Of Requiems and Vespers

beat - choral 1This year is the centenary of the First World War, which began in June 1914. We commemorate the 1918 armistice date of November 11, commonly known as Remembrance Day, with a mixture of hope and horror, knowing now that what was called “the war to end all wars” was merely the beginning of the bloodiest hundred years in recorded history.

WWI was the century’s grimmest – and last – example of the confluence of 19th-century battle tactics with 20th-century industrial weaponry. The carnage that resulted came about in part because soldiers and their leaders alike clung to a notion of bravery under fire that lost its meaning in the metal rain and poison air that the new weapons created.

In wartime, music brings solace for the devastated, becomes a marshalling tool for further conflict, and on occasion, strengthens those voices raised in protest and in question against the imperatives of war. Phil Ochs wrote at the height of the USA’s conflict in Vietnam, “It’s always the old to lead us to the war/It’s always the young to fall.”

Several concerts commemorate the bravery and sacrifice of all who served, and lived and died, and endured during that time. For others not mentioned here, please consult the listings.

On November 8 and 9 the DaCapo Chamber Choir performs three elegiac works in a concert titled “There Will be Rest.” The repertoire includes Barber’s Agnus Dei (the choral setting of his famous Adagio for Strings) Elgar’s Lux Aeterna, and Canadian Eleanor Daley’s Requiem setting.

On November 9 That Choir also performs Eleanor Daley’s Requiem, as well as works by Whitacre, Mealor, Clausen, Górecki and Runestad.

On November 11 the Orpheus Choir performs “The End of Innocence: Readings, music and images in commemoration of the centenary of the Great War.” Conductor Robert Cooper states, “WWI was a turning point for Canada, transitioning from a British colony to nationhood. We want our audience to feel that emotional experience with a greater appreciation of Canada’s impact in the First World War, through the medium that we so value – choral music.” The concert includes texts from the Canadian archives, read by actors, to recreate the voices of soldiers and nurses serving on the front lines, and their family and friends reaching out to them from home.

Vespers: The phrase “Setting the Mass” is something of a classical composer’s shorthand for the much longer “daring to claim your place amongst the pantheon of the greats by setting the same texts they did.” The Latin Mass text is considered by many the greatest test of a composer’s sensitivity to text and command of musical form.

A close second to the Mass text is the Vespers, the set of prayers intoned during evening services, most often within Catholic, Orthodox and Lutheran churches. These prayers draw together disparate elements of Christian worship, combining the Magnificat from the Gospel of Luke with Latin translations of psalms from the Hebrew Scriptures.

These Hebrew texts normally have appended to them a Gloria Patri – glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost – which can make an English translation of the complete prayer jarring from a Jewish point of view. And yes, this paragraph is what is known as a kvetch.

But I digress. The Vespers texts have elicited beautiful settings by composers over the centuries – Mozart wrote two settings that I prefer to all his masses. But the setting that has emerged as a masterwork comparable to the canon of mass settings of the common practice era is Monteverdi’s Vespro della Beata Vergine 1610.

Because there is little information about the 1610 Vespers, as it is commonly known, we have no idea how, or even if, the work was ever performed. Its offbeat structure and orchestration has led to speculation that the piece was a kind of compositional resume, used to show ecclesiastical patrons what kind of work Monteverdi was capable of executing. In any case, it is a stunning group of compositions, and a chance to hear it live is not to be missed.

On November 25 Soundstreams will pair Monteverdi’s vespers setting with one by Canadian composer Gilles Tremblay. Tremblay is a modernist of the old school, if one can make such a formulation. He studied under Messiaen in Paris, and attended the famous Darmstadt school, meeting with and influenced by Boulez, Stockhausen and Xenakis. Tremblay’s work extends and maintains an important stream of 20th-century compositional endeavour.

