BWW Review: MIDNIGHT SUN at St Peter's Cathedral

BWW Review: MIDNIGHT SUN at St Peter's CathedralReviewed by Ewart Shaw, Friday 4th August 2017.

When I was growing up in Scotland my father regularly flew to Iceland, so names like Reykjavik and Akureyri were always in my consciousness and Iceland was a possible holiday destination. Later, a close mate learned Old Norse as part of his studies at Melbourne University, discovered that it is essentially the contemporary Icelandic language, and started visiting, reporting back on the landscape and the life.

James Moffatt, a young Adelaide baritone, and I share a love for the music of Iceland and he has decided to feature the songs and stories in Midnight Sun, the inaugural event of his new company, Elephant in the Room Productions, with an hour of expertly performed and exhilarating music.

Eight singers and nine music stands stood on the chancel steps of St Peters Cathedral, which is currently undergoing something of an organ transplant. There were two voices to a part, in traditional choral grouping, each of them highly experienced and committed: Bethany Hill and Monique Watson, soprano, Jodie O'Regan and Rachel Bruerville alto, Matthew Lykos and Aidan Foyle, tenor and Jacob Whitelock and James Moffatt, bass.

The repertoire featured traditional songs in traditional arrangements, but most of the songs were arranged by local musicians specifically for this concert, so songs by Sigur Ros and Bjork rubbed shoulder and noses, with some marvellous scary folk songs, musical Scandi noir. The opening tribute to the country Island! Farsaeldafron and the lullaby Bi, Bi Og Blaka established the sense of musical ensemble that was a hallmark of the concert. Rachel Bruerville gave the notes and set a simple beat.

For me, the concert really took off with Heyr Himna Smithur, which I first heard, as did many, in a performance by the Icelandic group, Arstithir, standing in a German railway station. Kolbeinn Tumason wrote the words just before his death in 1207 from wounds he suffered in battle. Thorkell Sigurbjornsson set them to music only a few years ago. It is magic.

It was followed by A Sprengissandi, a song about a rider by night desperately trying to get home across the sands. The hills are full of wolves and bandits and Elfa Drottnin, the Elf Queen is mounting her steed. I sang it as a solo in a music teachers conference a few years ago and was later told by the guest speaker that authentic performance involved a few more men and lots of alcohol. My friend Susan recalls being in Iceland and witnessing an authentic performance. This arrangement for eight voices was a controlled chaos. Rauthi Riddarin, the song of the red rider, was amazing, with body percussion and stamping adding to the excitement, as the red rider bursts into the cabin, blood dripping from his scythe. Life in Iceland, ah, you never know who will knock on the door.

The intervening stories, arranged by Moffat from the corpus of Norse myths, drew on the same names and incidents from which Wagner forged his Ring of the Nibelung, but with far more humour. Never ask Thor who Sleipnir's, Odin's horse's mother is, for a start, and while they didn't really relate closely to the songs, they were an insight into the minds of those brave Vikings who journeyed to that small island and have lived there for a millennium. Moffatt has combined ambition and experience, and the astute recruitment of seven other singers into a very impressive debut.

Another part of his success lay in encouraging more than a hundred people to the Cathedral on a night as cold and wet as Iceland could offer. He plans to restage the concert next year and I've told him I'm available, even if it's just to put out the music stands.

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