BWW Review: REQUIEM at Pilgrim Uniting Church

BWW Review: REQUIEM at Pilgrim Uniting ChurchReviewed by Ewart Shaw, Saturday 14th October 2017.

For many years the male voice choir banner has been borne in Adelaide by the Liedertafel and the Metropolitan Male Choir, but there are new kids on the block. On radio station 5EBI I refer to them as my favourite boy band, but these boys are men, young and astonishingly talented, led by their founder/director Jonathan Bligh. They are The Festival Statesmen and they presented this concert, titled Requiem.

He began with the creation of such male voice/barbershop quartets as the Fishbowl Boys and then created this ensemble of more than twenty fine musicians. Requiem, performed in the Pilgrim Church on the 14th and 15th of October was their first full-length exploration of the sacred music repertoire, spanning twelve hundred years and a breadth of styles and creeds. Alerted by performances on their first CD, I knew that the team would perform this music confidently. I was overwhelmed by the skill and care they brought to the music singing all twelve items, all complex in themselves, entirely from memory.

The audience entered the church through a side door, and I took my seat without looking behind me, expecting the choir to enter by the door to the right of the altar, but no. They were cunningly unconcealed at the back of the church and sang their first numbers from there.

German composer, Alwin M Schronen, held an online singing competition for performances of his Magnificat, which was won by this ensemble and for whom, as a first prize, he wrote Os Justi, given its premiere performances in this set of concerts. Two engrossing works, and I'd love to hear them again, as it's difficult to fully comprehend both the challenge and achievement on first hearing. I'd certainly like another chance to hear the James Stevens arrangement of Nearer My God to Thee, which closed the first half of the concert. Tim Bartel joined the choir as the soloist, bringing his blues stylings to the traditional hymn, while the choir sang in Latin, a text that featured reiterations of the word excelsior progressively higher. The Festival Statesmen team are not only great singers, and lovely movers, if you've seen their Adelaide Fringe shows, but arrangers and composers as well. I mean, if you have access to a musical resource of this calibre, why not be inspired to write for it.

In the second half of the concert, three works were bracketed together, two by choir tenor Mitchell Bartel, and one by Josh Belperio, another singer in the group better known for his cabaret show Scarred For Life and his song to Malcolm Turnbull in support of marriage equality, now on Youtube.

The first piece, Requiem, gave its title to the entire program, a partial setting of the Latin text, and his other piece You and I Have Learned, was a setting of a tweet from Leonard Nimoy. Placed between them was A Thousand Winds, Belperio's setting of the poem Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep. I honestly thought that the choir had enlisted a wind machine, so convincing and powerful were the wind effects that surrounded the text.

There was genuine powerful wind employed by the brass quintet who also performed, joining the choir for an antiphonal performance of a piece by Matteo Asola, and several works of their own. David Khafagi and Robin Finlay, trumpets, Thalia Huston, horn, Edward Koltun, trombone and Emily Legg, tuba, made an appropriately joyful noise and joined the choir for the last piece on the program. They were also joined by young men from the Young Adelaide Voices Male Voice Choir.

If there was my disappointment for me in the afternoon of great music, it was this performance of Anthem from Chess, Ulvaeus, Andersson, and Rice. I know it and sing it as a solo, transposed down a tone and this meticulous performance was, for me, just a little slow and sentimental. For those of us whose citizenship is cultural and transnational, finding that song from Chess was a heart-warming thing.

The Festival Statesmen sang twelve items, in English, Latin and Russian, entirely from memory, allowing them to watch their conductor with unfailing concentration. They have produced two CDs already and Jonathan Bligh has promised a third focusing on the classical and Orthodox repertoire. If it contains the works from this concert, I'll buy a dozen for Christmas.

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