Based in Quebec, Tremblay maintained his European connections, and in 1986 his Les Vèpres de la Vierge was commissioned to celebrate the 850th anniversary of France’s Notre-Dame de Sylvanès Abbey. For further concert details see soundstreams.ca/Vespers.

beat - choral 2Christmas: Christmas concerts are starting in November this year, most likely in an attempt not to have to fight for audience share in the crowded December field. Pecksniffian types might deplore this, but these are the same people who object to seeing Halloween costumes hawked during the summer. Come on – when is there a wrong time to try on costumes and stock up on chocolate? Same thing with Christmas carols and egg nog. I say, go for it. Christmas has gone right back to its ancient winter solstice roots, becoming a rollicking bacchanalia of food, drink, and reckless spending. May as well start in November, ’cause once January hits we’ve got a good three months of frigid misery to look forward to. Hell, I’m lobbying for Christmas partying to begin at the end of September – who’s with me? Anyhow, here are some November concerts to get you in the mood, and some December events that will take place too early to list in next month’s column.

On November 28 and 29 Oakville’s Tempus Choral Society performs “Songs for a Winter’s Eve,” an eclectic program including selections from Vaughan Williams’ Dona Nobis Pacem, early baroque composer Caccini’s setting of the Ave Maria text and folk legend Gordon Lightfoot’s tender Song for a Winter’s Night.

For those interested in further Canadian content – and yes, that should be every single one of us, at any time of the year – the Exultate Chamber Singers perform “A Canadian Noël” on December 5. The concert sounds fun and folksy – works by Canadian composers, Christmas stories from singers in the ensemble and an audience carol sing-along.

On November 29 and 30 Orangeville’s Achill Choral Society performs “The Glory of Christmas.” This concert provides a rare opportunity to hear the work of opera composer Giacomo Puccini in another setting. Puccini’s setting of the Mass text, commonly known as the Messa di Gloria, was written early in his career. It was unpublished during his lifetime but has since been revived and has been recorded and performed many times.

The Jubilate Deo (glory to God) text, originally the Hebrew Psalm 100, is another poem that has inspired composers from many eras and locales. On November 29 the Jubilate Singers use their own name as inspiration for “World Jubilate,” performing settings of this psalm and other seasonal songs.

On November 30 the Healey Willan Singers perform “A Garland of Carols.” The afternoon will feature Britten’s popular A Ceremony of Carols, a work that demonstrates perfectly Britten’s Mozartian ability to wed formal coherence to a series of great tunes.

J.S. Bach’s Weihnachtsoratorium, or Christmas Oratorio, is another masterwork that was likely never performed in one sitting (cf. the 1610 Vespers discussion above) during the composer’s lifetime. Bach composed six cantatas to be performed at different church services during the Christmas season, retrofitting new lyrics to pre-existing music that he had composed for other cantatas. With many composers, this would be a recipe for chaos, but not for Bach, who could create order in a bowl of rice krispies. The Weihnachtsoratorium is a beautifully conceived work, gentle and celebratory by turns, with an unparalleled unity of text, melody and form. On November 22 and 23 the Masterworks of Oakville Chorus and Orchestra perform parts 1 to 3 of the Christmas Oratorio.

Also, on November 28 the Bach Consort will perform the work in its entirety, in their concert titled “Giving Bach to the Community.” Players from the Toronto Symphony and Canadian Opera Company orchestras will join Mississauga Festival Chamber Choir; proceeds from the event will be shared among various downtown charities.

Benjamin Stein is a Toronto tenor and lutenist. He can be contacted at choralscene@thewholenote.com. Visit his website at benjaminstein.ca.


Shining Light on Lauridsen

BBB-ChoralThis month I will write in depth about two exciting projects taking place in the coming weeks. First, I will expand on September’s column, which included a brief mention of Morten Lauridsen’s visit to Toronto, which will take place on Saturday October 25.

Lauridsen is a choral giant, one of the few extant. While England’s John Rutter may still enjoy a comparable degree of international popularity, I’d argue that Lauridsen music, often as accessible as a mainstream film score (Lauridsen founded USC Thornton School of Music’s program in film scoring), has a meditative, introspective quality that is rarely found in Rutter’s cheerful compositions.

