At a time when each freedom found is like a breaking drought, Giovanni Consort’s return to the stage on Saturday for their quarter-century celebration offered an immersive inundation of sound, light and emotion.
Government House Ballroom became a kaleidoscope of colour, highlighting decorative features and emphasising mood; dancing attendance on the bright, delicately intoned voices in a smorgasbord of singing styles and roles.
Tim Chapman’s rolling piano ushered in towering yet economic choral chords for Ola Gjeilo’s Luminous Night of the Soul, the first of many numinous moments.
Most of the artists are or have belonged to church choirs, as evidenced in their almost reverential rendition of sacred and secular works.
Baritone Joshua Adams’ setting of an old Welsh lullaby, Pais Dinogad (Dinogad’s shift), exploited the translucent tones of tenors Ry Charleson and Kieran Lynch, and also the lilting, lyrical quality of Europe’s oldest living language.
Adams next starred as soloist in Robbie Burns’ My Love is Like a Red, Red, Rose, his baritone breaking briskly through the chorus before recombining in the group; a skerrick of Scots in the phrasing and a hint of hymnody in the harmony.
Conductor Hugh Lydon drifted discreetly between podium for the accompanied numbers and chorus line for a cappella singing, offering commentary at key moments.
Female voices led Londonderry Air (Danny Boy), sopranos Brianna Louwen and Bonnie de la Hunty with mezzos Gabrielle Scheggia and Amber Lister in melancholy mood, joined by the tenors and baritones David Penco and Christophe Karas; hushed over dark jazz chords, rising to the climax and mournful in cadence.
A green wash over Danny Boy morphed to cardinal red for Rossini’s O Salutaris, by turns reverential and triumphant, the words of St Thomas Aquinas suitably in-synch with the era.
Sopranos and mezzos well-matched in timbre and colour led again on Salve Regina, composer Roxanna Panufnik’s plainsong-like incantation of a prayer to the Virgin Mary.
Nothing captures yearning and devotion as well as unalloyed human voice, and these works tapped a rich vein.
Arvo Part’s The Deer’s Cry held the mood; deft bites of sound in choral refrain sustaining a soaring soprano solo, building to a complex chorale both plaintive and mystic.
Erik Esenvalds’ Only In Sleep, almost a signature work for De la Hunty, was haunting yet generous; warm tones in the ensemble and an ethereal lead by turns folkloric and spiritual. De la Hunty has perhaps the perfect pipes for this venue; scintillating yet delicate like the acoustic, bright and stately as the hall.
To close the half, Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Serenade to Music brought a symphonic scale to song; a gentle piano summoning a rich ensemble, throwing to Louwen’s solo — full-voiced yet nuanced, an echo of Lark Ascending. De la Hunty and Adams followed in call and response before Scheggia’s meditative mezzo wove the threads together, resolving on the lyric “sweet harmony”.
How to follow that?
A bare stage lulled the audience before voices broke out at the back of the hall, sharing the space with intimate effect then processing like cathedral choristers intoning John Tavener’s Funeral Ikos, a poignant alleluia left hanging in the rarefied air.
Luke Byrne’s Foundling extended the ambience, Scheggia’s rich narration blissfully supported by female chorus, then full ensemble; exploring the thin space between earth and eternity.
Ubi Caritas, set by Giovanni alumnus Perry Joyce, channelled contemporary close harmony yet faithfully reflected religious practice and sentiment.
Butterfly by Mia Makaroff blended scat-style chorus with a Louwen solo redolent of raindrops and spring sunshine.
Paul Jarman’s setting of Invictus summoned the hand of fate in rhythmic piano, swelling to a joyous hymn to humanity — “We’ve chosen this because of the times we live in,” Lydon observed — before Frank Ticheli’s Earth Song completed the picture: an anthemic lament for the corona-era, born of and returning to defiance.