Never mind its title, which seemed to hold out vain hope that the heavens might actually open and douse a parched Adelaide with rain. The compensation of this concert was to find Adelaide Chamber Singers in an unusually exuberant mood and delivering one of their most amusingly different programs.

For much of its length, There Will Come Soft Rain was like being stuck, very entertainingly, in an aviary with an assortment of chirping, warbling and whistling noises in honour of our feathered friends. Many a choir has themed a concert around birdsong, but this one was artfully conceived and inspired.

Thanks to pieces that depict the nightingale, the start of this program felt like a cheeky rejoinder to the Adelaide Festival’s operatic centrepiece The Nightingale and Other Fables. Having the Renaissance composer Clément Janequin outdoing Stravinsky’s “Le Rossignol” in pure entertainment value seems an unlikely proposition, but “Le chant des oiseaux” of 1520 is his cacophonous masterpiece. It is as rhythmically charged as any Stravinsky in its imitation of birdcalls, species by species, through its verses.

The peskiest of all proves to be the nightingale. ACS delivered its rapid-fire syllabic calls skilfully at speed and with great fun, answering to Janequin’s appeal to awaken our senses to the sounds of nature.

This plus the two English madrigals that followed – Thomas Weelkes’ “The Nightingale” and Orlando Gibbons’ “The Silver Swan” – should rightly be performed with one singer per part rather than with full choir. But never mind: ACS’s 19 members sang with good, tight accuracy and a lightness of articulation that lent these early works the intimacy they need.

Intimacy is ACS’s hallmark, but what seemed new about this concert was the choir’s level of energy. The singers’ visible exuberance brought more than the usual smiles through this program.

One piece that they have performed before with notable success is Eric Whitacre’s wonderfully inventive “Leonardo Dreams of His Flying Machine”. In it, a fictionalised narrative tells us about how the Renaissance polymath imagines a contraption that can take to the air like pigeons at dawn. Whistling to imitate the wind, ACS was expressively dynamic and free flowing in this piece, and its chordal tuning was spot-on.

Anne Cawrse’s work “White Petals” – from her new song cycle “All Flesh is Fire”, recently performed by the choir at the Art Gallery of SA as part of the 2024 Adelaide Biennial ­– was one of the most satisfyingly enjoyable works. This Adelaide composer has set Kate Llewellyn’s poem “Faith” with a beguiling simplicity: she treats the words with a melodic naturalness and confers on them the shapeliest of melody.

Photo: Sam Roberts

Another new piece, “O Salutaris Hostia” by Latvian composer Ēriks Ešenvalds, is more harmonically warmed up and tests two dialoguing sopranos with exposed solos up high, but it was equally nicely performed.

There Will Come Soft Rain took its title from a work of that name by Carl Crossin based on poetry by Sara Teasdale. ACS performed it last year, and quite an extraordinary experience it was to have five chamber choirs sing it in St Peter’s Cathedral.

Crossin has arranged the piece in more compact dimensions for a single choir. With its open vowels and suspended low notes, the new version generates a similar aural glow and hypnotic effect. And gratefully, the rain did fall the morning after: the “soft rain and the smell of the ground” that ACS sang about did indeed breathe some life back into what has been hot, dry Adelaide.

Luke Byrne’s “Where Sails Once Flew” and “Desert Sea” are sincerely felt and quite beautiful evocations of the South Australian landscape, particularly with their addition of a lonely solo cello, soft mallet percussion and bird whistles.

The final work was Stephen Leek’s well-known “Kondalilla”, which also incorporates cello but does so more extensively. One of the concert’s highlights, Thomas Marlin’s playing in this solo seemed to come from the heart.

This was a one-night-only performance at Adelaide Town Hall. ACS will perform “All Flesh is Fire” on April 5 as part of the Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art: Inner Sanctum at the Art Gallery of SA (details here).

Read more 2024 Adelaide Festival coverage here.

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