Lauridsen can employ spiky-sounding modern tonal idioms, but more often approaches composition from the angle of choral liturgical music, which tends to value audience connection over formal innovation (the closest Canadian equivalent is probably the late Srul Irving Glick, whose Jewish liturgical music has a similar aesthetic).

Not surprisingly, Lauridsen’s music is very popular with church, school and community choirs. His most famous pieces combine spacious melodic intervals of fifths and fourths that give a distant echo of Sacred Harp part songs, with dense chordal writing containing the gentlest of dissonances.

Read more: Shining Light on Lauridsen

Choral Scene - September 2014

 

Are there too many choirs in the GTA? I pondered this question uneasily as it became clear towards the end of the summer that a number of different ensembles, volunteer and semi-professional, were still scrambling to find singers, posting both messages to this column and on social media sites.

The stark reality of musicmaking (at least for those of us who avoided contact sports in high school) is that arts work is as competitive as any other sphere – more so, perhaps. Choirs must compete for audience share, for arts council grants, for publicity – and for choral singers. Cue the jokes about soprano glut and the bribes necessary to secure tenors.

The challenge in any community is to find the right balance of professional choral singers, volunteer amateurs, children’s choir and choral training programs, population base and audience interest. As in any crowded field, choirs have to find an angle to make them stand out from the pack. Some choirs target specific musical styles, others emphasize formal musical training or openness to untrained enthusiasts. We have yet to see a combination of choral singing and hot yoga, at least as far as I know, but it will emerge soon enough.

Sustaining cultural activity is always a challenge, and choral directors and administrators have dark nights in which they wonder If It’s All Worth It. But my answer to the column’s original question is no, you can never have too many choirs. Choral singing is one of the few areas left in which amateur musicians are actively making music in a community setting, and this can only be a good thing.

Regarding a possible singer shortage, I’d say: hey you, reading this column – join a choir! The audience for choral music is in part the same demographic that attends choral concerts. To find out about choral options, look into resources and message boards such as The WholeNote Canary Pages, Facebook choral pages (like Toronto Freelance Choral Singers) and the Choirs Ontario website.

Open rehearsals: Another way to find out about choirs is to attend an open rehearsal, which is becoming increasingly common during the autumn at the beginning of the musical season. This can allow you to meet possible choral colleagues and see the conductors in action. Open rehearsals that have been brought to my attention this month are: Bell’Arte Singers, Saturday September 13; Orillia’s Jubilee Chorale, Saturday September 27; Oshawa’s County Town Singers, also on Saturday September 27; Toronto Beach Chorale, Sunday September 28.

Some of these rehearsals (those between September 26 and 28) are taking place as part of Culture Days, an increasingly important expression of the arts in their fullest community sense. You can read more about Culture Days on page 56 of this issue, and find out more by visiting culturedays.ca.

Roll over, Beethoven: For anyone who thinks musical life is harder than it used to be, know that Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony had only two full rehearsals before its premiere, which is still about what you get these days for the first performance of a new work. The Toronto Symphony hosts the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir for three performances of the Ninth September 25 to 27.

The TMC is also hosting a special edition of one of their regular “Singsation” Saturday workshops on September 27. (Let’s hear it for Culture Days again!) These Singsation events take place throughout the year. Sheet music is provided. It’s a very good outreach project and a fun way for people to experience the city’s largest choir from another perspective. More about this series on the next page.

In brief:

The Mattaniah Christian Male Choir is based in Dundas, just outside Hamilton. They perform in Whitby on September 26, in a benefit for long-term care facilities for the elderly in Durham.

The Colours Of Music festival has a performance by That Choir (Yup, that’s their name – made you look twice, didn’t it? An ensemble’s name is another obvious way to generate interest) on September 26 – music by Bruckner, Whitacre, Mealor and others.

Wilfrid Laurier University Faculty of Music starts the academic year with an October 5 concert in Kitchener titledSing Fires of Justice for Hope.” This concert is part of an initiative at Laurier to raise awareness of Aboriginal women who have been murdered or have gone missing in Canada.

