Celebration of oratorio

By Adrian Keenan (Canberra Times)

Canberrans turned out in force for the Canberra Symphony Orchestra's 60th Anniversary Grand Gala featuring just one work, Giuseppe Verdi's dramatic setting of the Requiem Mass - an hour and a half of grand romantic operatic oratorio, offering us a 19th Century vision of the Last Judgement.

George Bernard Shaw, reviewing Dvorak's Requiem in 1892 noted that: "It is generally understood that funerals are to be avoided as long as possible, whereas Requiems are offered as a sort of treat, whether anybody is dead or not."

We were in for more than a treat. This was a grand gala evening with the Chief Minister and many ambassadors present, some 300 performers on stage: four soloists, four Canberra choirs (Canberra Choral Society, Oriana Chorale, Llewellyn Choir and ANU Choral Society) and an augmented CSO conducted by the charismatic Nicholas Milton. This was a celebration, despite the subject matter, of the community of choirs of our musical city.

Milton's mastery was evident from the outset, drawing the audience into dead silence allowing the first hushed words, Requiem aeternam to emerge from the stillness. As effective were the full-force cataclysmic climaxes of the Dies irae and Rex tremendae.

This performance was marked by commitment: the choir was impressive, clear diction and excellent intonation even in the long unaccompanied ever-modulating sections; the dangerous final fugue taken at a perilous speed. The fact it held together is a testament to the thorough preparation of chorusmaster Tobias Cole.

The mostly local orchestra led by Barbara Jane Gilby was of symphonic proportions that we have a right to expect in a national capital; the playing focused, dramatic, with some ethereal sounds from the strings.

The contributions of the largely inexperienced singers were occasionally overshadowed by the orchestra on the crowded stage. Mezzo-soprano, Christina Wilson, the only local singer and most experienced of the quartet, showed particular understanding of the musical intent. Soprano Eva Kong and tenor Warren Fisher, are relatively unknown but talents to be watched. Bass, David PArkin, 2006 winner of ABC TV's Operatunity Oz, has a voice that is rich, dark and strong which can only benefit from further training.

Milton held the silence at the end for what seemed an eternity. That said more than the tumultuous and sustained applause.