Passionate Britons – in music

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IN A few deft strokes of the baton, the artistic director of the Canberra Choral Society, Tobias Cole, has managed to contradict perceptions of the British as a passionless people who hear no music in themselves.

Cole, r, with the choirs
Cole, r, with the choirs

The occasion was the society’s latest recital, “From Byrd to Britten,” held over the weekend in the refurbished and acoustically impressive Main Hall of the Ainslie Arts Centre.

The program began with the full-blooded ‘Kyrie’ from William Byrd’s Latin Mass for five voices (though sung by the full choir) to the more rarefied sound of Benjamin Britten’s “Missa Brevis,” boldly interspersed with related sections of the Byrd and sung by Cole’s youthful group Vocal Envy, placed at the opposite end of the hall.

The contrast could not have been greater. Elizabethan composer Byrd plays a straight bat, usually matching the words of the Mass note by note, varying from three and four parts into the full five parts, in a glorious show of the English polyphonic tradition for which Byrd and his mentor Thomas Tallis were known. The choir reached its fullest strength in the inspiring ‘Credo.’

Tobias Cole conducting Vocal Envy, CCS Chorus in background - Photo by Hou Leong
Tobias Cole conducting Vocal Envy, CCS Chorus in background – Photo by Hou Leong

Benjamin Britten’s Mass overlaps voices to create an impression of innocence, underlined in two boy soprano breakouts sung by Gabriel  Cole and Ethan Lee. Background accompaniment came  from organ prodigy Samuel Giddy of Yass performing on a very special instrument built for him by his father.

Giddy was to play a more prominent role as the recital progressed into the second half, introduced by Cole, who took us across the vocal traditions of England, starting with a “join in” song, “Drop Slow Tears” by Elizabethan composer Orlando Gibbons. That was followed by his best-known song, “The Silver Swan,” performed by the full CCS.

 Byrd to Britten - Samuel Giddy playing the organ built by his father - Photo by Hou Leong
Byrd to Britten – Samuel Giddy playing the organ built by his father – Photo by Hou Leong

The most pleasant surprise of the afternoon came in a restrained performance of three ‘farewell’ songs by the patriotic composer Hubert Parry, known to all as the composer of the most famous setting for William Blake’s “Jerusalem.” Never one to let an opportunity pass, Cole inveigled the entire audience into standing up and singing that hymn in an outburst of exuberant joy.

There followed the deep harmonies of  Charles Villiers Stanford’s “The Bluebird” with a solo break by Gabriel Cole, then Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “Rest” and Gustave Holst’s melancholy ballad, “I Love My Love.”

In keeping with the broad perception that English music reached its highest point with Henry Purcell, the concert concluded with a paean to polyphony in the great English composer’s “Hear My Prayer.”

Canberra Choral Society has done well to perform such a refined program in such a refined space, though they had a price to pay- it was necessary to turn some patrons away and to offer others standing room only.



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