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Choir celebrates its 70th anniversary with a concert

Canberra Choral Society’s 70th Anniversary concert conducted by Dan Walker. Photo by Peter Hislop.

Music / “Attune – 70 Years of Music Making”, Canberra Choral Society. At Canberra Girls’ Grammar School Hall, September 17. Reviewed by IAN McLEAN.

THE Canberra Choral Society (CCS) is one of several community arts organisations (Canberra Philharmonic Society is another) this year celebrating a 70-year continuous contribution to the artistic landscape in Canberra. 

The choir had humble beginnings. A note was placed on the music room at the now Brassey Hotel, then a guesthouse, inviting “anyone who can sing” to attend the first meeting of the Canberra Choral Group. 

That band of singers grew into the CCS presenting two major symphonic choral works each year as well as smaller, more intimate concerts of a cappella singing and piano or organ accompanied pieces.

Formation year was 1952, just as Australia welcomed a new Queen. She was crowned Elizabeth II a year later so it was appropriate that the brilliant Handel coronation anthem “Zadok the Priest”, originally written for the 1727 coronation of George II and Queen Caroline, should open this anniversary concert.

Choirs have been the musical combination perhaps hardest hit by the covid virus over the last three years. Canberra’s chorister numbers have been more than halved in virtually all choirs and re-growth is only now slowly on the uptake. 

“Zadok” is normally performed with a choir of 200 or so singers plus a full orchestra – quite incredible forces with a resultant massive sound. Thanks to the virus the current choir strength is just a quarter of that size so, despite well disciplined and dynamically controlled playing from the still complete orchestra, voices were understandably somewhat overwhelmed.

Not so in “Songs from the High Country”, a work commissioned by the choir especially for this concert. Written by talented Canberra composer Michael Dooley this work is a musical portrayal of natural landscapes around Canberra and the Snowy Mountains and an interpretation of how getting “out in the bush” brings peace and solitude. 

The opening “Dawn Chorus” set the scene perfectly with flute, oboe and strings creating a blissful dawn picture, brass imitating bush creatures and the choir singing such haunting words as: “Beneath the sky’s stained glass windows the avian superstars perform”. 

A magical atmosphere was captured with glockenspiel raindrops in “Early Morning Rain” then a peaceful and tranquil oboe in “Besides Still Waters”. Pulsating voices and instruments signified “Cascades”, it was easy to envisage eucalypts as “Sentinels” then a broad and pastoral orchestral backing to the choir singing of gullies, valleys and hills in the “Outcrop” finale. This work is a fine addition to Australian choral repertoire, which it is hoped is afforded many performance opportunities in coming years.

The second of Handel’s coronation anthems, “Let Thy Hand be Strengthened” was a touch heavy and ponderous and lacked vocal power and projection, but the final anthem “My Heart is Inditing” was better balanced with greater surety and confidence.

The second commissioned work was “Attune”, written by Sydney-based composer Ella Macens in collaboration with Canberra poet Sarah Rice. The piece reflects on the themes of renewal, reconnection and togetherness and is an ode to the “parts” of the choir that  join together to create the “whole”. At times, it was difficult to discern the words but the text was provided in the program, which was appreciated. 

The soprano “part” sang: “Flying high in a shining winter / Along each branch a glittering of lacework frost / You catch the light” and this moving phrase was indicative of the sharing of common values contained within the text. 

There were some tentative entries, but all vocal work was solid in tutti passages and the rich full sound of the choir was most evident in the unaccompanied “You are treasure in the garden”. This complex work requires further listening before gaining a more complete understanding of its grace and subtle nature but it is certainly another welcome addition to the Australian library of orchestra/choral works.

The orchestra was well led by Tim Wickham with fine playing in all sections highlighted by a wonderfully blended and balanced woodwind team.

Canberra Choral Society’s 70th Anniversary concert directed by Dan Walker. Photo by Peter Hislop.

Dan Walker provided clean, clear and decisive direction to both choir and orchestra and he brought an obvious passion and enthusiasm to his conducting.

CCS rightly deserves sincere thanks for its lengthy contribution to music in Canberra. Congratulations to all members, past and present, for a fine 70 years of sharing the joy of music making and providing musical pleasure. Long may it continue!

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