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MOTET performs centuries-old music at its ‘Twelve Days of Christmas’ concert

Songs that last in the ever-changing world
A. Motet
MOTET in performance at St. Hilda’s Anglican Church.

A Vancouver-based chamber ensemble under the direction of its founder and Gibsons resident David Poon presented nearly 500 years of sacred choral music during a performance at St. Hilda’s Anglican Church in Sechelt on Jan. 3.

The MOTET choir was founded in 2014 by Poon. The group has sung its “Twelve Days of Christmas” concert at venues in Vancouver and the Sunshine Coast annually, with the exception of a cancellation last year due to COVID-19.

After accompanying the singers’ entry procession on the pipe organ, Poon joined the singers onstage. The eight-member chorale sang without its full complement due to the illness of several vocalists.

“Omicron plus the snow did a number on us this year,” said Poon, “but we’ve learned the music and we wanted to sing it. Really, it’s a joy to sing this music.

“I’m a little biased because I picked all of it.”

The program featured a blend of unaccompanied Gregorian chant and familiar seasonal songs with ancient European roots.

Poon assembled the group of singers from among his friends and other choirs he accompanies or leads. MOTET differs from his day-to-day responsibilities as assistant director of music at St. John’s Vancouver Anglican Church. The ensemble is, Poon explains, “project-based”—its members gather several times each year to prepare performances that are steeped in the history and liturgy of the Catholic tradition.

Arrangement of the musical numbers reflected the custom of a 12-day festival beginning on Christmas Day. “Some of these are not strictly Christmas music but I think they should be,” said Poon, who introduced each work with a short historical sketch.

The dozen selections performed by the choir were inspired by figures and events from the history of the Christian church. A text sung to commemorate the birth of Jesus—”Corede natus ex parentis”—was written more than a century before the fall of the Roman Empire by the poet Aurelius Predentius, and set to a melody from the Middle Ages.

A contemporary arrangement of “The Huron Carol” by Canadian composer Sarah MacDonald was paired with a translation by David Poon himself of Jean de Brébeuf’s original text. The conventional English version, Poon said, “is a little romantic, a little awkward, a mishmash” of different Indigenous cultures.

In MacDonald’s arrangement, sopranos sing bird-like intervals over the solemn melody carried by male vocalists, echoing the soaring descants of Gregorian chant while adding naturalistic colour.

“Some things last,” said Poon in an interview with the Coast Reporter as his choristers exchanged their modest black uniforms for winter jackets and scarves. “But the world changes. And so we have ancient texts set to new melodies, and they are equally wonderful. We are embracing the things that have held fast but also adapting things to the current day.”

MOTET will return to the Sunshine Coast in early April for its performance of “The Rosary Project” at St. Mary’s Catholic Church, Gibsons. The concert will feature music for peaceful meditation.