An American Portrait


A Christmas Celebration

Leunig and liners in a Christmas surprise package

A Christmas Celebration from the Geelong Chorale conducted by Allister Cox, Wesley Church Dec 3, 2016.

There surely couldn’t have been a better example of the breadth and depth of entertainment in Geelong. Because on the same day that Denis Walter attracted thousands to the waterfront with his songs about Santa, snowmen and red-nosed reindeer, our most prestigious choir presented a choral concert of poems set to music accompanied by a single harp in a full church.

And inside that surprising format were packed even more surprises.
Like the concert’s harpist, Jacinta Dennett, revealing in her programme notes that among an impressive list of musical qualifications, she is a national titleholder in taekwondo.

Or that the nine poems for the concert’s concluding segment were written by much loved gentle cartoonist, Michael Leunig.

Or the opening eleven poems – ‘carols’ in name, but essentially 15th and 16th century poems on the nativity theme – were set to music by Benjamin Britten on an ocean liner crossing the Atlantic.

But probably the most surprising element was the sheer complexity of two taxing, arduous works that involved the singers embracing awkward and obscure languages. This ranged from Britton’s medieval English mixed with Latin to Leunig’s including an Aboriginal chant among his sometimes solemnly stark stanzas. There were no Mr Curlys or healing ducks in this particular bracket of Christmas thoughts.

The music, too, was difficult. Having been dictated by the poetry’s rhythms, it took unexpected twists, turns and crossings.
It said much about the quality of our 2016 Chorale that the singers met and overcame the challenges of these intense and absorbing works with hardly a vocal glitch.

The four soloists, sopranos Sian Williams, Carolyn Edwards and Fiona Squires with alto Kathleen Rawson each smoothly added their highlights while harpist Jacinta’s stamina was such that she sailed through the intense programme with the ease and assurance of Britten’s ocean liner. Perhaps we should all study taekwondo.

The two big works were divided and contrasted by a neatly pleasant interlude, a bracket of five much more familiar carols, not so much played as presented with exquisite care by the Geelong Handbell Choir.

But probably the most surprising element of this concert came at the very end when it became evident that musical director Allister Cox had conducted the entire proceedings through the cloud of a feverish temperature – he was battling the symptoms of a seasonal virus.

It somehow made this challenging, eye-opening and very different Christmas concert all the more memorable.

— Colin Mockett

Chorale Channels the Sacred Divide

Across The English Channel  French and English romantic choral music performed by the Geelong Chorale, director Allister Cox. St Paul’s Church, April 17, 2016.

Despite this concert’s Romantic subtitle, it didn’t contain a mix of amorous and/or passionate songs. It was much better than that, containing works more solemn, more sacred, more suitable to the surroundings – and certainly more challenging for the singers.
The Chorale met all their challenges, of course – and we audience even received a couple of bonuses in organ solos from Dion Henman plus Allister Cox’s illuminating and interesting introductions.
We even got a little surprise at the finish.

The concert’s first half was all-English works, beginning with Parry’s glorious I Was Glad, followed by Taverner’s funeral-paced contemplativeSong for Athene then Finzi’s Jubilant God Is Gone Up – three pieces that each demonstrated the current Chorale’s strengths. It’s soprano/alto dominance sent the rafters ringing to those glorious passages, while the smaller, bass-heavy male section allowed subtle support with clear distinction. It’s a very nice balance.
Following that three-piece introduction, the Chorale left to sit at the rear of the healthily-full church to hear the first of Dion Henman’s organ solos, Herbert Howells’ Prelude on Psalm 37 – a well-favoured hymn given a satisfying distinct plain clarity.
Then the Chorale returned to finish the first half with Vaughan Williams’Valiant for Truth then Gustav Holst’s well-loved and familiar accompaniment for Psalm 148, one accompanied by the organ, the other unaccompanied – but both beautifully delivered.
Following a short ten-minute interval, the concert’s second half was all-French, again all-sacred, and all written around the turn of the 20th Century.