For those who have not heard a Baroque viol, there is really no instrument like it. Played well, it is mysterious and somehow melancholy, even when playing lively figures. Toronto has its own group of viol players, the Cardinal Consort of Viols. On October 5 they will team up with Waterloo’s Conrad Grebel Chamber Choir to perform of a concert English verse anthems and viol ensemble music.

Finally, the University of Toronto’s head of choral music studies, Hilary Apfelstadt, has had considerable success in creating events that build a weekend of choral activities around the work of a particular composer. This year, the weekend’s guest is Morten Lauridsen, an American composer whose music is performed throughout North America. (Coincidentally Lauridsen’s Lux Aeterna is also part of the Elmer Iseler Singers’ season opening concert October 5 at Eglinton St. George’s United Church.) Apfelstadt’s ambitious “A Celebration of the Music of Morten Lauridsen” won’t take place until October 25, so I will have more to say about Lauridsen’s work in next month’s column. But you heard it here first, didn’t you?

Benjamin Stein is a Toronto tenor and lutenist. He can be contacted at choralscene@thewholenote.com. Visit his website at benjaminstein.ca.

 

Open Ears, Open Minds

Over the course of the 2013/14 concert season I wrote several columns about the challenge that choirs face when programming new music: how to get audiences to risk the price of a ticket on repertoire that is not tried and true, safe and familiar.

One final observation to sum up this theme, before the summer break: most new music for choral ensembles that is not strictly popular falls into the category of “extended tonality.” What exactly is extended tonality?

Twentieth-century music can be viewed as a kind of pitched battle between composers whose work dispensed with the idea that music ought to have a key centre that could help orient the listener and composers who kept elements of traditional harmony and melody even when they were venturing into more experimental territory. The so-called “Second Viennese School” – Schoenberg, Berg, Webern – who began writing what is confusedly known as atonal music and later composers that built on their work, such as Babbitt, Boulez and Stockhausen, are examples of the former, Stravinsky, Britten and Shostakovich, of the latter.

There were many other categories, sub-genres and trends, but very broadly, these were the two opposing camps of musical endeavour that emerged out of the European classical tradition.

Extended tonality won.

1909 Choral

It won in the sense that younger composers generally did not pick up on the atonal experiment in music, and this musical strain now appears to be going the way of cool jazz and the songs of the German meistersingers – intellectually-driven styles that ran aground and seem to have little current appeal to revivalists. Late 20th-century composers did not want to leave behind rock, jazz and world music, influences that operate almost entirely in a tonal framework. Their insistence on integrating these influences in their music placed them firmly in the tradition of earlier composers who had  integrated various types of popular music into their sophisticated compositions.

What does this mean for listeners? Looking at this year’s new composition programming in retrospect, I can state that none of it was music that ought to have sent anyone but the most timid listeners screaming for the exit. So, are you willing to take a chance on something new, knowing that it is not likely to be that weird?

Speaking as someone who will order fish and chips for lunch, dinner or breakfast if possible, I hesitate to be overly judgemental about anyone’s musical menu choices. But it’s time to recognize that we’re living in an era in which composers are reaching out to listeners with alacrity as well as skill and insight. We’re well past the point at which we should be thinking of new music with hostility. So I hope you’ll give some of it a chance this summer, and in the new season as well. Below is a selection of concerts taking place from June to August.

The Ontario Youth Choir was founded in 1971 by the choral organization Choirs Ontario. TheOYC quickly became a vital instrument for generating enthusiasm for choral music among young singers, and for providing an important bridge between children’s choirs and adult ensembles. Each summer 40 talented young singers are auditioned and selected to take part in two weeks of rehearsals, masterclasses and voice lessons, culminating in a short three-city cross-Ontario tour and several concerts. The ensemble is conducted by a different Ontario director each summer. This year Guelph University’s Dr. Marta McCarthy leads the OYC in concerts in Toronto and Midland.

