Left – The Tallis Scholars. Photo – Nick Rutter. Cover – The Song Company
The 150 Psalms project mounted by the Adelaide Festival is unlike any other I’ve ever seen. The central feature is a series of 12 concerts, sung by 4 different choirs, in which every one of the 150 Psalms of David are presented. It is supported by an almost equally ambitious exhibition of 150 archival photos from The Australian newspaper, connected to verses from each of the psalms by short explanatory texts written by Alan John. And this interweaving of the distant past and the vividly all-too-present is what makes this whole project so gripping.
As if those events were not enough of a challenge, there are two other self-imposed constraints within them. First, in the 150 psalm settings performed, not one composer is repeated – so we hear 150 different composers’ interaction with these ancient poems. Where a setting of a particular psalm couldn’t be found, the Festival has commissioned one. So, as well as only one piece by composers much associated with psalm settings (Bach, Schütz, Josquin), we hear settings by composers whom one might not associate at all with psalms (Michel van der Aa, Marenzio, Beethoven). Secondly, the psalms, being sung in 12 concerts, are arranged in 12 different themes (A Mirror for Today’s Society, Safety, Powerlessness, Gratitude…). This arrangement is reflected both in the exhibition of media photos, and also in the series of short talks which precede each concert. These are given by various people who have been in situations described in the psalms, bringing the plight of the Jewish people who created the psalms 3,000 years ago into the dispossession, oppression, and suffering which surround us today. The way in which these talks were integral to the project became more and more clear as the sequence of concerts progressed.
So – the four choirs. I heard 5 of the 12 concerts, and was able to hear each of the four choirs once, and the Netherlands Chamber Choir twice. The whole project is the brainchild of Tido Visser, their managing director, who calls it “An altar to choral music”. It has had an iteration in New York, when the connected exhibition was of entirely different images, American-related, and of course the speakers were American too. But the music was, mostly, the same. In Adelaide, the four choirs concerned were all very individual, very different, and very good. And just to add a fourth dimension to the mix, 4 different performance venues were used – an Anglican cathedral, a synagogue, a Uniting Church, and the town hall. The acoustics of each suited the different choirs differently.
The Netherlands Chamber Choir performed the first and last concerts in the series of 12. The first, in St Peters Cathedral, began with Bach’s motet, Lobet den Herrn, which they sang with great energy, but some of whose contrapuntal complexity disappeared into the cavernous acoustic of the cathedral. The same could be said of the last piece, from Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers. However, all the rest of their program fitted well there. They sang four pieces from the 16th and 17th century (by Hassler, Viadana, Asola, and Schütz), four pieces from the 21st century, and a strange, directionless, but sonorous piece by Samuel Wesley. Of the early pieces, the 119th psalm by Schütz, Wohl denen, for double choir, was the most impressive, its varying textures being highlighted by the conductor Peter Dijkstra’s careful control of dynamics. The taut, uncompromising lines of Mohammad Fairouz’s paraphrase of Psalm 14 (“Fresh corpses line the boulevard as the streetlights do”), sung with conviction by all 24 voices in the choir, were an example of the theme running right through the project, that the subjects of the psalms are still with us, just as unbearably as they were in the time of the exile of the Jews in Babylon. Michel van der Aa’s first a cappella choral work, Shelter (lines from Psalm 5) was brief and pungent, but for me the stand-out among the modern compositions in this concert was New Zealand composer Helen Bowater’s setting of Psalm 15 in Hebrew, Adonai mi yagur. Beautifully structured, very varied in choral textures, and affecting, this work will repay repeated listening.
The next choir I heard was the Tallis Scholars, also in St Peter’s Cathedral. Their program, almost all by composers born in the 16th century, and their performance style handled the acoustic of the place as well as it is possible to do. Their blend is legendary – the singers sound almost exactly alike. Their first piece, a setting of Psalm 16 by Tiburtio Massaino (no, I hadn’t heard of him either) was sung with exquisite control, each phrase and even each note beautifully sculpted. There followed Thomas Ravenscroft’s Psalm 4. This was sung with exquisite control, each phrase and even each note beautifully sculpted. The next piece, by Orlando Lasso’s son Ferdinando, was sung with exquisite control, each phrase and even each note beautifully sculpted…in fact the whole program was. Everything sounded the same, no matter what the text was. The words were always clear, but their meaning was in no way reflected by the Tallis Scholars’ performances. When they sang Gesualdo, you realised that they could sung chromatic music. Gesualdo wrote into his music the sharps and flats that most composers of the time left up to the performers, but this choir put as little Musica Ficta into most of their pieces as possible. When they sang the final piece in their program, Nielsen’s Psalm 23, you realised that they could sing both loud and soft – 20th century composers of course marking in dynamics in a way 16th century ones never did. But for the rest, these singers were in a groove, a vein of beautiful sound, which nothing would induce them to leave.
The following day. I went to the Adelaide Hebrew Congregation to hear the Norwegian Soloists’ Choir. What a contrast! The direct, pure tone they cultivated seemed to dissipate any veil there may have been between choir and audience, unlike the immensely cultivated style, swelling on every note, favoured by the Tallis Scholars which seemed to say – listen to this from a distance. Of all the choirs the Norwegians spoke most directly to the heart; even the singers not actually singing were constantly engaged with the emotions of the songs. They presented the concert as a whole, precluding applause between pieces either by going directly from one to the next or by having their organist, Lars Notto Birkeland, play continuity between pieces. This had the effect, among others, of inviting the listeners to imagine that the whole concert was one piece. Their director, Grete Pedersen, is one of the most imaginative, and least egotistic, choral directors I have had the good fortune to encounter.
