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Canticum Chamber Choir (Sacred Heart Church, Brisbane)

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In our secular age, you would hardly be aware that Easter commemorates the Passion as well as the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Even Good Friday is often referred to as Easter Friday, and the chocolates come out weeks before the Easter weekend holiday. As for live music, you’d be lucky to hear Handel’s Messiah, which is hardly Passion music anyway, much less either of Bach’s soul-tearing Passions.

But there is still a longing for appropriate music on this most solemn day of the Christian calendar, and so thank goodness for Emily Cox and her superb semi-professional Canticum Chamber Choir, now in its 20th year. The Sacred Heart Church at Rosalie was full to overflowing on Good Friday with people eager to hear some of the most sombre and moving music ever composed, ranging from the Tudor composer Thomas Tallis to the 20th century Hungarian Gyorgy Deak-Bardos and his agonising Eli Eli with its shattering choral glissandi.

Canticum has a large and varied repertoire, ranging from music of the Renaissance and Baroque periods to startlingly contemporary composers, including many from Australia. Such is its reputation that in 2005 it was chosen to be a guest choir at the 7th World Symposium on Choral Music in Kyoto, and it also collaborates with several major arts companies for performances of both familiar and less familiar works.

Founding director and conductor Emily Cox has guided this choir from a tentative hand-picked group of singers to a fully-fledged choir of unique ability, and today they have a growing audience of music lovers who want to hear music that is different and compelling. Cox also knows how to structure her concerts so that the audience is not drugged into a drowsy acceptance, and this year the main piece, Thomas Tallis’s famous Lamentations of Jeremiah, specifically written for the Holy Triduum of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday, was framed by shorter complementary pieces by Carlo Gesualdo (16th century), Michael Haydn, brother of the more famous Joseph, and 20th century Swedish church musician Otto Olsson.

Although the works are sung in Latin, the program provided English translations of the texts, so that nobody needed to be a superficial listener, and the highlight of the concert, the Lamentations of Jeremiah, with its counterpoint and moments of almost modern dissonance, drew all the works together. The two sections of this masterpiece use the Hebrew text mourning the destruction of Jerusalem (how lonely sits the city which was full of people!) and was, in its own time, sung during the Tenebrae services of the last three days of Holy Week. The declamatory nature of the verses contrasts with the abstract mode of the music, and Cox here separated them with a more restful though equally poignant piece from Carlo Gesualdo, Behold and see if there be any sorrow like unto my sorrow 

The word Tenebrae means into the shadows, and so a 5.30pm start was atmospherically as well as musically appropriate, as the light gradually withdrew from the stained glass windows of this beautiful church and the darkness descended, making a dramatic as well as a musical statement

This was no mere formal concert of music, however beautiful, but a fully theatrical experience, as people left the church and quietly withdrew into their own shadows. As always, Canticum’s annual Good Friday concert was a highlight of the musical as well as the liturgical year, even for non-believers, because it doesn’t hurt to have one day in the year to sit quietly and rest.

Good Friday Musical Meditation was at the Sacred Heart Roman Catholic Church, Rosalie, Brisbane. Canticum’s next concerts are Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius (Saturday 4 May); Ikon of Light (Music of Sir John Tavener, Sunday 31 August); and Bach: the six Motets (Sunday 9 November). For more information, visit www.canticum.org.au)

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