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Concert celebrates choir’s big birthday

SCUNA, Photo: Hayley Manning

Music / “Of Stupendous Magnitude and Melody”, ANU Choral Society. At St Philip’s Church, O’Connor, October 1. Reviewed by HELEN MUSA.

CELEBRATION rather than grandiosity was uppermost in the minds of director Matthew Stuckings and his merry band of choristers at the 60th anniversary concert of the ANU Choral Society, SCUNA.

It was the culmination of a weekend of birthday celebrations that several SCUNA alumni headed for Canberra to take part.

The society has prepared an informative booklet giving the background of the society, formed in 1963 by a group that included musician and then language student, Judith Clingan, whose work was given prominence during the evening.

The formal program was interspersed with communal, singing by all present, added by a song sheet. That begin with “Gaudeamus igitur” (“let us rejoice”), followed by the songs of John Dowland, Thomas Morley, Thomas Ford, and King Henry VIII, whose song, “Pastyme” includes the fitting words, “mirth and play is best of all”.

Judith Clingan and Matthew Stuckings. Photo: Hayley Manning

Though bookended with Christopher Tye’s hymn of praise, “Laudate nomen Domini”, the formal concert begin with Clingan’s work, “Hymn to the Virgin”, conducted by the composer herself, who wrote it in 1969 after a bet with a tenor that he could sight-read anything – he lost.

What particularly intrigued me, since part of her mission in the early years was to promote the work of female choristers, was the power and vitality of the male parts of the choir.

That hymn had also been set to music by Benjamin Britten, but Stuckings chose another work, “Rejoice in the Lamb”, which had been performed in 1964 by SCUNA in its fledgeling days.

Based on a quirky, 18th century poem by Christopher Smart, the cantata features the memorable ode to “My Cat Jeffrey”, delightfully performed by Jenny Sawer, a member of a well-known SCUNA family and continuing through several movements, including a quite magnificent central lament, to a joyous hallelujah.

Soloist, Jenny Sawer. Photo: Hayley Manning

A first for SCUNA was the inclusion of a work by First Nations composer in “Sacred Earth”, originally written by former Greens Senator Bob Brown, as an anthem for the Earth, but arranged by the ANU’s Chris Sainsbury in a “hymn-like style” to be sung by community choirs far and wide.

With both overlapping parts and full-bodied polyphony, punctuated by the recurring word “Respect” this was a pleasing inclusion.

Clingan then returned to the podium to conduct the premiere of her work “Truth”, commissioned in 2016 by Rowan Harvey Martin for Coro chamber choir as a piece tackling contemporary issues, but unperformed until now.

Inspired by Thomas Jefferson’s words, “we hold these truths to be self-evident”, the didactic lyrics were printed for us to convey the message, which was relieved by some beautiful (“tricky”, Clingan said), violin breakouts performed by Lauren Davis, and Hannah Bleby-Orford, backed by a recorder ensemble.

Stuckings left the most celebratory bit for last as the choir and a small chamber ensemble performed Vivaldi’s “Gloria”.

Described by SCUNA as “the perfect party piece”, it gave trumpeter Farzana Choudhury a chance for fireworks.

While the whole “Gloria” was performed with evident pleasure, its centrepiece, was the lament, which showed off the full capacity of the choir.

Stuckings and the choir, by now including the visiting alumni, were reluctant to leave the church as they were having too good a time, so there were several encores, not least one with the entire audience standing to sing Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus”.

“Now that got a standing ovation,” Stuckings quipped.

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Helen Musa

Helen Musa

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