Sunday, December 24, 2017

Christmas Reprise - An Appreciation

The Vancouver Cantata Singers is having a banner 60th anniversary year! After their incandescent and uplifting performance of Handel’s Messiah, they really got us into the joyous spirit of the celebration of Christ’s birth with their 15th Christmas Reprise at downtown’s Holy Rosary Cathedral.

The choir began and ended their performance with two settings of Ava Maria, the opening one by Bruckner, and the closing one by Franz Biebl. Right from the outset, I was captivated by how these oft repeated words about the Virgin Mary filled the sacred space of the cathedral. Acoustically, I was surprised by how little echo, of “aftersound”, this cavernous space had, which made it very easy for the audience to hear the words being sung.

In terms of repertoire, it ranges from the traditional Christmas favourites (albeit with very original choral settings), like Infant Holy, Infant Lowly, Angels We Have Heard on High, It Came Upon the Midnight Clear, and O Little Town of Bethlehem, to Mouton’s Nesciens Mater, Eric Whitacre’s Lux Nova, and Ēriks Ešenvalds’ O Emmanuel.

There were many musical highlights in the afternoon. In Francis Poulenc’s Hodie Christus Natus Est, the traditional French carol Un Flambeau, and the English carol A Virgin Most Pure, there was a beguiling lightness and a sense of “bounce” in the choir’s singing. In A Virgin Most Pure, the male voices also created a beautiful sound palette, effectively supporting the purity of the choir’s female voices. In the very familiar Angels We Have Heard on High, the men provided discreet and effective background for the ladies in their drone-like “accompaniment”.

Some of the works performed provided solo opportunities for many of the choir’s talented singers – David Rosborough in Three Kings, Melanie Adams in I Wonder as I Wander, Sarah McGrath, Emily Cheung, Missy Clarkson and Tiffany Chen in When a Child is Born, Sarah McGrath in In the Bleak Midwinter, Benila Ninan in a rousing and idiomatic performance of Esta Noche Nace un Niño, Andy Booth in O Little Town of Bethlehem, and Erik Kallo in O Emmanuel. All these singers rose to their respective challenges and acquitted themselves wonderfully in their respective solo opportunities. In Esta Noche Nace un Niño, the choir’s imitation of the sounds of a Spanish guitar as well as the Flamenco rhythms were really very effective. In I Wonder as I Wander, the delicious dissonance to the words, “He surely could have had it,” was beautifully sung and perfectly coloured.

For me, one of the most striking works of the afternoon was perhaps Eric Whitacre’s Lux Nova, where the composer successfully and effectively uses sound to evoke light, especially in his writing for the sopranos. The choir sung the words, “Et canunt angeli molliter” as well as “Modo natum”, with such purity and beauty that the effect was nothing short of magical.

Half way through the concert, as daylight slowly receded, it seemed almost as if the music was hastening the arrival of dusk. As in the beginning of the concert, when the choir sang Bruckner’s Ava Maria, the singers filed to either side of the cathedral at the end of their performance, and sung Biebl’s setting of these prayerful words as a final benediction for the afternoon, readying us to face the onslaught of Christmas shoppers and the pounding Muzak of more secular Christmas music. We are thankful for this afternoon of uplifting choral music by this talented choir, led by the equally talented Paula Kremer, for giving us, in the midst of the hustle and bustle, a peace that the world cannot give.

Patrick May
4th Sunday of Advent
Christmas Eve, 2017

Monday, December 4, 2017

Handel's Messiah

Early Music Vancouver presented, incredibly, for the first time Handel’s perennially popular Messiah this weekend. I attended one of four performances of the oratorio, and found the performance both musically satisfying and spiritually uplifting.

For their presentation, EMV had assembled a strong cast consisting of the Pacific Baroque Orchestra, Vancouver Cantata Singers (under Paula Kremer), soprano Yulia Van Doren, Mezzo-Soprano Krisztina Szabó, Tenor Charles Daniels, and Vancouver’s own Baritone Tyler Duncan, under the direction of Alexander Weimann, who also played the harpsichord.

All four soloists for the performance are outstanding artists. Vocally Van Doren was the strongest of the four, and her singing of many of the florid vocal lines had an effortless quality as well as a palpable feeling of joyfulness.  This was particularly evident in her exhilarating performance of the aria, “Rejoice greatly”. As well, her performance of “I know that my Redeemer liveth” had a simplicity of feeling and a naturalness in delivery. Also memorable was Szabó’s deeply felt singing of the alto aria, “He was despised and rejected”.

To my ears, the soloists all meant what they were singing. Tenor Daniels, in particular, made every word he sang charged with meaning. I felt this especially in the many accompanied recitatives, recitatives, arioso (“Behold, and see if there be any sorrow”) in Part II of the oratorio. In “Why do the nations so furiously rage together”, Duncan delivered the aria with incredible power and dizzying vocal prowess as well as a palpable sense of urgency, and I could not help but feel that the words of the aria are particularly apt for our times.

Kudos to Paula Kremer and the Vancouver Cantata Singers for their always beautifully nuanced, textually clear, and always musical singing really made them one of the evening’s highlights. In some of the choruses, Alexander Weimann set tempi for the singers that are challenging to sing. The choir more than rose to the occasion in the dizzying speed, agility, accuracy, and lightness of their singing. In choruses such as “For unto us a child is born” and “All we like sheep”, there was an incredible feeling of excitement and exhilaration.  In “Surely, He hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows”, the choristers infused the music and the words with an incredible intensity of feeling.

The Pacific Baroque Orchestra has been a cornerstone of Vancouver’s early music scene. Concertmaster Chloe Meyers played with great confidence and beautiful articulation. I particularly enjoyed her playing of the striking violin figures in “Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron”.

It was quite a sight to watch conductor and harpsichordist Alexander Weimann in action, sometimes standing or half sitting while playing, keeping all of the performing forces together. The ensemble was impeccable, the coordination between orchestra and singers was always at one with each other, and it was a reading that was intensely beautiful and musical. In the final “Amen”, Handel’s genius and the talent and hard work of the musicians all came together to conclude this incredible evening with a final benediction. For me, it was a performance that very much moved.

It is probably safe to say that we live in a post-Christian age. Yet, year after year, people flock to performances of Handel’s Messiah, and recordings of the oratorio continue to be made and are sold. On top of the emotional association every December of doing “something Christmassy” – and Handel’s Messiah certainly beats another performance of Nutcracker - could it be that we, even when we want to deny it, are in search of something transcendent? Surely when we hear those beautiful and inspired (by the Holy Spirit no less) words being sung, we could not help but be moved?  In the words of Saint Augustine, all of us are “wired” for God, and nothing in our world would ever be able to finally satisfy us  - “Our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee”.

Perhaps we are, all of us, no matter how much we protest otherwise, in search of an “invasion of grace” into our lives.

Patrick May
December 4, 2017