Gloriana Chamber Choir: Path of Miracles

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Published: 5th July, 2019
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“Inspired by the Camino de Santiago, Joby Talbot’s Path of Miracles is a mesmerising journey in sound that mirrors the pilgrim’s progress.”

It’s all about place. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a concert that was so much about place, and about movement in time. This was a concert about people and their interactions with places along this famous pilgrims’ path through time. We hear so much about place as a powerful force in art, architecture and even food, but in music this idea seems only occasionally to be regarded as important. With this piece, the idea of place has been the central concern of its creation and this performance.

The concert began with three items from The Red Book of Montserrat, having their origins in medieval popular song and dance, later re-set with religious texts by the monks of Montserrat. These contrasting pieces set both the narrative of the concert: pilgrimage, and gave further depth to our grasp of the musical style references in the main work of the day – Joby Talbot’s Path of Miracles.

Though in four movements, the work itself is massive, and contains so many approaches to setting of text that in some ways it reflects the long history of the pilgrimages. Some movements showed linear development, some sat in self contained planes, making time stand still. One movement made me think of how Wagner makes us wait for a cadence until the effect of its arrival is monumental. The musical languages Talbot references are wide, and yet this is highly original work. Sometimes the text is set in such a way that it is the opposite of declamatory – as though the musical choices made are more a meditation on the content than an effort to project it directly to the listener.

The text itself was partly written, partly curated from older writing using extracts from the 12th century Codex Calixtinus – by Robert Dickinson. This text gave a wonderfully varied reflection of interactions, descriptions and customs – a combination of the very human and the more religious aspects of the path. It was fascinating at times to follow the text in the program, but at others to close the eyes and just bathe in the sounds. This was a powerful journey indeed.

Concepts of harmony swirled and changed throughout, reflecting on the changes through cultures and history. The work was presented using a range of positions within the quite atmospheric environment of Carlton’s Sacred Heart church; it is quite easy to imagine oneself somewhere in southern Europe in this place, if not exactly Northern Spain. This took full advantage of the acoustical possibilities of the space, as well as some splendid effects in procession.

Path of Miracles is also extremely demanding on the performers – though there are at times up to seventeen independent parts, the challenges were taken with relish by this extraordinary vocal ensemble. Largely a cappella, the textures were peppered at times with an ecstatic range of bells, the appealingly open air sound of the chalumeau, and the percussive drive of the bodhrán, played by director Andrew Raiskums. This performance was a tribute to both vision and considerable musicianship all round.

This was a very strong performance of a fascinating work – a work that asserts itself as event. It delivered what no recording can – an immersion in a journey of faith, hope and gritty truth through a unique performance in a particular space. I suspect that this element was not lost on its audience. The program notes were an excellent adjunct.

This was indeed a most fitting twenty-fifth anniversary celebration of Melbourne’s wonderful Gloriana Chamber Choir, combining its interests in early music with this startling and dramatic contemporary work. I found the whole both highly stimulating and satisfying.

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Peter Hurley reviewed “Path of Miracles” presented by Gloriana Chamber Choir at Sacred Heart Church Carlton on June 16, 2019.