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Sunday 6 May 2018

The Concourse, Chatswood

SYDNEY ARTS GUIDE: PAUL NOLAN

Willoughby Symphony Choir, Willoughby Symphony Orchestra and soloists under the vibrant directorship of Peter Ellis delivered a joyous performance of Haydn’s colourful oratorio The Seasons. The concert hall at The Concourse in Chatswood reverberated with the sheer excitement and power of this choir. Haydn’s characteristic gift for direct, exuberant and evocative musical painting of scenes or situations was exploited to the utmost in energetic performances from choir, orchestra and three talented storytelling soloists.

The Seasons, first performed in German in April 1801, has enjoyed an English language version reworking by Paul McCreesh of Gabrielli Consort fame. This dynamic refreshment of the text and fleshing out of the script in Gottfried van Swieten’s problematic English libretto facilitates a much fuller and grammatically correct narrative. The calibre of oratorio soloists assembled in this concert was high. Their solo and ensemble skill saw them interacting formidably with each other, the choir, orchestra and audience. Tales of seasonal country life as well as humour, descriptions of the weather and moral lessons came alive in this performance. With the revised English libretto the work’s storylines were elaborated in clear and detailed style to match the colour and poignancy of Haydn’s musical tapestry.

Soprano Amy Moore graced us with fine characterisation in her role of Hannah and clear beauty of tone across all registers, especially a pure upper register. The foreboding prior to the storm at the end of the Summer movement was skilfully created with chilling tone and measured drama in text such as ‘In fear and anguish, all Nature holds its breath’. Her delivery of the humorous tale to fellow spinners about outwitting a predatory male was recounted during the Winter movement with admirable verve and clear diction.

Tenor Nicholas Jones also excelled in characterisation of his character Lucas, displaying his stage experience including work in opera, oratorio and lieder. Notable was the successful chemistry and fluid dialogue with his beloved, Amy Moore’s Hannah. The short discussion of love and commitment between Jones’ tenor and Moore’s soprano soloists during the Autumn movement was a heartfelt moment of sonorous duet and fine conversational solo lines. There was keen intent and clean, well-characterised rendering of the text set economically by Haydn.

Rich in narrative strength and scene-setting presence was baritone Daniel Macey’s ever-solid and precise singing in the role of Simon. His opening lines to summon in spring in this work, ‘See, Winter, stern and gloomy, flees/To farthest reaches of the north”, was a commanding start to the oratorio. This fine opening was in line with the dramatic success of the preceding musical introduction from the orchestra. It was a sign of the richness of tone and communicative strength we repeatedly heard from this soloist. His participation in full ensemble moments with the other two soloists was always well balanced and dynamic.

Willoughby Symphony Choir set the shifting scenes within the seasons of the year and wholesome country life with striking and apt punctuations of exchanges or musings by soloists. Declamatory and celebratory choruses rather than fugal ones were the tightest and most successful. All choruses however effectively broke up some lengthy chunks of text. Particularly rousing in this regard was the drinking song episode following the grape harvest at the end of the Autumn movement. All forces and voices celebrated together in fine style here, including tambourines played by choir members and baritone soloist.

Thrilling work from the choir, soloists and orchestra brought fear and panic to the stage at the end of the Summer movement. Outbursts in the choir at the text ‘Ah! The storm approaches near! Heaven protect us!’ were controlled, edge of the seat moments of drama. Full, joyous chorus sounds and text delivery describing Spring in ‘Come gentle Spring’, as well as the Summer sun in ‘Behold the Sun!’ were other highlights.

Conductor Peter Ellis constantly brought out instrumental drama in the orchestra, ensuring the shifts in Haydn’s effective accompaniment were achieved with precision, power and passion. It was an effective reading of the score and was at all times a stable layer over which the vocal work and revised libretto spoke to us.

This concert showcased Willoughby Symphony Choir and Willoughby Symphony Orchestra well. It also brought a key work of the oratorio canon to the audience as an interesting new or old favourite.

