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9th April 2000
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Majestic heights

By Seneka Abeyratne
Mozart's Requiem was performed by the Merry-An Singers at the Cathedral of Christ the Living Saviour, on March 25, in memory of Lylie Godridge. Conductor - Mary Anne David, Soprano - Kumudini Perera, Tenor-Srimanthaka Senanayake, Contralto - Neluka Seneviratne and Baritone - Louis Roberts.

The Requiem is Mozart's most celebrated religious work in which a range of feelings and emotions are expressed with extraordinary sensitivity. It is ironical that Mozart should have perished while writing a mass for the dead, and it was left to another composer to complete the unfinished opus. During his last few days, Mozart worked on the opus with such feverish intensity that it could be regarded as a work of concentrated genius. It is perhaps one of the most powerful and moving choral works ever written. 

The Merry-An Singers have over the years sung their way into the hearts of many a Sri Lankan, but this was perhaps their finest hour. The Requiem was indeed a polished performance and showed a high degree of professionalism and commitment. Behold, they sang in Latin, and it was so clear and lucid! The choir got off to such a brilliant start with the Introitus that I knew this was going to be something special.

The tempo was perfect and the singing was spot on. My favourite part - the Rex tremendae - was beautifully harmonized and soared to majestic heights. Mary Anne David performed her job competently and did remarkably well to hold the choir together and maintain balance and harmony. The other aspects of this complex work, such as mood, volume, tenor and tone, were also superbly modulated - no mean feat considering that the mass was quite long and demanded sustained energy and concentration.

The choir - an amateur group of 47 singers - sang with plenty of verve and finesse, and received excellent support from organist Neranjan de Silva and pianist Gayathri Atiken de Silva. Normally this piece is performed without a break, but in this instance there was a brief interval after the Lacrimosa, which I think was regrettable as it broke the momentum. But all in all it was a fine, well-rounded performance that caused many a person in the audience to gasp with wonder. 

The Requiem consists of 14 elements, all integrated into a harmonious whole and dotted with poignant solo sections. The four soloists blended well together and demonstrated range and versatility, especially in the Tuba mirum and Benedictus. The soprano and contralto were delightful and their projection was excellent. The tenor and bass were also very good, but not in the same class as the two females. In contrast to the above two elements, the Recordare was a trifle weak as it lacked clarity and precision at times. 

The choir on the whole was lively and handled the complex melodic themes and structures with aplomb. The singing was splendid but not without blemish. In the middle of the Agnus Dei the choir began to drag and slur a little, and for a few moments my heart was in my mouth. But in the Lux aeterna (the finale) it made a good recovery and finished on a glorious note. Not surprisingly, it received a standing ovation and a long one at that.

The choir demonstrated what could be achieved with zeal, diligence and commitment, but I wish there were at least three performances considering all the hard work that had gone into this production. 

Two thumbs up for the Merry-An Singers, for this was a performance that clearly demonstrated our latent creative and artistic potential. I would even venture to call it a quantum jump, as I doubt if any other religious work has been performed with such finesse in this country in the past few decades. I also noticed that every member of the choir was impeccably groomed and attired and looked thoroughly professional. What a treat this was.

"If only there was an orchestra, how grand it would have been!" I thought on my way out of the Cathedral. I guess we need a few more quantum jumps to get to that level. But things are moving along and it is good to see Sri Lanka edging towards professionalism in the fine arts. We are truly indebted to people like Mary Anne David for setting the pace and guiding us in the right direction.


The movie and the still-life

By Rajpal Abeynayake
A few readings which were open to the public at the conclusion of the day's sessions in a seminar titled "Cross-cultural identities in Sri Lankan and British writing" were overshadowed by a powerful movie, titled "Absolution" which was shown at the end of the proceedings last Saturday. "Absolution" is eerily real about Sri Lanka and this is refreshing after hearing the ersatz versions from writers who have come here by way of token sojourn. 

There is a tangible quality to the work, despite the fact that in some ways it keeps to the beaten track in terms of techniques used in this sort of a movie. But there is no first person narrative or other such distraction, for instance, which is excellent. In "Absolution", the dehumanizing agonies of the JVP era of '89 and thereabout are evoked without much blood, guts and gore though there is the minimum of it where necessary. 

