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Ageless music inspires reflection and unity: MOTET

The selections of the April 3 concert in Gibsons alternated between Latin and non-Latin texts by 10 different composers, in addition to an anonymous Gregorian chant dated to 1568. 
Members of MOTET in performance at St. Mary's Catholic Church: Catherine Crouch, Beth Currie, Veronica Roenitz, Catherine Holmen, Sarah Rossiter, Wai-ling So, Dan Deranleau, David Poon and Gabriel Uy.

Nine members of the MOTET choral ensemble, led by its musical director David Poon, presented a cycle of unaccompanied chant and song at St. Mary’s Catholic Church on April 3, linking liturgical works that span 500 years into a soaring salute to the Passion tradition. 

The Rosary Project: Sorrowful Mysteries represented the resumption of a format launched in 2019, when MOTET premiered an original program based on the cycle of prayers known as the Rosary. Its two hours of music—which recounted five “joyful mysteries,” or revealed truths—were pared down by Poon to form Sunday’s shorter program that chronicled key events in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. 

The selections alternated between Latin and non-Latin texts by 10 different composers, in addition to an anonymous Gregorian chant dated to 1568. 

“The pieces were chosen with a combination of stuff we’ve sung before, stuff we’re planning to sing in the near future, and stuff we haven’t yet sung but I want to,” said Poon, who is a Gibsons resident and assistant director of music at St. John’s Vancouver Anglican Church. “One of the benefits to me personally with running MOTET is that I get to pick the music. So when I find something I like, I can try to find a way to make people sing it. I have to balance it with some better-known or easier stuff so it’s not overwhelming.” 

The Apostle’s Creed, a fifth-century proclamation of faith, opened the program in a version written by Spanish composer Cristóbal de Morales. It will be sung again and supplemented by de Morales’s full setting for the Catholic rite of Mass when MOTET presents The Assumption Project in Vancouver this August. 

The Credo’s tenor line weaves the theme of Ave Maria into its Latin lyrics. The theme was later echoed by arrangements of the traditional prayer to the Virgin Mary written by twentieth-century composers Sergei Rachmaninov and Pierre Pincemaille. 

To commemorate the third of the five “Sorrowful Mysteries,” MOTET sang an English translation of Legend by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Its text is derived from an apocryphal account of Jesus’ boyhood in which he cultivated a garden of roses. A band of cruel children forced the thorny stems onto his brow, foreshadowing circumstances of the Crucifixion. 

Poon said that his decision to include two Russian composers—Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky—was not deliberate. “I did consider changing those selections after war broke out in Ukraine, but I think it’s important not to cancel people through no fault of their own,” he said. “And even if a composer really is a horrible person supporting horrible things through their own means, why shouldn’t we sing their music?” 

MOTET’s choristers live in the Lower Mainland and the Sunshine Coast. The choir’s roster rotates depending on its projects. Since the group resumed rehearsals last fall after a COVID-19 hiatus, members have been wearing masks and enforcing a vaccine mandate. 

During Sunday’s performance, the black-clad singers wore matching face coverings. Even with their mouths concealed, the three male and six female vocalists suffused the reverberant sanctuary with ethereal harmonies grounded in a robust bass foundation. 

For Poon, who is Catholic, choosing songs inspired by ancient prayers fulfills one of MOTET’s core tenets: sharing the merits of sacred music with diverse audiences.  

“The Rosary is a meditative practice—repetition as a means to reflect and reinforce,” he said. “This often describes music—both in repeating words in a composition to emphasize certain aspects of the text, as well as repeating and reusing the same melody or motif in different places.” 

MOTET’s The Assumption Project: Morales in context will be performed on August 15 at a yet-to-be-announced venue in Vancouver.