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classikON: Tony Burke

While Joseph Haydn had a long and successful musical career, his personal life was not so great. He rarely saw his parents after moving in with his friend Johann Spangler as a teenager and he had a long but unhappy childless marriage to Maria Anna, who had no love of music and was said to use her husband's manuscripts for kitchen and bathroom accessories. He spent the major part of his musical life under the patronage of the very rich Esterhazy family though he was given free rein to compose as he wished. Haydn was first inspired to write an oratorio following his stay in England where he heard those written by Handel. He first wrote The Creation in 1798 and this was a great success. The Seasons followed naturally and had the same librettist, Gottfried Van Swieten. The problem was that in The Creation he had to translate an existing libretto into German, whereas in The Seasons he had to work from an English poem by James Thompson and translate for German and English versions. The result was less than satisfactory, with stilted English bearing no resemblance to the character and tone of the poem.

There was no such problem at Chatswood on a brilliant Sunday afternoon, as Paul Macreesh had completely reworked the libretto making it natural, appropriate and listenable while staying faithful to the nuances of the original poem. The Willoughby Symphony Orchestra is council funded and is the largest of its type in Australia. Founded in 1963, it joined with the Northside Choir in 1973. The ensemble performs regular concerts in Sydney and also tours regionally.

Peter Ellis joined as Music Director of the Symphony Choir in 2015. Born in Yorkshire, he relocated to Australia in 2002. He is also director of Barker College Choral Programs and has made guest appearances with many major orchestras. He is also an accomplished player of piano, organ, and harpsichord. Amy Moore is also English and has sung Soprano with Irish and German Orchestras before moving to NSW in 2015 where she has sung with the Brandenburg Orchestra as well as many other local Choirs. Nicholas Jones, tenor, studied in Victoria and is a multiple prize winner. He has appeared as Remendado in Carmen and is due to appear in Die Meistersinger with Opera Australia. Daniel Macey is Sydney based and studied at the Conservatorium. Originally a violist, he switched to full-time Baritone singing in 2013 and has sung with numerous local companies as well as in Italy and Hawaii. He is currently working with Opera Australia in their Chorus and touring company. 

The Oratorio began appropriately enough with Spring. After a long introduction, it was clear from the start that the words were clearly enunciated and their meaning conveyed fully to the audience. The mode shifted from minor to major to represent the promise of summer and the remaining fogs and frosts of winter and the music proceeded energetically. In song 4, Haydn includes the famous theme from the slow movement of his "Surprise" Symphony. The Finale was particularly climactic ending in a minor key.

Summer starts rather dispiritedly with daily labor and toil but soon the horns, rather hesitantly at first introduce the herdsman with fanfares. "Behold the Sun" was a beautiful Tutti played at largo tempo with the solo voices intertwining with the choir. There followed a particularly engaging Cavatina representing the exhaustion of nature as summer transforms to autumn. The approaching storm was a chorus with solos and I felt that the composer used the drums onomatopoeically rather than musically as in Beethoven's famous rendering. Towards the end, I became aware of similarities, if not references, to Mozart's "Marriage of Figaro "and then "Magic Flute" and this was cemented by the ending which surely arose from Sarastro's famous solo in the latter. Haydn often repeated his own themes but rarely referred to the works of other composers, though there are comments about "The Creation" being influenced by "Magic Flute" and Haydn doubtlessly heard both operas.

After the interval, Autumn was ushered in by a sublime Recitative representing the harvest with a pastoraL atmosphere. There followed a beautiful duet between the Soprano and Tenor. Song 6 featured the Baritone and ended with a marked Rallentando representing the fall of a shot bird. Another hunting song showed off the horns to good effect. A rollicking drinking chorus at the end was in particular greeted enthusiastically, as was the tambourine playing of the tenor.

The Line "Freezing fogs and mists abound" recurs in Winter but now, of course, as the music reflects, it is all downhill. A sad Cavatina by Hannah is followed by a mournful recitative while the mood lightens with the sounds of a merry gathering. The song by the tenor that followed was very absorbing with abrupt changes of rhythm handled effectively. A later song featured the Soprano and Chorus and included a rather risque interlude entreating a lover to "creep through that hedge" and this lightened the mood of the hall. Sadness took over in the form of a song by the Baritone while the brass heralded an enthusiastic finale with prayers to God for strength into the next season.