It's an achievement, and there is authenticity in the work, though authenticity might be a word that has no currency within the ambit of "cross-cultural identities". A total lack of authenticity lends to a charlatan quality about any work - a book movie or poem, and that despite all of the post modernist hallucinations to the contrary. 

Authenticity in "Absolution" is derived from detail, such as the names of the characters, ( Jothiratne, Dayaratne I forget the others, but they rhyme rightly and healthily - politically incorrectly.) The movie therefore, constitutes a serious soul searching, and is not lightweight by any standard, even though done by virtual newcomers to the cinematic medium. It was somewhat of a haunting thought too, ruminating about the fact that some of Richard de Zoysa's drama boys who were also killed in '89 had practised at the same British Council auditorium during the period in which the events of the movie happened. Unsung, these guys. ( The movie was dedicated, on the other hand, to Zoysa.) 

Rudiments such as value systems in southern villages are difficult to convey via any medium , unless the need to convey the authentic story is considered elemental. "Absolution" does the portrayal of the village existence with felicity and consummate ease. 

Peter De Almeida, a Colombo man, but not an overtly political being, is a casting coup. The other actors are more familiar to Sri Lankan audiences - especially Iranganie Serasinghe from the less-authentic teledrama world. But, the power of the story helps, and hats off there too for the fact that there is a conscious resurrection of the unpalatable past. No protagonist is holier than the other in this movie, which adds to the sincerity of the work- more words here that will drive post modernists mad. 

About the readings at the end of the conference, it sounded as if Sri Lanka's V. S. Naipauls were all talking at once. Naipaul wrote about India, eventually for the white man. That aspect of him wasn't much talked about, until those such as Seth and Rushdie appeared and told some real stories. There is something standard now about regurgitating these themes of cross-cultural identities in Colombo. 

It sounds exciting, but the readings at least didn't make things as exciting as they sounded. Some of the top billed actors failed to perform. In "Absolution", even the bit players had what it took, and that was in marked contrast. Absolutely. 


A brush with flames

With despair in his heart, he wants to capture the unrest in society

Kudaligamage GeethanjanaThe man seated in front of me, Kudaligamage Geethanjana was a one-time winner of the 'Outstanding Painter of the Year' award. He was an artist all right, but there was something strikingly different about him. It was his intense way of looking at life and his thirst for freedom.

"I want to be free like a child," he says and I get the feeling that this need to find freedom is his driving force.

"My work is what one could call semi-abstract," says Geethanjana and looking closely at his work, you realise what he means. Although most of it is an intense mixture of colour, there is an image to be seen. "Colours, brush strokes, forms, lines are the most important things in a painting. Together they speak a language and express emotion. I give a face to that emotion." 

Every artist looks at the world and interprets it in his own way, in his own individual style. Geethanjana looks at the world and sees "ruin"-a deterioration of love, human values and even ideas. 

Most of the names of his paintings are described with the words "broken", "split" and "fallen" conveying the despair he feels. Yet, at the same time all that is broken, split and fallen are "monuments" that signify that what is ruined is something good, something worth protecting. 

"I want so much to protect everything that's good and I want our society to hear and understand that." Art speaks for Geethanjana. "When I go through life everyday there are so many things that make me want to say something. If a bomb goes off, I need to express what I feel about it, so I turn to my canvas." 

Artists sometimes don't just speak for themselves they speak for others. Their art becomes the mouthpiece of society. Geethanjana's intense paintings reflect the 'unrest' in our society.

According to Geethanjana when an artist starts a project, he pushes a particular concept and doesn't end it until he can't say more on the subject - until he has become the master of the subject and the language. "I feel I have expressed myself, but I don't think I will be completely satisfied until we, as a society, are free of unrest." And to be completely free we need to breakaway from the "conditions that constrain us".

Geethanjana who is so passionate about his art, never wanted to become an artist. "In fact I wanted to be a musician, a career option that didn't really work out." While he was working, he went to the University of Kelaniya and did a degree in Fine Arts. That is what changed the course of his life. "If it wasn't for that and the people who encouraged me I would have been a 'Sunday painter', instead of a professional one." Looking back he talks gratefully about the support and encouragement he received from the staff of the American Embassy, where he works. 

Artist Jagath Weerasinghe who wrote the introduction to Geethanjana's work gives voice to what anyone looking at the painting would feel: "It's clear that Geethanjana has reached artistic maturity with a style that is a highly dynamic combination of both abstract/gestural and representational features." 

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