Voice of the Nation Ensemble/ WA Jazz Orchestra
Perth Concert Hall
REVIEW NEVILLE COHN
Decades ago, several nights a week, in a bleak warehouse in Cape Town, I'd moonlight as repetiteur for a remarkable choir - the Eoan Group. Because of apartheid, the so-called coloured people were barred from the city's magnificently appointed, whites-only, opera house. They could neither attend performances nor take part in them.
Joseph Manca, a visionary choral trainer, would preside over innumerable rehearsals of the Eoan Group's choir - and the end result, more often than not, was hackle-raisingly fine.
So I listened with especial care to Cape Town's rainbow choral group, Voice of the Nation Ensemble. How had this multiracial ensemble fared, I wondered, under South Africa's now-democratic dispensation? Would it have the same thrilling intensity and precision of the Eoan choir during those apartheid years?
In a generous program, the peak of the evening lay securely in the keeping of Duke Ellington. In extracts from his too-rarely-heard Sacred Concerts, the choir, in ensemble with the WA Youth Jazz Orchestra, was at its most disciplined.
Here, choral subtlety and quietness were as meaningful as more robust utterances. Freedom, in particular, was profoundly moving, especially in hushed moments. Conductor Mace Francis presided over an in-form WAYJO with Gabriel Fatin, in particular, doing wonders at the piano in stylistic terms. The trumpeters were beyond reproach, too, as were vocal soloists Aaron Malone and Bronwynn Sprogowski.
For Ellington's work, the women choristers wore grey satin gowns with beige trim but in the first half appeared in blue or mauve tops with colourful floral skirts. In a selection of spirituals and African hymns, the choristers not only sang with an often moving expressiveness but, particularly in more robust numbers, entered physically into the spirit of the music by dancing on the spot.
Swaying, bobbing, weaving and handclapping with a compelling intensity, the choristers did themselves proud. This was powerful stuff to which the audience responded with gales of applause.
Hallelujah Medley, drawing inspiration from Handel's Messiah, brought the house down, as did Verdi's Va Pensiero. In this essay on displacement and disempowerment, the choir unerringly took up an interpretative position at the emotional epicentre of the piece. The other opera choruses, while never less than satisfactory, were not as persuasive as one might have hoped. And there was some hardness of tone in the piano accompaniments in the first half, as well as some tonal distortion when male voices were at their loudest.