It opened with Quatre Motets from Maurice Durufle, each different in tone, mood and colour. Ubi Caritas was followed by Tota Pulhra Es, the lively Tantum Ergo and Tu Es Petrus. Then came the second, French,  organ solo – a thundering Gothic piece from Louis Boellmann Toccata from Suite Gothique before the Choral once more returned with the four parts of Louis Vierne’s Solemn Mass – the delicate Kyrie Eleison; suitably glorious Gloria In Excelsis Deo; calm Sanctus & Benedictus before a flourishing finish from Agnus Dei.
And the surprise? At the end Director Cox informed us that St Paul’s imposing pipe organ was in fact under repair, so Dion Henman’s accompaniment, and those thundering solos, had been performed on an electronic keyboard squeezed into the small  organists enclosure.
The afternoon finished with traditional Chorale hospitality – high tea for its appreciative audience members.
Such a suitably cultured end to a fine afternoon of beautiful singing.

— Colin Mockett

Hayden’s Creation – from woe to go in song

Joseph Haydn’s Creation sung by the augmented Geelong Chorale conducted by Allister Cox, Wesley Church, Yarra St, December 5, 2015.

It’s not every day you get a chance to review the creation of the earth.
In Geelong, it happens only once every couple of decades, because 1994 was the last time this work was sung in our city, by the same group, then known as The GAMA Singers.
Ironically that was the last concert in what was then Geelong’s premier vocal auditorium, the west wing of the Town Hall concert hall, before it was  taken over as a base for local politicians. At the time they promised to build a replacement venue. As this never happened,  Geelong must be the only place on earth where The Creation was so swiftly followed by local council annexation.
But leaving all that aside, there were, surprisingly, several voices remaining from that 1994 event in the 2015 Chorale, and more survivors in the audience. And most were in agreement that this was the superior performance. This was, in short, a luscious piece of choral work that was (literally) magnificently delivered.
Technically, it was beautifully balanced, with a highly competent 30-piece orchestra in front of the Chorale’s 46 voices with four soloists seated to one side – all controlled with musical elegance by one conductor, Allister Cox. And  there was not a microphone or mixing desk in view.
None were needed because the soloists had the ability and power to project over both choir and orchestra to tell the stories of Haydn’s masterwork with clarity and beauty.
The structure of the work moves from chaos to order,  giving prominence – and characters – to those soloists. So the wonderful soaring soprano of Lee Abrahmsen was singing the archangel Gabriel’s view of the creation, while Manfred Pohlenz’s rich, commanding bass gave voice to archangel Raphael. Later, in act three, these two became Adam and Eve, allowing them to assume the prominent, driving roles for the entire concert, with tenor Daryl Barclay singing the lesser part of archangel Uriel and the Chorale literally singing like angels extolling praise for their maker. Clearly maestro Haydn had little time for altos, as soloist Kathleen Rawson’s sole role was to augment the final amens, which she did as adroitly – and masterfully – as every other musician involved in this most glorious of concerts.
Aesthetically and acoustically, the Church venue was perfect for the occasion, and director Cox’s reverence and reference to his 1859 original score  added even more lustre.
I shudder to think of the enormous amount of work and expertise that went into staging this exquisite concert. It would have taken months of rehearsals and significant resources. But believe me, it was worth every moment. And there’s another irony in that it told of (literally) everything being created on a much shorter time-scale, just six days.
Here’s hoping we all get to see the next staging of this glorious work – perhaps in Geelong’s long-promised purpose-built concert hall.

Colin Mockett

The Choral Grapevine

The Last Afternoon of the Proms: THE GEELONG CHORALE – Sunday, 16th August, 2015

Chorale’s Glorious Proms need no orchestra

Last Afternoon Of The Proms, Geelong Chorale conducted by Allister Cox, St Luke’s Highton, August 16, 2015.

