Source: Ottawa Chamber Choir

Ottawa’s Capital Chamber Choir celebrated its tenth anniversary on June 8th, 2019 by performing British composer Joby Talbot’s cappella choral work Path of Miracles at St. Joseph’s Parish in Sandy Hill. What is perhaps most unique about this piece is that it is a modern, twenty-first century exploration of an ancient religious experience, namely the Camino de Santiago Roman Catholic pilgrimage.

Fittingly, the concert opened with choir member Shawn Mattas recounting his own experiences on this challenging pilgrimage–one that he took with his aunt more than a decade ago. He walked for 400 kilometres and explained: “My feet carry me 25,000 steps a day. I am both energized and exhausted. Bewilderment becomes freedom. El Camino has many paths that in the end lead to the same place.” We learned from this reflection that Mattas participated in the Camino for a number of reasons–none particularly religious, at least not in the traditional sense. First, he wanted to spend time with his favourite aunt. Second, he thought that 20 pounds of weight loss, something that quickly became a reality thanks to the grueling trek, was a good reason too. Thirdly, Mattas spoke about wanting to “comfort a sad and grieving heart.” And finally, he sought direction in terms of his own future. That question had to do with his musical career. Along the Camino, he saw a handwritten sign that read “just sing.” Then, prodigiously, he saw the same message later on as he ventured off the beaten track of the pilgrimage. Six months later, after returning to Canada, Mattas left his home in northern Ontario and came to Ottawa to study voice.

Directed by Jamie Loback, the Capital Chamber Choir offered the audience of nearly 300 an experience that borrowed from the sacramental and was infused with the mystical. An implicit Catholicism, with its rich tradition of sacramentality, weaved through the entire concert, even while Talbot’s composition was, at its core, modern and abstract. Both the music and liturgical lyrics speak to the suffering and pain of an arduous and profound journey. Part II, entitled Burgos, and named after a town in northern Spain, encapsulates the liturgy and mysticism. We hear:

Innkeepers cheat us, the
English steal, The devil
waits at the side of the road.
We trust in words, prayers and
We know that the world is a
As the carved apostles in
the Puerta Alta Dividing the
damned and the saved are a lesson.

We bear our hands against
the walls of heaven.
St. Julian of Cuenca, Santa
Casilda, pray for us.

Traveller, be wary of
strangers, Sometimes the
Saint takes the form of a pilgrim, Sometimes the
devil the form of a saint…

Beginning with the silent entry of Loback, arriving with an air of austerity, and then the gradual emergence of, at first, disembodied voices from the north and south transepts of the church, followed by the appearance of the members of the choir, each sound and moment seemed carefully choreographed. The end, as the members exited the church and as their voices gradually turned to silence, was as well. One left with the clear impression that this was, in equal measure, a secular concert and sacred liturgy.

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