Review: Cycles at the Seymour Centre York Theatre (on Gadigal Land)

Review By Jerome Studdy


When discussing complex instruments in the musical world, conversation might gravitate towards the organ, or the oboe, or instruments that require intense multi-tasking, or specific and unusual skill sets. More often than not, the choir is not recognised as the truly complex and magnificent musical instrument that it is. No other instrument has beating hearts, lungs, mouths, souls, life experiences, personal interpretations, emotions, and minds; and Sydney Chamber Choir, under the masterful hands of Sam Allchurch have once again proven that they are an outstanding example of an immensely complex instrument played with remarkable craftsmanship.


Thursday night saw Sydney Chamber Choir take to the stage of the York Theatre (more on that later) to perform a predominantly and undeniably Australian program of music. In typical fashion, the group performed with technical accuracy, solid intonation, cohesion, unified ensemble, and a clear love for their music. However, it is not simply enough to perform excellent music, with excellent skill, and expect that it will automatically translate to an excellent performance. A choir is not exclusively an aural entity. There is a reason that a live choir performance is infinitely more moving than a recording; because there are faces, and bodies, and passion for expression and connection with an audience. The most unparalleled moments of Sydney Chamber Choir’s performance were the ones where they allowed their undeniable passion to emanate and resound with the audience. The occasional hiding behind sheet music and timid faces meant that moments of splendour were lost. These qualms aside, this performance was still outstanding.


Undeniably the most impressive piece in this concert was the finale of Invocation and Dance (David Conte). The choir, accompanied by the blisteringly talented hands of Luke Byrne and Jem Harding on piano duet, and Jess Ciampa and Josh Hill on percussion, sang with unbridled glory and a palpable sense of community. Equally outstanding were the two Paul Stanhope pieces, The Land is Healed | Ban.garay! and I Have Not Your Dreaming, and Brooke Shelley’s Praise the Lord. Stanhope’s legacy as a previous director of the ensemble is still apparent; I challenge any other ensemble to perform Stanhope’s work with such intimate intricacy and instinct. Stanhope’s harmonic language runs in their veins.


Of course, the choral instrument cannot perform itself. Allchurch was masterful in his conducting. The ensemble felt safe, and both parties communicated beautifully. The choristers knew what Allchurch wanted and knew exactly where it was to be placed. There was only a singular moment (in the final movement of Jonathan Dove’s The Passing of the Year) where the ensemble got away from Allchurch’s control and threatened to come unstuck. But, true to their professionalism, unity was recovered, and the music continued at its high standard.


Unfortunately, a review of this concert would not be complete without discussing the elephant in the room; the room itself. This concert and repertoire should never have been put in the York Theatre. Likely, this falls to a decision made by Sydney Festival, but it truly damaged what was otherwise a great performance. York Theatre has very little natural resonance, and the attempt to fabricate reverb with 24 directional microphones (a baffling microphone array for a classic choir) resulted in a tinny flutter echo, and the overall effect was an image of the choir that sounded two dimensional and lacked warmth. Much to the credit of the ensemble, the very exposing acoustics were counteracted with precision of performance and comfortable blending.


All in all, this was a great performance, and a wonderful exhibition of Australian talent. Congratulations to those involved, and we look forward to a quick return to (a more acoustically appropriate) stage.

Images Supplied by Sydney Festival