The concert started relatively quietly for a comfortably-full St Luke’s audience. Pianist Kristine Mellens and violinist Janelle Craxman played a lean, slender intro to Handel’s Zadok The Priest. But then came the moment when the choir joined them and – Wham! – 40 strong voices in harmony and unison gave the coronation anthem full justice and instantly brought the stirring atmosphere of Britain’s last night of The Proms concert to a sedate Geelong Sunday afternoon.
That grand opening was followed by some more refined numbers to display the sweet choral expertise of Geelong’s premier choir, which has been enlarged and enhanced by a recent influx of younger members. It now boasts eight bass voices, five tenors, 11 altos and no fewer than 17 sopranos including Sian Williams, who gave her exquisite solo voice to Stanford’s The Blue Bird.
Tenor vocalist and understating MC John Stubbings explained that the Chorale would commemorate this year’s centenary of the Great War in it’s own way, by including two songs that celebrated peace – Sibelius’ Song Of Peace and Douglas’ Deep Peace. Both were delivered with beautiful harmonies. After a token nod to Arthur Sullivan through his The Long Day Closes the first half ended with the jaunty My Spirit Sang All Day.
But then, after an interval, the event lifted several notches by the inclusion of a list of Proms favourites with the audience invited to sing along. This began with Gustav Holst’s I Vow To Thee My Country then built through Rule Britannia to Jerusalem and the stirringly climactic Land Of Hope And Glory – by now sung joyfully by a standing, swaying audience at first surprised by, then urged on by, a small contingent of dressed-up, flag-waving, party-squeaker-blowing fans at the back.
These big anthems were interspersed by a couple of subsidiary Proms favourites in Henery The Eighth, a mistimed I Do Like To Be Beside The Seaside and a Marriott Edgar monologue delivered in broad Yorkshire by Chorale president Frank Sykes. The concert ended with a cheerfully harmonious version of Waltzing Matilda – but by then the audience – awash with glorious anthems and and revelling in the atmosphere – was ready for more big singalongs.
Much kudos for this happy event should go to conductor Allister Cox and pianist Kristine Mellens, whose accomplished accompaniments virtually made a Proms orchestra unnecessary. The day did, though, highlight the important choral/audience aspects of the Prom’s last night, as well as showing how accomplished – and fun-loving – Geelong’s premier choristers can be.
Here’s an idea, Chorale – why not build on the glorious momentum of this concert to make it into an Geelong annual event? I’m sure that next time there would be many more dressed-up party-squeaking groupies – myself included.

-Colin Mockett

C’est si Bonne Noel

Un Noel Francais, Geelong Chorale & Friends, Wesley Church, December 6 2014.

For many years this group, under its previous name of GAMA Singers, would herald Geelong’s official start to Christmas with its annual first-weekend-in-December concert at the Geelong Art Gallery.

That venue, now the Geelong Gallery, no longer hosts choral concerts and the ‘official start’ to our city’s Christmas season has been time-shifted to the middle of November with 21st century spectacles of lighting up our town hall and floating tree. So the revised and revamped Chorale, freed from its obligation to sing traditional carols in that awkward venue, has taken the opportunity to both indulge and challenge itself for its 2014 end-of-year seasonal finale.

First it chose a much more suitable venue in the accommodating and beautifully acoustic Wesley Church.

Then it went about selecting a programme of unexpected Christmas fare – resulting in this Un Noel Francais, which consisted entirely of French seasonal music. But this was not just a case of the Chorale singing familiar carols in French. This was a concert of traditional French classical music written for Christmas – a very different kettle of poisson – which began with Camille Saint-Saens’ Oratorio de Noel and culminated with Charpentier’s Midnight Mass, written in French and sung in Latin.

The resulting concert was, for Geelong, unexpected, demanding, rewarding – and altogether merveilleux.

The Chorale, and its premiere class director Allister Cox, called in a little help to stage such an ambitious project. For a start, they needed an orchestra, which good friend, Wendy Galloway provided as an unnamed, yet highly competent 11-piece unit of strings, flutes and organ.

That Mass called for exceptional soloists so they drafted in respected sopranos Sally Wilson and Larissa Cairns with bass Tom Healey and used alto Kathleen Rawson and tenor George Belcher from their own ranks.

And to lighten the programme they bought in good friends and regular seasonal collaborators The Geelong Handbell Choir to bring an element of charm – which they did beautifully, with an all-French programme of their own. This was delivered in two segments, between the Saint-Saens Oratorio and Poulenc’s challenging motets de le temps de Noël then between that and the Charpentier Mass.

Vocally, our 36-strong Chorale was literally in fine voice and easily up to the programme’s challenging, soaring works.

Visually, they looked perfect in red and black, and director Cox’s short by erudite explanation/introduction suitably primed the audience on what was to come.

And when the concert was over, that audience rang the rafters with a long, loud and sustained ovation.

Fitting tribute to such an innovative, unexpected and yet musically appropriate Christmas salute.

C’est bloody formidable, Mate.

