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HEARING female voices singing masters of the Renaissance unaccompanied is a rare treat and one the eight-piece female choir Polifemy has done much to remedy.
The ensemble was founded 10 years ago when singer Joan Milner started a new group vocal group with seven other experienced women choral singers, including the current director, Robyn Mellor, who acknowledged Milner’s presence at the concert.
Over the years, Polifemy has expanded from singing just sacred music by Palestrina, Monteverdi, Guerrero and Victoria to more secular works by William Byrd, Thomas Morley and other composers in the madrigal traditions, also performing 20th-century works by Gustav Holt and Gavin Bryars and commissioning new compositions in the sacred tradition from David Yardley and Bretton Brown.
Mellor is the mistress of astute programming and for this 10th anniversary concert she selected two works performed from each year of the group’s life, 20 pieces in all.
The concert was performed by Mellor, Susa Antcliff, Hanna-Mari Latham, Alison Lockhart, Liz McKenzie, Catherine Schmitz, Krista Vincent, and Rachel Walker, all glamorously dressed by “Greta”.
It began on a distinctly secular note with a light-hearted, slightly wicked rendition of Thomas Morley’s “It was a Lover and His Lass,” arranged by Ward Swingle, quickly followed by John Wilbye’s more melancholy “I live and yet methinks I do not breathe”, allowing Polifemy to explore the harmonies.
The following three works were dedicated to birds, “the pretty choristers of flight”. At one point the ensemble happily replicated the sounds of cuckoos in Thomas Weekes’ “The Nightingale”.
The Blessed Virgin Mary was the chief subject in the succeeding sections covering Mary as a girl, Easter, Christmas and “Hail Mary”.
In the first segment, Polifemy reprised parts of a 2017 concert devoted to the Magnificat, the song of the Annunciation.
“Mary as a girl, (for a picture)” by American composer Bretton Brown painted an unusual picture of the Virgin’s “proud simplicity of intellect”, following the words of poet Dante Gabrielle Rossetti. Complex and sometimes dissonant, the song allowed the singers to evoke a moment of awe.
A high point was the soaring performance of the Anglican Magnificat, composed by former director of music at Magdalen College, Malcolm Pearce.
In the Easter section of the concert, Polifemy hit its straps. John Byrchley’s “Christus resurgens” began with four sopranos singing in simply plainsong style, later joined by the altos, who performed an ornamented plainsong that became more complex as the work proceeded, then dropped to a solemn Alleluia.
A short interlude of Monteverdi’s “Surgens Jesu” proved a timely reminder of the musical unpredictability of this master composer’s work – you don’t have to be contemporary to be exciting.
IN “Virgo, Rosa virginum” by former Canberra composer David Yardley, who now works in New York, the strong polyphonic refrain was delivered in a spirited manner, with a change of tone for the intervening verses, sung in Middle English.
With exception of Gavin Bryars’ passionate “Dami conforto, Dio”, sections 4 and 5 were dominated by songs from the Renaissance era, including the very first work ever performed by Polifemy, “In Pace” by Orlando Lasso. This music is perfect for the ensemble, which excels in the overlapping kind of phrasing found in “O Regem Coeli” by De Victoria.
But suddenly, Mellor and her singers leapt to the 20th century to finish. Enjoyment was to the fore as the choristers repeated the words “Wholly beautiful are you” in a work praising the Virgin by Maurice Durufle.
In an unexpected return to solemnity, soprano Rachel Walker began “O Virtus Sapientiae” by American composer Cheryl Lynn Hill with a beautiful plain chant, underscored by a vocal drone from the ensemble, who later all joined in. This was another high point.
This refined concert ended with a rousing, joyous presentation of Gustav Holst’s “Ave Maria.”