The Vancouver Cantata Singers celebrated Valentine’s Day yesterday with a delightful performance of Johannes Brahms’ Liebeslieder Walzer, as well as other songs addressing the subjects of love and infatuation. It was my first experience with the performing space of Vancouver’s Orpheum Annex, next to the historic theatre that is the home of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. The inside of the hall is somewhat industrial looking, with a narrow balcony wrapped around the sides and back of the hall.
Artistic director and conductor Paula Kremer and the choir began the concert with Victor Young’s beautiful When I fall in love, arranged by choral conductor Cortland Hultberg. I was immediately captivated by the choir’s immaculate blending of the voices as well as its richness of the sound. I have long loved the lyrical interpretation of this song by singer/pianist Nat King Cole, but the VCS certainly gave us a different and very beautiful “take” on this ever-popular song.
The concert continued with four very different songs of love – Simon Carrington’s arrangement of Robert Burns’ O my love is like a red, red rose, Gustav Holst’s arrangement of I love my love, Healy Willan’s setting of Rise up, my love, my fair one (words from the Song of Songs) and Så tag mit hjerte by Gisli Magnússon. The four very different songs truly and fully exploited (in the best sense of the word) the abilities of this choir. The singers in the VCS rose to the musical and technical challenges admirably. Magical moments there were many, like the true pianissimo the choir achieved in O my love is like a red, red rose, and the delicious dissonance at the end of the line, “(H)e flew into her snow-white arms, and thus replied he”, from I love my love.
In the performance of the Liebeslieder Walzer, the VCS was joined by the Bergmann Piano Duo. As much as the hall worked wonderfully well acoustically for voices, the piano came off sounding rather dry and brittle. I was later informed that the lid of the piano had to be closed in order to balance the sound with the choir. I believed that part of the problem was the clarity in texture that the duo pianists were trying to achieve. Perhaps the problem could have been overcome by a more generous use of the pedal. In any event, the choir as well as the two pianists were one in their interpretation of this, Brahms’ most charming score, with just the right hint of schmaltz. The energy that the performers conveyed in the Hungarian-sounding eleventh waltz and the vigorous twelfth waltz was infectious. All in all, it was a performance as rich as the coffee and chocolate torte from Vienna’s Hotel Sacher!
After the interval, pianists Elizabeth and Marcel Bergmann played for us a beautiful rendition of One hand, one heart, from what I consider to be Leonard Bernstein’s greatest work, West Side Story. Here the piano sound had a palpable warmth that was somewhat lacking in the Brahms.
The Bernstein work served as a perfect interlude between the Brahms and the other major work of the concert, Canadian composer John Greer’s Liebesleid-Lieder, a 20th century homage to the Brahms work and a more contemporary and, I thought, rather cynical look at love. The choir, the solo singers from the group as well as the Bergmann duo, reveled in and perfectly conveyed the humour so evident in the score. Particularly memorable for me were the warmth and richness of the harmony in Live and love, the dark, almost Brahmsian harmony in Reuben’s children, the mock sentimentality in A very short song, written as a Sarabande. It is an extremely clever score that really captured the deadly humour of the poems, especially the ones penned by Dorothy Parker.
The concert ended with Liebeslied, a brief work by American composer John Corigliano. The work consists of the words “I love you”, tossed back and forth between the different sections of the choir, and with some delicious colouratura flourishes sung by solo singers from the choir.
What a wonderful way to celebrate Saint Valentine’s Day!
The Vancouver Cantata Singers is surely in very good hands under the direction of Paula Kremer, and I look forward to more performances by this talented group of singers.