Monteverdi Blessed by Combined Choir

By Graham McDonald (Canberra Times, Wednesday 23 July 2003)

Canberra Intervarsity Choral Festival Choir, St Christopher's Church, 19 July.

There must certainly be challenges in bringing together members of a dozen or so choirs for a few days of rehearsal and one show, but this performance of Monteverdi's Vespers of the Blessed Virgin written in 1610 was a most rewarding experience.

This was the first performance in Australia of a 1994 edition by Denis Stevens incorporating recent research into music of the early 17th century. And while the choral forces used here are considerably greater than Monteverdi had at his disposal, it did not detract from the overall effect of the performance.

The sound of the combined choirs leaned towards a dominance by the male voices, but this was not unpleasant, rather giving the sound a solidity which was quite effective. It may well simply have been the crowded placement of the singers combined with the acoustic of St Christopher's and where I was sitting which gave this balance to the sound. Getting over 100 singers and an orchestra of 20 into the room left conductor Tom Burge having to clamber over a pew to get to his conducting podium.

Burge conducted the work with great vigour and energy, cueing the singers when required and encouraging throughout. I suspect much of the success of this performance is due to his dedication and he brought this realisation of the work a great sense of dynamics, with clean and accurate entrances of the various parts.

The soloists all distinguished themselves, with special mention to the two sopranos, Helen Thompson [sic] and Jenny Sawer. Thompson was a pleasure to hear at every turn.

The orchestra played crisply and accurately, and although they were not able to compensate with the choir in full flight, they looked as though they were enjoying themselves.

The Vespers is an always interesting work, with unexpected shifts from solo voice to choir to instrumental sections and sometimes combinations of all these within the one section.

It is an hour-and-a-half of hard work for the conductor, and the final rousing "Amen" was appropriately greeted with sustained applause from the audience.