The Song Company. Pic: supplied

Festivals

150 Psalms: Leadership review (Adelaide Festival)

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150 Psalms, a choral presentation of 12 themed concerts performed over four days, is one of the centrepieces of the 2020 Adelaide Festival as it celebrates its 60th year. It is an extensive project, conceived by Tido Visser, managing director of the Netherlands Chamber Choir, and was first performed in 2017 at the Utrecht Festival Oude Muziek.

The Adelaide event is its fourth version, featuring The Netherlands Chamber Choir, The Norwegian Soloists’ Choir, The Tallis Scholars and, from Australia, The Song Company.

Each of the concerts has a theme. From one to 12 they are: 

A Mirror for Today’s Society, Trust, Safety, Justice, Abandonment, Gratitude, Powerlessness, Suffering, Leadership, Path of Life, Power and Oppression and Celebration of Life.

These are divided up among the choirs, except for the final concert – featuring all of the singers in the project. Venues are spread around the city and among religious denominations – St Peter’s Cathedral, the Adelaide Hebrew Congregation in Glenside, St Xavier’s Cathedral, Pilgrim Church and, for a secular conclusion, Adelaide Town Hall. 

Leadership, ninth in the series, is a midday concert at Pilgrim Church. As we line up for the event, Amnesty International volunteers are collecting signatures against off-shore refugee detention. Amnesty is a co-sponsor of the 150 Psalms event. Each concert is also prefaced by a speaker.

For Leadership, it is Francis Sullivan, former CEO of the Truth, Justice and Healing Council from 2012 to 2018. They were responsible for co-ordinating the response of the Catholic Church throughout the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Abuse. He describes it as “the gig from Hell.”  

So often we associate notions of leadership with authority, command and delegation. Sullivan’s emphasis is on pausing to listen, in not rushing to judgement. An instinctive response, he observes, is not an intuitive one. To pause and consider, instead of resorting to defensiveness and denial, these are the virtues.

It is a simple and direct account he gives of paying attention – to stories of concealment, of people “disbelieved, disparaged and discarded.” One person at the hearings said to Sullivan – “Don’t you dare let us down again.”

Sullivan concludes with a description of a kind of pilgrimage he made, after the Commission concluded, along the Camino Walk to the Santiago Cathedral in Spain. A Catholic himself, he decided to take with him a copy of the published report of the Commission which documented more than 5000 instances of child abuse. He describes dodging the church security and hurling it into a Cathedral crypt so it landed face up among the ecclesiastical bones. It was a startling gesture of protest and admonition, but also of atonement. 

It is an unexpected prologue to the concert and it enhances what is to follow. The Psalms sung in Latin, English and German have been framed by a reminder of the Christian values of conscience and justice for others, not a preoccupation with the piety of the self. It invigorates the Psalms with purpose and duty of a more immediate kind.

It has been a splendid recital. My only regret is that I witnessed only one of 12 in this magnificent project. 

The 12 psalms chosen range from the 16th century to the present. It is Thomas Arne’s (1710-1778) sprightly setting for Psalm 2 which opens the event. Under conductor, Antony Pitts, The Song Company, founded in 1984 and based in Sydney, immediately captivates the full and appreciative pews at Pilgrim Church. With twelve members – six women, six men – they quickly confirm the view that this is the country’s pre-eminent choir and a capella ensemble.

Psalm 45 by Francisco Valls (1665-1747) sung in Latin by six of the company, is as glorious as it is brief, while young 33-year-old  composer William Knight’s rendering of Psalm 21 – “He asked You for life/ and you gave it to him” is majestic.

There are two works in German, late 19th century composer Felix Draeseke’s Psalm 93- Der Herr ist Konig and 18th century musician Johann Heinrich Rolle’s Psalm 97. The full choir performs the brief and lovely fragment from William Byrd (1543-1623) from Psalm 94. Translated from the Latin it reads: “O Lord, according to the multitude of sorrows in my heart/Thy consolations have made my soul joyful.”

A highlight is Psalm 96, A new song, by James McMillan (b. 1959) featuring male voices only and concluding with a triumphant organ solo from Anthony Hunt. The final items – from the 18th century, William Boyce’s Psalm 99, The Lord is King, be the people never so impatient and the Robert White (1538-1574) setting in Latin of Psalm 20, reveal the strength and beauty of The Song Company’s prodigious vocal talents – the final “amen” enthralling even the non-religious in the audience, even the lost and gone before.

It has been a splendid recital. My only regret is that I witnessed only one of 12 in this magnificent project. 

150 Psalms played the Adelaide Festival, February 29 – March 3.
Leadership was performed at the Pilgrim Church, Flinders St March 2.

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