Richard Davy is one of music's mysteries. We know the English composer lived into his 40s, spanning the 15th and 16th centuries, and was probably employed by churches in Devon and Exeter.

Most importantly, his choral works include the earliest surviving setting of the St Matthew Passion. This magnificent piece springs to life again as the musical and spiritual core of Passio, an inspired project conceived by the late New Zealand composer Jack Body.

Expect spectacle, with Voices New Zealand Chamber Choir and 45 wind, brass and percussion players; expect seamless diversity as six composers - Gillian Whitehead, Michael Norris, Ross Harris, Lissa Meridan, David Farquhar and Body - weave their writing over and around Davy's score.

Conductor Peter Scholes talks of glorious Renaissance harmonies, combining with a 21st century wind band, and the audience between the two, wandering around the performance space.


This unusual presentation makes for dramatic involvement, Scholes says, enhancing the importance of the crowd in the work.

"The original gospel story has all these characters, from disciples and priests to the rabble," he says. "By bringing the audience into and around the group, the experience is more vivid."

Whitehead took on the challenge of dealing with a lot of text and chants which, she says, meant finding ways to enhance it without going too far.

She remembers the 2006 Wellington premiere as stunning. A strolling audience meant one might stand still for some time then wander off to hear the music from another perspective, she recalls.

"You'd see people you knew in the half-light, acknowledge one another, and then meander on. It was a very strange but good experience."

Whitehead sees Passio fitting neatly with a recurring theme in Body's work. She says he was drawn to people, and especially men, suffering in extreme circumstances, from his early Carol to St Stephen to his 2011 O Cambodia project.

Norris was struck by the comparative simplicity of Davy's choral piece and the need to create a framework around it that paid homage to its quality but offered some new and contemporary slants on it.

Taking advantage of the nine-second reverb, in 2006 Norris kept his own harmonies simple with clashes against the original bringing out new tensions and had "fun with some word painting" when dawn breaks and cocks crow.

Harris had to balance this commission with composing his prize-winning Symphony No 2, featuring soloist Madeleine Pierard, and the second of his two Passio interludes once again features the soprano.

All three composers and conductor extol the virtues of Davy's original music.

"It's beautiful," Harris exclaims. "And not in a 'plain Jane' sort of way, for it's quite intricate. Within its choral textures there's a development that is truly passionate in an appropriate and moving way."

What: Auckland Arts Festival - Passio
Where and when: Auckland Town Hall, Sunday, March 19