By Andrew Raiskums
Gloriana 1994 — 2014
2014 marks Gloriana’s twentieth anniversary. Looking back over the last twenty years has been a fascinating and rewarding experience. It gives full indication of how far the choir has come.
Gloriana is very much a choir that thrives on challenges. I definitely push the choir in my choice of repertoire and in turn they encourage me to be bold and adventurous.
My life took a decisive turn in 1994 when, with the support and encouragement of my friends, I first gathered up the nerve to stand out the front of a group of singers. I would like to express my deepest gratitude to all of the singers, past and present, to all of the instrumentalists with whom we’ve collaborated and to our audiences who have taken this journey with us.
In 2004, former chorister and founding member Helen Penrose wrote a history of the Gloriana Chamber Choir for the choir’s tenth anniversary. Helen has already covered highlights from the first ten years of the choir — below is my recollection of highlights and milestones from 2004 to the present.
2004 saw Gloriana return to St Mark’s Fitzroy, which would be their concert home for the next eight years. Several new works were added to the choir’s repertoire. In ‘Lauds and Lamentations’ we introduced to Melbourne the music of Gabriel Jackson, now one of the most distinguished and commissioned choral composers of his generation. This concert also brought the Robert White Lamentations and John Sheppard’s Media vita into our repertoire. ‘French Connection’ continued our exploration of the a cappella works of Francis Poulenc with his scintillating Mass in G. Other highlights included performances of Handel’s Dixit Dominus and Benjamin Britten’s Ceremony of Carols.
I had been working on a transcription of the Brahms Requiem for Gloriana. I came up with the idea of using organ, brass and timpani. As I progressed with this score it became clear to me that it was going to work and some months later, I had the whole score transcribed, every note of it. Jonathan Bradley played the organ part and did an extraordinary job. The organ in St Mark’s is quite flat, around A=431, and that was tricky for the brass players but they too excelled themselves.
Our final concert for the year was a milestone in that it included one of the toughest assignments for any choir: Poulenc’s Figure Humaine. I remember organising preliminary rehearsals for this piece, its difficulty being legendary. At the conclusion of the first rehearsal, I asked if people felt ready to take on this work. All I remember is that one of the altos looked at me and said: “we HAVE to do this piece!” Rehearsals were gruelling but I can remember the electricity as I stood on the podium ready to begin the work in concert. I also remember Annabelle Brown’s piercing top E in the final chord.
This year marked the first time we tackled Tallis’ mighty Spem in Alium. The choir had grown to twenty-five members, but even so an extra fifteen singers were required for the Tallis. Performances of the Tallis these days usually feature the work twice; the effort involved in getting forty singers together, each on his or her own line, is huge.
Because of the dimensions of St Mark’s I wanted to do the work in the round with the singers surrounding the audience. This is somewhat nerve-wracking for the singers and I imagine too for the audience. I directed from the centre of the church and cued every single entry in the first section of the work. The spatial aspects of the work are extraordinary when heard in this manner and it changed the way I hear the piece.
Our Christmas concert brought another milestone in our first performance of Britten’s A Boy was Born, another one of the toughest assignments for an a cappella choir. As a conductor I pride myself on being liberal with my cues to the choir. In the last movement of A Boy was Born I realised that it just isn’t possible to take your eyes out of the score and this was a real challenge. Britten’s metronome mark for this movement is absurdly fast. I played it safe in this first performance but these days we can do it right up to speed.
‘Into the Light’ brought the music of Ligeti, Sandström and Rautavaara into our repertoire. Ligeti’s Lux aeterna is a classic; popularised in Kubrick’s 2001 A Space Odyssey. While the piece is basically canonic in its construction, the rhythmic intricacies and tessitura are very challenging. One of my first sopranos lost her voice the day before the concert and I had to find a replacement. Luckily I did, and the performance (which we did in the foyer of the church) was a great success.
Another milestone was our first performance of the Rachmaninov Vespers in November. With a suitably augmented bass line we threw ourselves into this piece and while this work mostly remains the province of large choirs, it was a wonderful experience to do this work with a chamber choir. Using faster speeds and clarifying the thick multi-part writing enabled us to see the work in a new light.
Our fifteenth anniversary concert was Rossini’s Petite Messe Sollennelle, a work that I learned when I was a student and for which I have always had a special affection. I assembled a wonderful line-up of soloists, including soprano Danielle Calder, and bass Sam Dundas who is now singing with Opera Australia. Elyane Laussade played the piano part with exemplary skill and understanding. We had a concert harmonium that was admirably played by Christopher Cook.
Our final concert in 2010 was another milestone: Bach’s mighty Mass in B minor. This performance marked the first time that we’d tackled one of Bach’s large-scale choral works. From the outset I wanted to do it on period instruments but I couldn’t have foreseen the difficulties I would have bringing all the players together. The third oboe had to come down from Newcastle. We lost our first bassoon late in the game and I had to fly over someone from Perth.
But even with these problems I knew that the orchestra would be amazing — and it was. I also managed to assemble a stellar team of soloists, including Siobhán Stagg and Sallyanne Russell. The performance was magical and memorable. There were many great moments but two stand out in my mind. Firstly, the incredible outpouring of sound in the first part of the Sanctus and then Sallyanne Russell’s heartrending Agnus Dei.
Back in 2010 I knew I had enough material for a second all-American programme. I kept thinking of Ramírez’s Misa Criolla, which I performed when I was a student. I remembered how free the score was in regard to the instrumentation and use of solo voices. So I decided to make my own performing version of the score. This was the first time I’d done a concert with percussionists and I used them also in Eric Whitacre’s Cloudburst and the Steve Reich’s Clapping Music. I also wanted to do Aaron Copland’s In the Beginning, which has a substantial mezzo-soprano solo. Sophie Yellend sang this with great flair, as she did the solos in the Misa Criolla.
Our first concert in 2012 was structured around the Fauré Requiem. The Requiem is a fascinating work as the score exists in a number of different versions. I wanted to go back to the spirit of the original, which grows out of the organ score. So, I made a performing version for solo violin, violas, cellos, bass, two horns and organ. Siobhán Stagg sang the most melting version of the Pie Jesu I have yet heard.
Our next concert was another milestone: JS Bach’s St John Passion. Bringing this concert together was truly a labour of love. Again, I wanted an entirely period instrument band. For me the concert was incredibly moving. The silence before Es ist vollbracht and the gamba introduction were moments I’ll never forget.
I’m particularly proud of the September 2013 concert. I had an idea to do Handel’s Dixit Dominus on period instruments alongside Arvo Pärt’s Te Deum on modern instruments.
It was the first time I had done a concert that required a prepared piano and a recording of an Aeolian windharp. The acoustic in Sacred Heart did marvellous things to Schönberg’s Friede auf Erden, which was spectacular both in the dress rehearsal and the concert.
An all-Britten concert was required, I thought, to celebrate the centenary of his birth. It was a delight to return to A Ceremony of Carols again (and to do This Little Babe right up to speed), to tackle Christ’s Nativity (which I’m certain was an Australian premiere) and to perform A Boy was Born again.
It’s been a remarkable ten years. May the adventure continue.