Adelaide Festival review: Escolania de Montserrat

This Australian premiere performance by a 700-year-old choir, from a monastery about to celebrate its first millennium, was a reminder of the Adelaide Festival’s original purpose.

Mar 04, 2023, updated Mar 04, 2023
Escolania de Montserrat perform at Adelaide Town Hall. Photo: Russell Millard

Escolania de Montserrat perform at Adelaide Town Hall. Photo: Russell Millard

The Catalan boys’ choir, based at the Santa Maria de Montserrat monastery, on a mountain north-west of Barcelona, traces its origins to 1307. The boys, aged nine to 14, live and study at Montserrat, spending three hours a day on their musical studies.

The intensive immersion shows.

There are about 50 boys in the choir normally – the youngest 10 stayed home in Europe. The 30-plus boys on stage at the Town Hall more than admirably carried the choral tradition to Adelaide.

The choir rarely travels beyond Catalonia, given their primary responsibility is to sing for the pilgrims who come to Montserrat. In other words, for those who have been able to secure a ticket, these Adelaide performances are an immense privilege – a reminder of the Festival’s origins in bringing the best of the world’s art to our city.

Under the baton of Llorenç Castelló, who himself was trained as a boy at Montserrat, the boys filed onto the stage with the relatively simple Gregorian chant, Germinans germinabitFrom the first note, this choir sings with one voice: that pure tone steeped in centuries is there, despite a small degree of uncertainty in these unfamiliar surroundings.

The first half is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, described as the patroness of the Montserrat sanctuary, and the repertoire moves to a selection from the Montserrat Codex, in this case an almost jaunty motet in praise of the Virgin.

The Magnificat by 18th-century Montserrat composer Anselm Viola allows two of the older boys to showcase their voices in a sweet harmony, with the treble section of the choir now showing their comfort in the upper reaches of their range.

The choir was now well into its work, and the performance really took off from here, the first half of the selections finishing with a gorgeous version of Schubert’s Ave Maria, arranged by contemporary Catalan composer Bernat Vivancos.

Finally, in this section, another Vivancos work, this time a spectacular Salve Regina – the prayer the Escolania sings to the Virgin every day at 1pm in the monastery. This is a piece with an unmistakably contemporary aesthetic, from a cappella whispers to crashing discordant joy from organist Mercè Sanchis. The skill from the boys in their accurate entries against this complex backdrop is enormous and admirable.

The second half of the program is a celebration of Catalan songs and you could almost see the boys’ shoulders and faces change as they sink into this less formal bracket of songs in their day-to-day language.

The pieces include humorous references, traditional dance forms, and odes to creatures (including a lovely Nightingale song, with a chorister providing the songbird’s call), but another piece by Vivancos was a highlight. Inspired by Catalan writer Joan Maragall’s poem L’ametller (“The Almond Tree”), it is cinematic and ethereal, Sanchis’ sensitive piano interchanging back and forth with the boys’ very well-controlled work on the three-voiced melody.

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The sound they evoke takes their tonal range to an even higher plane for this concert: full, resonant, glorious.

This was something special, for many in the audience likely a once-in-a-lifetime experience of an ancient choral tradition, yet clearly an evolving one.

Escolania de Montserrat is playing at the Adelaide Town Hall tonight (March 4) at 7pm and tomorrow (March 5) at 4pm.

Read more Adelaide Festival coverage here on InReview.

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