They file in looking sharp and confident and, somehow, even before they open their mouths, they exude an air of complete precision. It is another Adelaide Chamber Singers concert but this time with one big difference. Carl Crossin is for the last time conducting a group he started 36 years ago that has gone on to become a great treasure of Adelaide’s concert scene.

There is barely a moment to reflect on the high level of their artistry over all that time before his sopranos dived into Byrd’s motet Laudibus in Sanctis. Crisply bouncy and immaculately tuned, it set a joyous, uplifting mood. A few bars later and all 19 singers were in, combining so well as one that they completely surpassed what any ordinary choir sounds like – they were more like an Elizabethan consort of viols, perhaps, and just the way Byrd is supposed to sound.

One of the secrets of ACS is that they generate a sensual, flowing form of energy without any forcedness of tone. It comes from Crossin’s special way as a conductor. Mesmerising to behold, his intricate gestures of hand and arm almost look as if he is darning thread, and one imagines it places his singers under some kind of spell. But what he is actually doing is creating a smooth but very alive sense of pulse that continually flexes and fluxes with the music.

A really superb conductor for voices, he leaves other mere beat-keepers far behind. In Palestrina’s Sicut Cervus, one could admire the warmer, velvety tone they gave this introspective motet, and appreciate the loving affection they imparted to line and cadence. Is Palestrina supposed to sound this sensual? Of course. That’s why the church at the time of the Council of Trent viewed his music as too beautiful to ban.

It was all classic, straightforward ACS so far. But next was a work Crossin had composed himself in 2014, Sudden Light, that seemed to engage the choir even more intensely. Pensive and articulated by many silences, and with soprano Emma Borgas singing a wordless solo on top, it was haunting and a match with the preceding works for pure beauty. Crossin sets English text really well – in the case poetry of the Pre-Raphaelite doyen Dante Gabriel Rossetti – and one was struck by how expressively forward the singers were in this work.

Carl Crossin and his successor Christie Anderson. Supplied image

Finzi’s hale and hearty My Spirit Sang All Day provided an interlude of bouncy fun before the singers moved further back to the altar for the ‘Agnus Dei’ from Vaughan Williams’ Mass in G Minor. St Peter Cathedral’s vastly spreading acoustic rather got the better of them on this occasion: they were physically too far away from the audience for this, but a lovely tuned chord at the end proved to be one of the concert’s special smaller moments.

A more striking effect came in Arvo Pärt’s The Deer’s Cry, in which the singers positioned themselves right next to the audience down the sides of the nave. Create a surround-sound experience that is frequently a feature of ACS’s concerts, this was perhaps the program’s highlight. Pärt, a composer they have come to know and sing intimately well, creates arresting power in this piece with the words ‘Christ with me’ repeated in slow, halting phrases. It rang in the ears well after the concert was finished.

Charles Stanford’s romantic song The Blue Bird, with Emma Horwood divinely pure and expressive in the solo part, was another highlight. But for outright cleverness, Eric Whitacre’s Leonardo Dreams of his Flying Machine, stole the show. Beloved by choirs, this piece recalls sixteenth-century Italian madrigals and supplies enormous fun at the end with percussion and whooshing noises from the singers.

It sure was the end of an era. Crossin, wearing a broad grin and winning a standing ovation, came to sit with the audience to listen to a special encore conducted by his assistant, Christie Anderson, who will take over the choir from now. Entitled ‘After Rain’ and composed by Paul Stanhope to words by Adelaide writer Peter Goldsworthy, it evoked nature’s sounds with vivid descriptive power.

It is a hard thing to let one’s baby go, and for some it might be a bit mystifying why he is stepping down, but Crossin has made an enormous musical mark in this city and his choir is not only cherished here but admired far and wide. The numerous international awards it has received is proof of that.

Adelaide thanks you, Carl.

Now it is time for the next chapter. Anderson clearly has the singers’ support and, uncannily, shares many similar characteristics as a conductor. We look forward to ACS taking flight under her capable hands.

‘Flight’ was performed at St Peter’s Cathedral on November 20.

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