Ntaria Choir’s singing infects audience with joy

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Ntaria choir and William conducted by Roland Peelman. Photo: Peter Hislop

Music / CIMF, Concert 7 – “Bach in the Central Desert”, Ntaria Choir, Gandel Hall, NGA, May 5. Reviewed by JUDITH CRISPIN.

A SELL-out crowd filled the National Gallery of Australia’s Gandel Hall for a rare performance by the Central Desert’s Ntaria Choir.

The concert was prefaced by new works by indigenous composers William Barton and Chris Sainsbury. Both new works juxtaposed tropes from traditional Aboriginal music with aspects of contemporary European chamber music.

Accomplished international ensemble Sonic Art Saxophone Quartet gave compelling performances of Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Italian Concerto” BWV971, and his unfinished “Contrapunctus XIX” from “Art of Fugue” BWV1080, with a new completion by Kalevi Aho. As director Roland Peelman pointed out in his introduction to this concert, the saxophone quartet evoked the sounds of a Baroque organ. Given that Bach died a century before the invention of the saxophone, it is remarkable to hear how well this sonority suited the style.

The stars of this concert, however, were undoubtedly the talented singers of Ntaria Choir. A special nod should be given to Roland Peelman for his respectful acknowledgement of people, and his programming decision to feature the choir by placing them, deservedly, at the end of the program.

All too often I see Aboriginal musicians sidelined or treated as a novelty and this was certainly not the case in this concert. Ntaria Choir performed seven religious songs, including chorales, original songs, hymns and rounds – all sung in Western Arrernte and Pitjantjatjara language. The legacy of Lutheran missions in Australian history is not entirely positive. It must be said that the translation of Christian texts into local languages might justly be criticised as proselytism, but Christian churches remain very popular in desert communities. Ntaria Choir is proof that our mission history produced some good things too.

Singing mostly a cappella, these Central Desert singers revealed strong and unadorned voices in reeded colours, senza vibrato. Their near perfect intonation, punctuated by slides and folk ornaments, was highlighted by the use of baroque style terraced dynamics. Casting their repertoire with a blend of gospel music and German church styles, Ntaria Choir were delightfully laconic, poignant– especially in solo opening passages – and harmonically secure.

Their joy, their love of music, was infectious. “Mayatjaluni kanyilpai” (The Lord is my Shepherd), performed in Pitjantjatjara language, was a particularly moving performance – unfolding to complex and beautiful harmonies from a simple monophonic opening. Another highlight was “Kaarrerlai, wurlamparinyai!” (Wake, Awake, for Night is Flying), performed in Western Arrernte language. Sonic Art Saxophone Quartet and musicians William Barton (didgeridoo), Bree Van Reyk (percussion), Véronique Serret (violin) joined the choir for this setting after Philip Nicolai and J. S. Bach.

Hermannsburg, the home of painter Albert Namatjira and his descendants, has a long association with the arts and Canberra International Music Festival should be commended for celebrating their singers and for doing so the “right way”, with the respect and sensitivity owed to Aboriginal elders


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