The Open Ears Festival is a great event to attend for those interested in new music – it’s one of my favourite new music festivals around, in part because it always conveys a sense of fun and irreverence in its programming. The Da Capo Chamber Choir will be taking part in the festival with concerts on June 7 and 8. For more information about the festival in general, see openears.ca.          

On June 8 and 14 the Kokoro Singers will be performing inGuelph and Dundas, respectively. Their concert “Celebration of Canadian Composers” features several composers – Mark Sirett, Donald Patriquin and Stephen Chatman among them – who are the most listener-friendly in the country. If you’re looking to ease your way into new music, this is a very good place to start.

On June 11 the Hamilton Children’s Choir performs “Together as One”; the concert is in support of the choir’s tour to Korea.

On June 20 the Adelphi Vocal Ensemble performs“Music for St. John’s Eve,” a concert of English choral music that includes Vaughan Williams’ Mass in G Minor, as well as selections by Tallis and early-20th century composers Harwood and Naylor. The Vaughan Williams mass is an appealing and historically important work that is always worth hearing live.

Speaking of historically significant, this summer Ontarians have two chances to hear the Choir of Trinity College Cambridge. This ensemble dates as far back as the 14th century and has past associations with important composers and conductors. The choir will be performing at the Elora Festival on July 13 and at the Westben Arts Festival on July 19.

On June 7 and 8 the University of Waterloo’s Conrad Grebel University College choirs will perform “Sound in the Land: Music and the Environment: Kalahari Journey,” a choral initiative that is part of a larger environmental project to understand the nature of the earth through the medium of sound. The event involves workshops, lectures and events as well as concerts. More information can be found at uwaterloo.ca/grebel/sound-land-2014/about. 

Finally, check out the Festival of the Sound in Parry Sound for performances of Rachmaninoff’s Vespers by the Elora Festival Singers on July 29 and of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony by the Elmer Isler Singers on August 10. The Elora Festival Singers will also be performing several exciting-sounding concerts at their own festival, notably David Fanshawe’s celebrated African Sanctus on July 12. 

Benjamin Stein is a Toronto tenor and lutenist. He can be contacted at choralscene@thewholenote.com. Visit his website at benjaminstein.ca.

What’s That Whistling Sound?

1908-ChoralThat whistling sound you heard this week might have been an entire city breathing a sigh as the last vestiges of this wretched winter – which lasted well into April – finally passed away and we all unclenched our shoulders from around our ears. (On the other hand it might have been the sound of more than 120 choirs flocking to this month’s Canary Pages – see page 29 – something that has become an annual rite of passage for choirs in this part of the world.)

As usual, Toronto came in for lots of scorn from Canadians this year for not being tough enough to withstand winter conditions that other parts of the country would consider mild, or at least normal.

For these folk, I have five words: “Union Station at rush hour.” By the end of the winter, the Canadian military had recruiters stationed on the subway platform ready to enlist the winners of the trench warfare that took place at Union every day. Nobody’s tougher than Torontonians. Or meaner, after this winter; out-of-towners, you’re warned.

This year’s spring concerts are likely to combine triumph and relief in equal measure. There are many choices to be found in the listings; below are several.

Spring-Themed Concerts: On May 4 the Etobicoke Youth Choir performs their spring concert, entitled “Why We Sing.”

On May 10 the Toronto Swedish Singers perform their “Annual Spring Concert.” The evening includes a selection of Swedish and Nordic music. I confess that this group is new to me – I hope to find them in these pages in the future.

Also on May 10, the Toronto Welsh Male Voice Choir performs their “Spring Gala Concert.”

The Echo Women’s Choir performs “Singing! Here! Now!” on May 11, with an eclectic program that includes folk music from China, the Balkans and Ukraine.

On May 31 the St. Elizabeth Scola Cantorum Hungarian Choir performs their spring concert, which includes Schubert’s Mass in G and works by Hungarian composer Zoltán Kodály.