This was quite an undertaking for the Orchestra and Chorus and they carried it with aplomb. Peter Ellis ensured that tempi were maintained and obtained a high standard of accuracy from the players and choir. The soloists excelled throughout and the combination of their clarity of voice and the fine translation by Paul McCreesh ensured that the audience could follow the action without rustling their programme notes. Overall, a feeling of exhilaration from the audience and performers alike.

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Handels Messiah

Monday 27 November 2017

Ravenswood Girls High School

Review by Pacific Opera

Peter Ellis conducted the Willoughby Symphony Choir and Orchestra & Pacific Opera Artists in a wonderful and buoyant Messiah... celebrating the 275th birthday of this remarkable composition and the 85th birthday of the Killara Music Club. Also remarkable was there were parts that I don't remember hearing live before. 
The Choir sang with gusto and oozed excitement, performing very well with some brisk tempos set by the Maestro. The Orchestra, led by David Saffir, played with equally matched energy, and with the exception of an over zealous timpanist, were well balanced throughout the 3 hours of the performance. I must acknowledge the wonderful playing by principal cellist, trumpet and harpsicord.

Now to the Pacific Opera Soloists: Daniela Lesk and Barbara Jin who are both current YA, and Michael Gioiello and Jared Lillehagen who have both worked with PO on numerous productions over the past 5 years. All of our soloist sang very well. It was a joy to hear the young talent tackling what can be very vocally demanding arias. There were some particulately wonderful moments by all, and some joyful new ornaments... always nice to put your own spin on things.

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FINAL wsc elijah concert SQUARE

Sunday 22 May 2016

The Concourse, Chatswood

Sydney Arts Guide: Lynne Lancaster

This spectacular, magnificent performance of Mendelssohn’s ELIJAH almost lifted the roof off and set the concert hall at the Concourse alight.

Under the enthusiastic, energetic baton of Maestro Peter Ellis Willoughby Symphony and Willoughby Choir combined for a thrilling oratorio. It was at times rather overwhelming.

The work was sung in English and the text was helpfully provided in the program.

Mendelssohn’s oratorio was premiered in 1846 and was an instant smash hit. The dominant theme is faith and it is based on assorted passages from the Old Testament.

Mendelssohn’s music is full of tumultuous drama and passion and if you listen closely there are hints of his A Midsummer Night’s Dream overture. It is written in the spirit of Handel and Bach; certain sections are spiky and severe, whilst other sections feature swirling romanticism.

As the stern yet charismatic prophet Elijah, Alexander Knight was extraordinary and in glorious voice, vocally confident and secure in his formidable bass. He was a commanding visionary, proud, aloof and strong in his faith but this softened at times His Oh Lord , Ï have laboured in vain was a lyrical, pleading lament.

Tenor David Hamilton as Obadiah, Ahab and a few other roles was exceptional. He had a glorious light, lyrical, captivating and lithe, expressive voice.

The two female soloists were also in fine voice giving splendid performances. Soprano Penelope Mills had a lovely, lyrical extended aria which opened the second half – Hear Ye Israel – and was marvellous as the widow in Act 1.

Alto Nicole Smeulders was in excellent fine form too with her fluid but grave mezzo and eloquent phrasing, highlighted in her short solo Woe unto them who forsake him! Smeulders was striking as Jezebel in the second half attacking The Prophet and yet compassionate in the pleasant O rest in the Lord. Both also sing the roles of angels at various points and the duets were superb.The quartets for the soloists were ravishing.

George Sheldon was delightful with his clear pure treble as The Boy in the first half. The Choir, a major participant as prophets of Baal, the assorted rabble and more surged and swelled thunderously at various points with terrific, electric timing and phrasing, as led by Ellis. There was a consistent round full sound with nuanced shading.

The Willoughby Symphony Choir was able to provide a delightful mixed double quartet and a high quality angelic trio. The prayers to Baal choruses vibrantly rang out and the following capture and slaying of the false priests was tumultuous and threatening. When they begged for rain we could feel their distress and the shimmering yet dull atmospheric brass, and iron as written in the lyrics.

This was a very exciting concert that, at times, gave me goosebumps.