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New Choral Mass premiered

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Accompanied by the parish’s magnificent Hauptwerk organ, the choir performs the new choral Mass commissioned for St Francis’s Church in Paddington and composed by Gordon Kerry.

St Francis’ Paddington has marked another milestone in its proud tradition of choral excellence with the performance of a new Mass setting commissioned for the parish.

Missa Gaudeamus was composed by the eminent Australian composer Gordon Kerry, and was performed for the first time by the choir of St Francis’ Paddington at Mass on 6 November.

Described as “a modern score with deep roots in the traditions of church music” it was composed around variations on the Gregorian chant introit for the Mass of St Francis.

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The score develops from its roots in chant to play eclectically with the hallmarks of contemporary choral music.

Its tight, dissonant harmonies a tone or semitone apart resolve in a manner reminiscent of on-trend contemporary composers like Eric Whitacre and Ola Gjeilo.

The parish’s magnificent Hauptwerk organ was also used for charming allusions to St Francis, “chirping” at the Sanctus to represent the song of birds listening to the Saint preach.

Composer Gordon Kerry told The Catholic Weekly the Mass setting “borrows freely from a number of different traditions”.

“In the Gloria there’s those Leonard Bernstein rhythms that were probably something the choir wasn’t used to doing in Church,” Mr Kerry said.

“I did the sort of operations that you might do if you were writing a piece of twelve-note music, with the chant. 

“I turned it upside down, ran it backwards, and that gave me a whole lot of subsidiary chants: the Sanctus for example, isn’t ‘real’ chant, but is derived from the Gaudeamus there.

“I’d like to think there’s a kind of unity to the piece.”

We do all Catholic music. We do St Louis Jesuits! We do formal stuff, informal stuff, depends on what we’re doing.”

St Francis’ Director of Music Noel Debien, well-known for his religion and spirituality programming on the ABC, said Missa Gaudeamus was a challenge for singers used to Palestrina and other mainstays of Catholic choral music.

“The 16th-17th century stuff is what they’re really into,” Mr Debien said. 

“Whenever we do stuff like [20th century French composer] Jean Laglais’ Messe Solennelle, which is more dissonant and modern, I always get gripes!

“But I said to them: we do a range of music. We do all Catholic music. We do St Louis Jesuits! We do formal stuff, informal stuff, depends on what we’re doing.”

To perform a score as technical as Mr Kerry’s was “quite demanding” for even a professional choir, Mr Debien added, and was an achievement in its own right. 

The Mass setting was commissioned by Diane Parks for the 75th Birthday of St Francis parishioner David Bookallil.

She had previously commissioned Mr Kerry to compose a string quartet for Mr Bookallil’s 60th birthday, and told The Catholic Weekly she wanted to make a contribution to the Parish’s musical inheritance for his 75th.

Although she had the score for nearly a year-and-a-half, the COVID-19 pandemic meant the Mass to present Missa Gaudeamus had to be delayed. 

“I thought the choir did a magnificent job. I’m so proud of every single one of them! And I cried several times,” she said. 

Retired Bishop of Canberra-Goulburn Pat Power, a cousin of Mr Bookallil, was principal celebrant at the Mass, and wore vestments commissioned by Mr Bookallil’s grandfather.

The Lord Mayor of Sydney, Clover Moore, was in attendance, as were large numbers of Mr Bookallil’s relatives and friends.

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