Festivals: Jewish Music Week in Toronto, May 18 to 25, is the brainchild of Aliza Spiro. In its fourth year, it is increasingly attracting the attention of Toronto audiences and the many Jewish musicians in the city who welcome the opportunity to showcase their talents and artistic projects.

There are many excellent solo performers and ensembles participating in this festival. Choral ensembles include Lachan Jewish Chamber Choir, taking part in a free May 19 concert, “Vocals for Victoria Marathon,” at Nathan Phillips Square.

The Lirit Singers, perform in “Music of Milton Barnes” on May 20. Barnes was a Jewish-Canadian composer whose approachable music, rooted in jazz and traditional Jewish sources, continues to be performed by many performers and ensembles.

More information about this event can be found at
jewishmusicweek.com.

SING! The Toronto Vocal Arts Festival: May 30 to June 1,is an intensive weekend of a cappella vocal music. Taking place at Harbourfront, it is a well-curated eclectic mix of choirs, smaller vocal ensembles and soloists. Choirs performing during the weekend include the Cantemus Singers and Cawthra Park Chamber Choir, Pax Christi Chorale, That Choir and Hamilton Children’s Choir.

On May 31, a number of these ensembles will take part in a concert devoted to the music of R. Murray Shafer. Later on the afternoon of the same day, several of the vocal ensembles and soloists from the festival will sing musical accompaniment to a selection of National Film Board of Canada short films. NFB shorts, most famously the works of Norman McLaren, are renowned among film aficionados and have won awards all over the world.

More information about the festival schedule can be found at torontovocalartsfestival.com.

Women in Music:Preparing for an exam, one of my students remarked on the almost complete absence of female composers in the repertoire syllabus. Stumbling to explain why this might be the case well into the 21st century, with the amount of historical resources now available, I pondered uneasily the degree to which the educational canon in music often lags behind the initiative taken by performers. There is plenty of music available written by women, currently and from past centuries, and this should be reflected in student as well as concert repertoire.

On May 24 the Jubilate Singers present “Inspire! music by Canadian women.” The program includes works by familiar and established composers Eleanor Daley, Stephanie Martin, Suba Sankaran, and Shelley Marwood, a musician currently pursuing a graduate degree in composition who is beginning to fulfill commissions for ensembles across Canada.

For an historical take on female composers, consider the Voices Chamber Choir’s “Go, Lovely Rose” on June 7. The concert includes works by Hildegard von Bingen, Fanny Hensel, Imogen Holst, Ruth Watson Henderson and others. Fanny Hensel was Felix Mendelssohn’s sister; Imogen Holst was the daughter of Gustav Holst. Both women had rich and varied musical careers; I’d encourage both choral audiences and students interested in the subject to explore their compositions.

War and Struggle:2014 is the centenary of the start of the First World War. Remembrance ceremonies will begin in earnest in the summer, but several choirs have spring concerts with themes of battle and memory. Music was of tremendous importance in both world wars – music to inspire, music to galvanize, to bolster, comfort and commemorate. There is a rich legacy of compositions that choirs can draw upon.

On May 10 the Peterborough Singers perform Maurice Duruflé’s Requiem and Welsh composer Karl Jenkins’ The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace.

On May 31 Barrie’s King Edward Choir performs “KEC Remembers: Songs of Love, Loss and Victory!” The concert includes songs, letters and poetry that commemorate the lives of those lost 100 years ago in World War I.

On June 7 Kingston’s North Lakeshore Mass Chorus performs “Till the Boys Come Home,” also a tribute to those who served.

Finally, a shout-out to another Toronto ensemble that has slipped under my radar in the past. On May 31 the French-themed Ensemble vocal Les voix du coeur performs “Quand on chante, on a toujours 20 ans” (When you sing, you’re always 20 years old). The concert is comprised of popular French songs from different parts of the world. The program is given at 2pm and 8pm.

Benjamin Stein is a Toronto tenor and lutenist. He can be contacted at choralscene@thewholenote.com.
Visit his website at benjaminstein.ca
.


Back to top