’s Seven Advent Antiphons and Arvo Pärt’s Sieben Magnificat Antiphonen, two works featuring the same devotional text — albeit in different languages — but characterised by rather contrasting interpretations.

Written to be sung in the final days of Advent, each antiphon represents a name and attribute of Christ, and each one begins with the exclamation “O” — a sound which ran thread-like through the evening’s performance.

Being no strangers to the works of Pärt, the ensemble’s performance of Passio in St Peter’s Cathedral was a memorable inclusion in the 2015 Adelaide Festival program. The singers carried the stillness of Sieben Magnificat Antiphonen, and brought to life the meditative progression, questioning angst and eruptions of stunning beauty that mark the work. The singers’ harmonies and timing effectively interwove doubt, discontent and despair with moments of exaltation, hope and release, a dual narrative that features in many of Pärt’s compositions and one which he characterises in this conversation with Björk as being between the voices of ‘sin’ and ‘forgiveness’.

Chilcott’s Seven Advent Antiphons, dispersed in brackets throughout the program, were immediately warm, lush and reassuring. The choir seemed in very comfortable territory here, emphasised by the transition from austere precision and tense minimalism of Pärt back to the final two soaring Chilcott antiphons. Indeed, separating Chilcott’s work into three sections perhaps diminished its overall impact, with a mild feeling of having listened to a playlist on shuffle.

Adding to the local talent was the premiere of On Earth as in Heaven, a new work by Adelaide composer Anne Cawrse. Exploring the manifestation of the divine in the material world, the three pieces drew on poems by cartoonist Michael Leunig and early 20th Century American poet Sara Teasdale. It was a work that ran through several modes and touched on conflicting and ineffable emotions by turns: here a soloist sailing above air-like voices until all coalesced into a single sweeping tone, there an unexpected twist into multitudinous sounds of playful optimism.

Also on the program was Eric Whitacre’s When David Heard, which saw the transformation of biblical verse into a shattering meditation on raw grief at the death of one’s child. With a very different application of the exclamation “O”, the piece was crushing and beautiful.

Adelaide Chamber Singers have a rich history of exploring the space, stillness and tones of sacred music, and the difficult timing, silences, dissonances and resolutions that go with it. In Magnificent O their skill and cohesion under the baton of conductor Christie Anderson shone. Adelaide is lucky to have them.

Magnificent O was performed at Pilgrim Church on Saturday, August 26

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