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I CONFESS TO ATTENDING TO CHURCH ONCE A YEAR, AND BRISBANE’S CANTO CORO IS MY DENOMINATION. FOUNDED BY MUSICAL DIRECTOR MARK DUNBAR AND WITH ITS ROOTS IN BRISBANE’S GREEK AND LATIN AMERICAN COMMUNITIES, CANTO CORO IS A MIXED COMMUNITY CHOIR THAT PRESENTS LARGE CHORAL AND MUSIC THEATRE WORKS WITH THE DISCIPLINE TO TACKLE COMPLEX SCORES AND AN EXTENDED REPERTOIRE THAT TAKES IT BEYOND THE USUAL DEFINITION OF A ‘COMMUNITY’ CHOIR.

In the past Canto Coro have presented such works as Canto General composed by Mikis Theodorakis to poems by Pablo Neruda and Mass by Leonard Bernstein; Little City, 1975: A Love Story, Fatal Shore, Black Cargo by Melbourne-based composer Irene Vela; and Red Cap by Janis Balodis and Ian Grandage.

When many were silent or closeted in despair during the Howard years over the refusal to say sorry, Canto Coro came to the fore. Mark Dunbar, who teaches at the Aboriginal Centre for the Performing Arts in Brisbane, co-devised and composed the music for a trilogy of three dramatic choral works incorporating performers from the Centre: Hornets Wedding (libretto by Indija Mahjoeddin), Anderson & Ipeta, and Damage. These weren’t easy works but, despite the gruesome colonial history depicted or the bleak realities of street life symbolically portrayed by the young students, Canto refused to take a moralising or simply pious stance. Instead in inclusive, challenging and celebratory ways, Canto Coro remained an unambiguous voice for recognising that it is society itself that needs to change.

After what must have seemed such a prolonged time on the barricades, Dunbar indicated a change of pace for Canto’s 15th anniversary, Canto style. Within the moveable feast of the choir were half a dozen fluent German speakers so that Dunbar nursed to life the concept of arranging lyrics by Bertold Brecht and music by Kurt Weill, Hans Eisler and Paul Dessau from a scratchy old cassette of a concert in which he’d played the flute aeons ago in Melbourne. Thus songs of deAth and distrAction/ a post apocalyptic cabaret was born. This was mounted as an independent production during the Queensland Music Festival 2009 and was a runaway word of mouth success.

Dunbar writes in the program that there is often a vicious irony between the sweetness of the melodies and the stark realities of Brecht’s words. Also the songs belong to a rich theatre tradition which choir members interpreted in poor theatre guise by bringing their own costumes. Both elements united disturbingly in the persona of Mark Shortis who looked as if he hadn’t slept in a week, an effect emphasised by thick stubble and the kohl under his eyes which rolled in wicked emphasis as the MC from hell, convincing us that this man was at the very least a dangerous method actor in his brilliantly insinuating bass rendition of “What Keeps Mankind Alive” from The Threepenny Opera.

At the opposite, perverse extreme from the same opera was the inability of soprano Anna Stephanos to disguise herself as anything but the professional rembetika [Greek urban folk music. Ed] torch singer that she is in a version of Pirate Jenny to die for. The beauty of Libby Schmidt’s soprano singing “The Fraternisation Song” from Mother Courage epitomised the searing musical ironies inherent in this music. And so it went on for another 16 acts in different combinations of voices and collective moods...you get the idea. Likewise the Brisbane Canto Coro Band 2009 was a combination of instruments that was sweet Hallelujah.


Canto Coro Inc, Songs of deAth and distrAction; Ellen Taylor Centre, Brisbane, Jul 19-26

RealTime issue #94 Dec-Jan 2009 pg. 50

© Douglas Leonard; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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