Recently the Handel Manuel Chorus comprising 36 singers performed with excellent co-ordination.

Less well-known and yet effectively active in their own small niches are some of Europe's cultural legacies, including (and in particular) the traditional spiritual music which flows steadily in our Christian circles.

The most common manifestation of such music is the regular singing of sacred hymns and carols by the whole congregation in our churches and cathedrals, accompanied by the organ wherever possible. But there are also earnest choral groups which constantly strive to achieve a high degree of excellence in singing not only familiar verses, but also short extracts from sophisticated works by famous composers, and other historically representative pieces of sacred music dating back to the early Christian era.

Now and then such choirs get opportunities to perform for the general public, thanks to the sustained efforts of some dedicated institutions and individuals. Such a rare treat for many Western-music-lovers in Chennai was a recent performance of the Handel Manuel Chorus in the compact Pitti Tyagaraya Hall. The ensemble consisted of 36 singers (21 sopranos/altos and 15 tenors/bass), accompanied by guest-pianist Neecia Majolly from Banglaore; and they performed with excellent co-ordination under the able guidance of Sharada Schaffter, a pioneer in this field.

Starting with a Gregorian chant titled ‘Kyrie: Cunctipotens,’ dating back to 800 A.D., the chorus traced the progress of sacred music in the West with a string of motets by medieval composers such as Palestrina and Vivaldi, and short extracts from the works of famous composers belonging to the 17th and 18th centuries (Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Handel, Mozart, Mendelssohn) and the 19th and 20th centuries (Rachmaninoff, Williams).

The lyrics were in Greek, Latin and German in the case of the earlier works (with English translations provided in useful programme notes); and in other cases the texts were themselves in English, either originally or as standard translations. Many members of the audience were habitual church-goers for whom the music was familiar; yet a very useful running commentary was provided by Timothy Daniel for the benefit of other listeners.

The concert concluded with a couple of lively pieces in the Calypso and American Spiritual modes, and sandwiched between them was the serene and universally popular hymn ‘Abide With Me.’ The last-mentioned item was set to an enchanting melody called ‘Dorland Mountain,’ composed by Randall Giles, the well-known American musician who lives in Chennai and who has travelled around the world teaching and disseminating Christian music.

The performance, which was admirable from beginning to end, was organised for the benefit of the Zamar Education Trust (which provides English-medium education for less privileged children). It was sponsored by Classic Hymns, the producer of a couple of CDs featuring choral groups of 150 to 300 singers drawn from more than a dozen choirs which are active in Chennai; Chennai Live 104.8 FM radio was also associated with it.

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