Colin Mockett,

Chorale masters the moods of Easter

Easter Moon, music for Holy Week presented by The Geelong Chorale, Sacred Heart Chapel, April 6, 2014.

For centuries the Christian church has used the power of the human voice to thrill, calm or uplift people’s emotions. In today’s frantic world it’s a capacity that’s largely restricted to spiritual occasions and rarely experienced together in a single concert.

So this event, which condensed together the sacred musical aspects of Easter, turned out to be special in several ways.

Firstly, the Geelong Chorale and its musical director Allister Cox are as meticulous in their research and preparation as they are in their performance. So this concert saw the Chorale vocally augmented to suit the scores and aided by a wind quartet as well as regular accompanist Kristine Mellens. And they used the carefully-chosen venue – which has superb acoustics – to its best advantage by situating singers in the mezzanine gallery for selected pieces. But mostly, the Easter Moon concert featured three distinct and very different spiritual aspects of sacred music, which displayed the versatility of the Chorale’s 35-strong chorus and also its ability to adapt to the various centuries-old musical challenges.

The concert began with eight musical aspects of Sorrow, starting with the moving Pueri Hebraeorum, through Three Tenebrae Responsories and including Pablo Cassals’ O Vos Omnes – all perfectly enunciated and achingly beautiful, before a crisp Parce heu parce iam from the wind quartet then a haunting Miserere from Gregorio Allegri which used the Chorale, Kristine and the wind players and guest soprano Lisa Breen high in the gallery with Choralers Jane Bashirrudin, Kathleen Rawson and John Stubbings.

Following a short interval, the mood switched to Reflection, with the In Modo religious, Ubo Caritas and the concert’s centrepiece, Christopher Willcock’s modern Australian take on sacred contemplation Easter Moon. These pieces, perhaps the most challenging for the singers, were met with delightful clarity before another short interval and the final musical flourish of Triumph.

This was Hassler’s Laudate Dominum and two choruses from Handel’s Messiah – the Hallelujah and Worthy Is The Lamb – with the Chorale, on more familiar ground, in rousing form and bringing the concert to an emphatic and suitably splendid finale.

Conductor Allister’s short explanations preceding each piece were valuable to most in the highly appreciative audience. Small wonder it was so well attended. Because this exceptional sacred musical occasion from Geelong’s premier singing group turned out to be so much more than a mere concert.

Colin Mockett.

Scotland The Brave

featuring The Geelong Chorale conducted by Allister Cox, Wesley Church, November 30, 2013.

At first, the songs and music of Scotland appeared a lightweight, and therefore brave, choice for Geelong’s premier choristers who are much more familiar with classical or sacred works.

But in the event – and this was an event, celebrating St Andrew’s Day – the choir turned on a highly enjoyable occasion, mixing well-known Scottish songs with the strains of lone piper Iain Coombs and some well-chosen lusty Kenneth McKellar-style solos from guest tenor Daryl Barclay.

Mix in sensitive piano accompaniments from Kristine Mellens, some understated clarinet and recorder from soprano Julie Seal and percussion from John Seal and the net result was a delightfully polite Caledonian celebration, with Celtic refrains ringing from the rafters of the Wesley Church’s acoustically bright space without a microphone in sight.

And it all made such a refreshing change. Because this concert made plain an unappreciated point – that in the 21st Century, most of the delivery of Scotland’s music has been narrowed to a few channels – those of folk groups, Celtic rock or highly-produced solo singer recordings. So to hear those delightful airs given the harmonies of a full choir was unexpectedly welcome.

And the Chorale’s choice of Scottish material, was wide, from the plaintive Skye Boat Song to the hearty Wi A Hundred Pipers An ‘A; from the Eriskay Love Lilt to The Battle of Waterloo by way of the pastural Ca’ The Yowes and well-known Rowan Tree – all given the thoughtful, tuneful Chorale treatment.

And if soloist Daryl appeared a little incongruous, singing ardent, nationalistic highland material in a sober dark suit, he compensated with pitch-perfect delivery and a bright Barclay tartan tie.

Likewise, maybe the majority of the Chorale’s tartan-sashed tenor section had left its robust rampaging days long behind (except, perhaps for Rosemary) but they more than compensated with a particularly vigorous version of the battle hymn Scots Wha Hae Wi’ Wallace Bled.

