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Concert as much pleasure to sing as it was to hear

“Dan Walker’s control over the choir was masterly.” Photo: Peter Hislop.

Music / “Coming Home”, Canberra Choral Society. At Wesley Uniting Church, June 18. Reviewed by HELEN MUSA.

FOR the third freezing evening in a row, I attended a packed-out performance in Canberra – there must be something in the winter air.

On Saturday night I saw Wesley Uniting Church packed to the rafters as Canberra vocal music lovers voted with their feet to attend an intelligent, mature performance of works both contemporary and going back to the mid-20th century.

Under the tutelage of artistic director Dan Walker and with the subtle accompaniment of seasoned pianist Anthony Smith and a small string ensemble, this 70-minute concert was obviously as much pleasure to sing as it was to listen to.

The evening began and ended with compositions by former Canberran, Sally Whitwell.

The first, “Home”, set to lyrics by Whitwell herself, provided melodic opening to the evening, and the last, “Lux Aeterna” (Light Eternal) written in memory of the 49 victims of shootings in 2016 at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, began in a manner close to plainsong, with Smith at the piano providing percussive punctuation, later moving to a fuller tone.

The biggest work  of the evening was the 2007 “Sunrise Mass” for choir and string orchestra by Norwegian-born Ola Gjeilo, which brought out the full range of the Choral Society’s capacities.

Divided into four parts, “The Spheres”, “Sunrise”, “The City” and “Identity”, this substantial work was characterised by mood changes. The  essentially secular work, though set to the familiar words of the Latin Mass, traced a metaphorical journey that ranged from a subtle vocal opening, through a “Gloria” featuring surprisingly swinging music, a “Credo” reaching high drama of almost filmic quality in the “Resurrexit,” to a quieter “Sanctus”.

Throughout, Walker held the choristers in the palm of his hand as they moved seamlessly between unison and part-singing.

After the drama of the “Sunrise Mass” the choir and ensemble, displaced from their regular stalls by the audience,  evacuated to an adjacent room while Smith, now as solo pianist, calmed us with Peter Sculthorpe’s 1954 “Sonatina for pianoforte”, a brief three-movement work that, exactly as Sculthorpe had demanded, ranged between brisk and slow as it told the story of a sacred journey in central Australia.

It proved the perfect segue to the world premiere of Walker’s “The Last Migration”, commissioned by the society last year to commemorate its 70th anniversary.

The poem to which it is set, one of the late AD Hope’s most spare and beautiful, was “The Death of the Bird”, telling the story of a bird’s last journey.

Composed for amateur choir and ensemble with no added soloists, this tuneful yet at times austere work began with an orchestral overture performed by the ensemble, moved into very powerful singing at the lower registers, then developed to follow the journey of the bird, with music and voices soaring just as the bird soars, “on the waste leagues of air”.

At the turning point when, without warning, the spark of instinct dies in the bird, Walker’s control over the choir was masterly – almost creating a pregnant pause in the music before the subsequent descent of the bird to earth. This was moving in the extreme.

It was a little puzzling, therefore, that he chose to round off his composition following the death with a traditional vocal and orchestral conclusion, whereas, like the bird’s death, an abrupt ending might have been expected.


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Helen Musa

Helen Musa

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