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

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