And to top it all off, it was so nice to hear Auld Lang Syne delivered for its musical content, without the distraction of being invited to stand, link arms and join in with a rough approximation.

One thing was missing, though. This concert was crying out for a short explanation of each song – Scotland’s musical heritage is so bound up with its national history and politics and that would have added so much to the audience’s understanding as well as enjoyment.

But that said, all up this concert was as refreshing as a bracing hike among the heather – in a warm Geelong late-spring church!

(reviewed by Colin Mockett.

Geelong Chorale Sings Haydn

Allister Cox, with 31 Chorale singers and four leading Geelong soloists plus a hand-picked chamber orchestra, conducted a dynamic performance of the ‘Nelson Mass’ on Sunday, August 12th 2012. McAuley Hall at Sacred Heart College was comfortably filled with a responsive and enthusiastic audience.

The soloists were Lee Abrahmsen (Soprao), Kathleen Rawson (Alto) , John Stubbings (Tenor) and Manfred Pohlenz (Bass). The soaring notes of Ms Abrahmsen’s soprano solo gave a brilliant lead in the Kyrie, while Manfred Pohlenz’s powerful bass was an inspirational opening for the Qui Tollis.

The choir achieved some exciting effects ranging from the lively Credo, through the controlled opening of the Sanctus to the triumphant nobility of the Dona Nobis Pacem. As one observer stated, ‘above all the choir communicated a sense of commitment and enjoyment’.

The Mass was complemented by the ever-popular ‘The Heavens are Telling’ from Haydn’s ‘Creation’, and a mellow but lively rendition of three J.S.Bach ‘Swingle’ numbers.

(Reviewed by Iris Pederick)

Church, Chorale and Cox – a trinity made in Geelong

Choral Classics presented by Geelong Chorale conducted by Allister Cox, St. Paul’s Church. Saturday September 17, 2011

This concert brought together three Geelong institutions in the finest of collaborations. First, there was the Geelong Chorale, with decades of choral excellence earning its title as the region’s premier choir. Then, there was the bright, airy acoustic of the historic St. Paul’s Church – and the final Geelong institution was guest conductor, Allister Cox.

Allister, singer, musician, teacher, musical authority, orchestra condutor, actor and humorous raconteur seems a perfect fit to front the Chorale and the surprise is that it has taken so long for them to get together.

Their suitability was borne out with this concert’s stunning opener, the Allegri Miserere, which saw the 30-voice Chorale ranged across the church’s central area beside the altar and right angled to the choir stalls. Soloists Lisa Breen, Kathleen Rawson, Frank Sykes, John Stubbings and Jane Bashiruddin were almost out of site, behind the Chorale in the chancel, whilst Allister, conducting, faced the Chorale with his back to the audience. Yet from this position he took the lead cantor part, directing his voice high into the acoustic shell of the building and achieving without microphones an almost perfect blend of harmonies with individual soloists and the full Chorale. It made for a sublime opening that was never quite surpassed as the concert progressed, despite some excellent, sensitive treatment of material that included all the big names – sacred songs from Bach, Scarlatti, Mozart, Haydn; romantic refrains from Faure, Mendelssohn and Rheinberger; more recent choruses from Rachmaninov, Stanford and Vaughan Williams and well-known choruses from Verdi – ‘the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves’, no less, with Kristine Mellens’ piano taking all the orchestral parts – and Mascagni’s Easter celebration hymn ‘Cavalleria Rusticana’.

The concert’s flow was neatly enhanced by some good variations – a couple of organ solos from Frank De Rosso that included an interesting version of Bach’s ‘Air in D’ and a piece from June Nixon that interwove a wealth of folk songs; and delightful ‘interval entertainment’ from a student quartet led by Darcy Carroll singing – and moving to – ‘A Model of Decorum’ and ‘Tranquility’ from the musical Chess.

The evening’s soloists were a revelation, too, with Lisa’s bright soprano blending beautifully with Kathleen’s warm alto while John’s tenor and Frank’s baritone voices displayed the sweet maturity of a couple of full-bodied fine old ports.

All up, this concert made for more than a joyful musical occasion. It also heralded – hopefully – some delicious future choral cooperations.

(reviewed by Colin Mockett. www.