The talk that preceded their concert, entitled Abandonment, was given by Kavita Puri, a Pakistani Hindu with connections to Iraqi Jewry. Her shared experiences of various kinds of abandonment – social, cultural, and religious - were among the most eloquent of the many fine talks that preceded each concert on this project.
This concert by opened with a setting of Psalm 44 to a traditional Arabic chant interwoven with a Norwegian folksong. Sung from various points in the circular building, it alerted the audience to the unexpected from the beginning. This was followed by an extremely exciting piece commissioned for the 150 Psalms project, by the French/Lebanese composer Zad Moultaka. When they then moved to the short but intense setting of Psalm 74 by John Blow, a contemporary of Purcell, we felt we were in the same emotional landscape despite the radically different style of the music. Their performance of Pederecki’s Psalm 60, for which they again positioned themselves all round the synagogue, was possibly my favourite performance within the whole project. Perfect intonation, total control of a vast dynamic range, and a thorough understanding of the text all combined to produce a truly unforgettable performance.
Next day, in the Pilgrim Uniting Church, I heard Australia’s Song Company. Their singers, all excellent, wear their differences on their sleeves. One of their sopranos (singers were not individually identified in the programs) has one of the most beautiful voices even among this group of four choirs. One of the tenors likewise, although he often sang slightly louder than his fellows. But the charm of this choir lies in the difference in tone of each singer, which the director Antony Pitts does nothing to iron out. The result was that every contrapuntal line was easy to follow, but also that the homophonic passages did not blend very well. When they came out of tuttis to unisons, these were not such perfect unisons as with the other choirs. In common with much of the audience, I loved their performance of James Macmillan’s A New Song (psalm 96) most of all. They understood its Scottishness very well – the skirl of the bagpipes, the austerity of the country, the sweetness of the heather, all the background to a very poised rendering.
One interesting feature about the different choirs, besides the very different actual sound they all made, was the variation in the use they made of their ensemble itself, in terms of size of ensemble, stage movement, and concert conception. All the choirs from time to time arranged themselves as double choirs. But that is where the similarity stopped. The Norwegian choir was the only one to differentiate the women from the men in dress, the women wearing gorgeous red dresses while the men were in black. I’m against this gender differentiation in principle, but it was really easy on the eye! (The other choirs were all in black.) The Netherlands choir fielded 23 singers; occasionally (mostly for the modern pieces) they all sang, but often they divided in to smaller groups, thus displaying a timbral variety welcome in choral concerts. They did this by moving swiftly during the applause between each piece. The Norwegian choir, also 23 strong, not only divided frequently into smaller groups – on one occasion just 5 singers – but moved around the space in which they found themselves, often producing electrifying stereo or surround-sound effects by the placing they achieved in whichever venue they were in (and remember, they probably had at most 90 minutes rehearsal time in a new space to make these decisions). They moved to these positions slowly, during the final page of the previous piece, but I did not find this in the least distracting. The Song Company (12 singers) and the Tallis Scholars (10) did not have the luxury of making themselves smaller, but could not have been more different from each other in stage presence. The Tallis Scholars stood very still, and looked very formal, and exuded an air of unshakeable confidence in their performances. The members of the Song Company all moved differently on stage, many swaying or rocking, which drew attention to their involvement in the music as individuals rather than as part of a coherent group.
The 12th and last concert, in Adelaide Town Hall, started with a talk by Kerry O’Brien, the famous ABC interviewer. He pulled no punches in his litany of the way our country and the world in general is being mismanaged at the present time. After having mentioned the bushfires, he said [this disaster] was “compounded by an absent Prime Minister”. At this point there were audible rumblings of dissent from a minority of the audience, the rumblings implying that it’s better to keep politics as far away from art as possible. Did those people get the point of any of the 150 Psalms project? Had they looked round the wonderful exhibition in the Festival Theatre foyer, which explicitly connects the plight of the Jews as represented in the Psalms of David with our many modern dysfunctions? One of the themes of the project, and of the Adelaide Festival in general under the guidance of its current artistic directors, is to insist on the vital connection and relevance of art to understanding the world as we live in it now.
At the end of the 12th concert, these four choirs joined together for a performance of Tallis’ 40-part motet, Spem in Alium. This is not a psalm setting, but the opportunity of having all these amazing singers in one place was too good to miss. The work is scored for 8 “choirs” of 5-voices each; each of the participating choirs contributed 10 singers, or 2 “choirs” in the score. It was wonderful hearing the choirs’ different characters as they entered successively, the sound changing subtly as it went round the double semicircle created by the 40 singers. I have never heard such a good performance of this piece. Peter Dijkstra, the conductor of the Netherlands choir, conducted this, and while there is a limit to what any conductor can do with 40 individual parts, he contented himself with slightly emphasising the tuttis when everyone was singing, and distinguishing them from the softer, more lyrical passages for only a few of the “choirs”. With such direction, and sung by so many first-rate singers, the result was vast, involving, architectural, and beautiful, and a perfect conclusion to the extraordinary project 150 Psalms.
2020 Adelaide Festival
Dates: 29 Feb – 3 March 2020
150 Psalms premiered in 2017 at the Utrecht Festival Oude Muziek