Review / Chapel setting for heavenly voices

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“Death and Redemption” in full swing at the Girls Grammar School chapel. Photo by Peter Hislop

THE human voice has the most subtle and profound qualities of any musical instrument, especially when heard in the intimate setting of a chapel.

Conductor, musician and director Robyn Mellor led the Oriana Chorale and the six members of Polifemy through songs of death and redemption in the Chapel at Canberra Girls’ Grammar School.

Renaissance composer Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, known for his sacred music set his mass for the dead “Missa pro Defunctis” in 1554, and it is just as moving today as I imagine it was then. This setting had three sopranos up in the loft near the organ; they began the “Indroitus” in what could be described as heavenly voices from above. The whole chorale then entered as a response to the sopranos; it was a divine sound.

The nine movements of this mass covered the traditional chants of the Sanctus, Kyrie, Agnus Die and others, and it ends with a Requiescat. The Benedictus stood out for its colour and dynamic. The whole mass was sung with a balance of beautiful tone blending between sections with many clear and strong individual lines.  

After the interval, The Seven Penitential Psalms that are expressions of sin and repentance were sung in order to demonstrate the changes in musical styles from 1585 to 1620. Psalm 102, set by Orazio Vecchi, lifted the rafters of the chapel in a short burst of dynamic prayer that asks for forgiveness.

Psalm 38, set by Carlo Gesualdo, was a sensitive and flowing polyphonic work that showed how well the chorale could sing together in their quiet and loud dynamics. Giovanni Gabrieli, one of the most influential musicians of his time set Psalm 51 for six voices. Through this quiet and lamentful work that ebbs and flows with subtlety and passion, and then moves to a full and glorious harmonious rising unison was the standout piece for this reviewer.

Psalm 32, by Giovanna Croce, was set to a reduced text by Francesco Bembo. This unique work had the chorale divided up into many sections, which created a striking polyphony. Psalm 130, set by Orlando di Lasso began softly with all singers chanting as one. Throughout this lullaby-like work, it became an almost perfect combination of sound and visuals as the sun set behind the singers to its hushed conclusion.

Psalm 6, by Claudio Monteverdi and Psalm 143, by Melchior Frank followed, then the Psalm 96/98 “Sing to the Lord a New Song’’ by Claudio Monteverdi sprang into a joyful and bright setting. The full chorale came together as one and gave a sparkling performance of this strong and profound work. This concert left the audience clapping loudly even after the singers had left the stage.

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