Coro Austral introduces Sydney to some great new music – gloriosa!

by | May 16, 2021 | Ambassador thoughts, Choirs

Coro Austral | Musica Gloriosa

May 15, 2021 Rozelle NSW

Coro Austral is Australia’s premier choir for Spanish, Portuguese and Latin American choral music. Now entering its second decade under the artistic and musical direction of Margot McLaughlin, who founded the choir (then named El Coro) in 2010, the choir has introduced audiences to the music of a great many composers not previously heard in Australia. Like all choirs in Australia they were reduced to zoom meetings in 2020, but managed to squeeze in some live rehearsals and a concert at the end of the year.

On Sunday 15 May, they returned for a free concert in the stunning acoustic of St Joseph’s Church, Rozelle. A large audience was treated to sacred and secular music reflecting the choir’s past, present and future. When asked how she came up with the program for this concert of ‘glorious music’, Margot said she wanted to express elements of the journey she has been on with the choir for 10 years as Artistic Director and also pay homage to the sacred spaces in which the choir now rehearses and performs.

The concert began with the first piece that the choir performed in public (in 2010): Santa Maria, strela do dia. This religious song from the 13th century, in medieval Galician, is from the Cantigas de Santa Maria, a compendium of 420 songs written during the reign of Alfonso X ‘el Sabio’ (The Wise), and possibly even written by him. Coro’s masterful arrangement, beginning with a soft drum beat from percussionist extraordinaire (and tenor) Jess Ciampa, and a drone on the er-hu  (two-stringed Chinese vertical fiddle) from alto Terry Funk made an extremely effective opening number, with the choir beginning off stage and processing on. The drama built with some further added percussion from Marilyn Schock and Pepe Newton until the full choir of fifteen voices rang out.

The two following numbers Locus Iste (This place) and Christus Factus Est (Christ was anointed) by Austrian composer Anton Bruckner celebrated Coro Austral’s new relationship with the parish of St Joseph’s and St Augustine’s Churches and showed the versatility of the choir, who are not just a choir that sings in Spanish or Portuguese, but has also performed much of the standard sacred repertoire in previous concerts and even performed as a guest choir for the 2020 Advent and 2021 Easter services at the parish.

The first half program continued with four other sacred works, all expertly sung. They were O Vos Omnes (All ye people), by Bernat Vivancos; Palestrina’s most famous motet, Sicut Cervus (Like as the hart); and the Victoria motet and mass, O Quam Gloriosum (O How Glorious). The Palestrina and Victoria works are well-known and were performed stylishly, but the stand-out piece for me here was the Vivancos setting of O Vos Omnes. Many in the audience would be familiar with versions of this piece and of El cant dels ocells (Song of the Birds) by the great Catalan composer and cellist Pablo Casals, because Coro Austral has performed them in previous concerts. But I can report that the versions sung in this concert, by Vivancos were also very beautiful. In O Vos Omnes the sopranos, in particular, made a glorious sound, and in El cant dels ocels, performed, appropriately enough by just the female voices, two of those sopranos: Lorraine Minton and Margaret Grove made outstanding soloists.

Coro Austral have had a relationship with Bernat Vivancos which goes back some years and have performed several of his works with great success. These two short pieces were exquisite.

The second half of the concert was nearly all secular music (a short Sanctus by Clemens non Papa concluded the concert). The choir took us on a musical voyage from the afore-mentioned Catalonia, to Mexico, Brazil and then Cuba, via a Sephardic song arranged by an American. This is core repertoire for Coro Austral and they did not disappoint their audience. There were two old favourites: the anonymous Sephardic (that is, of the Jews who were expelled from Spain and Portugal in the 1490s) song La Rosa Enflorece (The Rose flowers) and the Brazilian Mas Que Nada (No Way!) by Jorge Ben.

La Rosa Enflorece, arranged by Elliot Z. Levine (another old friend of the choir) is a haunting melody with a fine soprano solo from Marilyn Schock and a rich tenor solo from Michael Murphy (organist and director of music for St Joseph’s parish). Mas Que Nada was a hit for Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’66 and with the percussion of Jess Ciampa and Marilyn Schock driving the choir along,

Coro Austral really got the samba carnival feeling going!

Jorge Cordoba was not a composer I knew before this concert. When I look him up I see that he is very well-known in Mexico and the Americas as a conductor and choral composer. His Siete Haiku (Seven Haikus) were seven very short settings of Japanese haiku in Spanish translation. Each of them captured a mood – I particularly liked number six, Niebla del alba (Fog of dawn); ‘The fog in the early dawn, like a foggy dream, people pass by’, which very creatively used whispering sounds from some members of the choir against soft vocal lines. Once again Coro Austral introduces Sydney to some great new music – gloriosa!

The other three pieces in the program were from Cuba, where Coro Austral first toured in 2017 (Margot had previously taken the Australian Trade Union Choir to Cuba in 2013). Cuba is renowned for its choral tradition: the International Choir Festival in Santiago de Cuba has been running every year since 1931 and – hopefully – will be on again later this year. Coro Austral has many Cuban pieces in its repertoire and here were three new ones: Es el amor la mitad de la vida (Love is half of life) by Marin Varona, De Cuba para la Habana (From Cuba to Havana) by Anon (both set by the great Cuban composer and arranger Electo Silva), and Entre el espanto y la ternura (Between Terror and Tenderness) by the iconic Cuban composer Beatriz Corona. Margot McLaughlin and Coro Austral displayed real feeling for the style of this music, moving with the music and singing their hearts out to a very appreciative audience.

Throughout the concert as a whole, the audience was enthusiastic in showing its enjoyment at ‘travelling’ with the choir on their 10 year journey through the works of a variety of past and present composers.

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