When Wollongong composer John Peterson was commissioned to write a work for Sydney Philharmonia Choirs in 2004, the shock and horror of the 11 September, 2001 attacks in America was still strong in the public psyche. So much so that in the first part of his requiem, Shadows and Light, for choir, orchestra and solo soprano and tenor, he included headlines such as “car bomb kills seven” and “slaughtered children, in the name of the Father” interspersed with Latin text.

For the middle section he used paraphrased quotes from the 20th Century Japanese writer Jun’ichirō Tanizaki about the “magic of shadows” – on how Westerners will try to banish shadows from a room by using more light whereas Japanese people find shadows provide comfort and a more natural environment.

And for the final movement he quotes Martin Luther King: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that.”

Sydney Philharmonia Choirs: Fauré’s Requiem. Photo © Simon Crossley-Meates

Now, 20 years on, SPC Associate Music Director Elizabeth Scott thought it was timely to revive it in a programme which “asks us to look at the pain, destruction and suffering of the world, challenges us to find a solution and a way to move forward, allows us to stop to remember those who have been lost, and ultimately offers a message of redemption and hope”.

Few pieces of music fulfil those aspirations better than Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, originally for string quartet but later orchestrated, which was played here by the 20 strings of the Sydney Philharmonia Orchestra under Concertmaster Fiona Ziegler. This formed a bridge between Peterson’s work and Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem, which closed the choir’s season opener.

Peterson, who was in the audience, is a percussionist as well as a composer and Shadows and Light requires two of them – in this case timpanist Brian Nixon and Blake Roden, whose use of the vibraphone added a subtle Japanese feel to the middle section.

Sydney Philharmonia Choirs: Fauré’s Requiem. Photo © Simon Crossley-Meates

Tenor Andrew Goodwin and soprano Chloe Lankshear both proved superb as soloists – and duettists – in their demanding parts, powerful, declamatory and rhythmical in the first movement, In Visible Darkness, with its turbulent Dies irae middle section describing all the horror of the attack on the Twin Towers and the subsequent anger in the streets.

The second movement contained some of the piece’s most lyrical writing, including a gorgeous duet with Lankshear’s pure soprano wrapping around Goodwin’s sweet timbre.

Conducting with her customary meticulousness, Scott allowed the final section, with its calls for “respect love and dignity”, to build to a joyful crescendo, aided by gongs, tam tam and cymbal, before the consolatory Lux aeterna ending.

Fauré’s Requiem was first performed by the SPC 80 years ago under Eugene Goossens and a full symphony orchestra, but it was the more intimate 1893 version without violins – just Ziegler’s solo in Sanctus – with harp, two horns and the excellent David Drury on organ that was played for this concert.

Baritone Andrew O’Connor was impeccable in his long solo in the Offertoire section and Lankshear’s bell-like tones were a perfect fit for the irresistible Pie Jesu.

The Chamber Singers and VOX were magnificent throughout the programme and the effervescent lift of In Paradisum left concertgoers on a gentle high.

Limelight subscriptions start from $4 per month, with savings of up to 50% when you subscribe for longer.