Last year in New York, by chance I sat next to Barbara Heyman, author of Samuel Barber: The Composer and his Music at a concert in Carnegie Hall. After introducing ourselves, she was quick to ask after Calvin Bowman, whom she knew had moved to Canberra. It was good to be reminded that Canberra is connected to the greater musical world through musicians of Bowman’s caliber. Sunday’s concert, in 38 degree heat, was testimony to Bowman’s discipline and good humour as a conductor. In a demanding program, the choir navigated works by Aaron Copland, Cecil Effinger, Elliott Carter and of course, Samuel Barber – only occasionally showing signs of how challenging the singing was. The voices were well balanced throughout and dynamic variation on the whole was carefully observed, except perhaps in Copland's Motet, 'In the Beginning', which had sustained strident passages that were perhaps too unrelieved in loudness.
In his introduction to the concert, Bowman observed how little American choral music is performed regularly in Australia. ‘This American Life’ served to remind the audience what a rich and original source of musical material may be found in the American choral tradition.
Works by each composer were interleaved throughout the performance, providing welcome contrasts in the texture and style of vocal writing. Aaron Copland is a stern and powerful vocal writer when composing liturgical music. His Motet: ‘Help Us O Lord’ was a beautifully balanced performance providing a chance for the tenors to soar and Motet No. 4: ‘Have Mercy on Us O Lord’ was a highlight of the concert. The other three motets were interspersed with works by the other composers. Effinger’s meditative writing expressed in the pure oboe line (played expertly by Jessica Donohue) and contrasting choral textures was a lovely surprise, as I have not heard his work before.
For intellectual stimulation, Elliot Carter’s ‘Heart Not so Heavy as Mine’ was the perfect addition to the program. Beginning with a chanted opening, the piece developed through clever harmonization into a multi-dimensional work. Mezzo soprano Maartje Sevenster performed Copland’s Motet, ‘Sing Ye Praises to our Lord’ with impressive accuracy. The tone of her voice in this work had a cool detachment well matched to the words of the Motet.
The collaboration between guest conductor and Coro yielded a fine performance - hopefully a collaboration that will be repeated in the future.
Samuel Barber’s Reincarnations Op. 16 suited the ensemble well; the ripples of descending notes in No 1 showing off the vocal dexterity of the singers. Barber’s ‘Sure on This Shining Night’ was a calm and beautiful finale, with Bowman conducting from the piano.