St Patrick’s Cathedral proved a magnificent setting for Excelsis. Choir and orchestra seemed to fill the space as naturally as full tide covers dry land. Conductor and director, Tom Buchanan, led his people through a well-balanced programme, both in selection and performance.
The night was cut down the middle – the first half being a collection of smaller pieces old and newer from international and local composers, while the second was a performance of Karl Jenkins’, Stabat Mater.
Jenkins hasn’t given a choir approaching his work an easy task, asking them to sing in English, Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic, at various stages throughout. Indeed, the fact that most of the choir (Excelsis regulars) were completely off-book speaks not only to their audacity, but also their skill in rising to that challenge.
The first half was opened and closed by Melbourne-based composers – Stuart Greenbaum with Moments of Falling, and Tom himself with Ave Verum Corpus. It gave a lovely shape to proceedings, an auditory arc tracing from Stuart’s tremulous-at-first, brooding number to Tom’s confident arrangement, acting as a nice counterpoint.
In-between were some gorgeous pieces, the choir and orchestra graceful and strong, like a flame. There were hints of lullaby, cinematic impressions (imagine the score of a Merchant Ivory film), as well as undercurrents of settled darkness. It was music to watch the dawn by.
Stabat Mater is made up of 12 movements. The first thing you notice is the sound. Jenkins’ work focuses on languages from the Middle East, but ethnic instrumentation also, so what the audience are treated to is a larger, more sophisticated sound. As the performance shifts and surges through the choir, musicians, and an arresting vocal performance from soprano, Ayse Göknur Shanal, it builds a compelling tension between the modern and the traditional.
While Tom’s back is to the audience, his enthusiasm while conducting is unmistakable. By the final notes of, “Alleluia!” that emotion reflects off the choir back to us in our seats, magnified by their own feelings of (rightfully deserved) jubilation.
At some point, I’ve written down, “To be played at maximum volume” in my notes, but – as a choir novice – I’m not certain these sort of live performances work that way. What is certain, however, is that this was a splendid night in a beautiful venue, deserving all the plaudits received from a grateful and entertained audience.
Stabat Mater – Karl Jenkins
St Patrick’s Cathedral, 1 Cathedral Place, East Melbourne
Performance: Friday 23 June 2017 – 8.00pm
Image: Excelsis with Musical Director Tom Buchanan (centre) – photo courtesy of Excelsis
Review: David Collins