The Easter season is upon us for April and as usual, the choral community has many fantastic offerings of sacred music to mark the occasion. First, we’ll focus on the Pax Christi Chorale’s Canadian premiere of grand Edward Elgar oratorio, The Apostles. For the non-sacred music inclined, Echo Women’s Choir has a fantastic concert inspired by American singer MILCK’s #ICANTKEEPQUIET campaign. Finally, a host of Quick Picks for the season are included.
Canadian Premiere of Elgar’s The Apostles
Edward Elgar died in 1934, aged 76. His work is well known to students of British classical music but he is best known for the eternal graduation hymn – Land of Hope and Glory, the end of Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1. Equally gifted at orchestral and choral composition, often both, his work can usually be described as thick, dense and powerful. It is unusual that one of his grandest and biggest works, The Apostles, has never before been performed in Canada. Pax Christi Chorale under maestro Stephanie Martin is taking up the grand work.
Choral lovers here are more familiar with Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius, last performed in fall 2014 with the Amadeus Choir, Elmer Iseler Singers and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Elgar’s Enigma Variations makes frequent appearances on orchestral programs. The Apostles is the biggest piece he wrote. It requires the forces of six soloists, semichorus and double choir on top of arge orchestral forces. The personnel demands are one of the reasons why Martin believes the work hasn’t been programmed in Canada before. Pax Christi Chorale is joined by a stellar cast of Canadian talent: Meredith Hall, Krisztina Szabó, Brett Polegato, Lawrence Wiliford, Daniel Lichti, Michael Uloth and the Etobicoke School of the Arts chamber choir alongside an orchestra.
Pax Christi is no stranger to grand oratorios, having performed Elgar’s The Kingdom in 2012, and recently taking on Mendelssohn’s grandest work – Elijah – in the fall of 2016. Stephanie Martin conducts the two performances of The Apostles as her finale after 20 years at the helm of Pax Christi Chorale. She’s thoughtful and insightful about the music, identifying four key leitmotifs out of the many in Elgar’s masterpiece. She describes the work of singing through The Apostles as “peeling back the onion skin to reveal the leitmotifs that shape the music.”
Elgar was influenced by Wagner, who used the same compositional technique to inform the narrative of his musical stories. “It almost gives the music a sense of being a collage,” says Martin. “The music changes quickly, tonal messages change very quickly” throughout the music as Elgar delves into this story of Jesus and his followers. Many of the messages are hidden and not clear to a listening audience. Most interestingly, the final words of Christ “Eloi Eloi, lama sabachthani (My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?)” appear not in any sung lines but in a melody through the orchestra, words written above the orchestral line. Martin is superbly capable at leading her choirs through this work and deeply insightful at the hidden messages of the music.
As with the Verdi Requiem, the solos and choral lines are not separate and flow in and out of one another throughout The Apostles. “The oratorio is not constructed in a conventional way,” Martin says. “The soloists and choirs are integrated.” Usually singing different texts, overlaying each other, the resulting effect can be triumphant and bombastic as in “In Caesarea Phillipi” or unsettling and creepy, as in the “Tower of Magdala.”
Part IV of The Apostles, “The Betrayal” makes up the bulk of the second half of the concert. It focuses on the story of Judas Iscariot, sung by bass Michael Uloth. Elgar took great time and energy to humanize the story of Judas, showing him to be, as Martin says “remorseful” for his actions, ultimately believing in Jesus and his work. At the end of “The Betrayal,” Judas “falls apart as he realizes what he has done” as Martin describes, and he decides to take his own life. (Participants in the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir’s Singsation on March 18 were treated to Uloth’s Judas and Martin’s approach as they read through The Apostles.)
Pax Christi Chorale presents the Canadian premiere of Edward Elgar’s The Apostles. April 29, 7:30pm and Sunday April 30, 3:00pm at Grace Church on-the-Hill.
Echo Women’s Choir, celebrating 25 years, continues to provide unique offerings that bridge the classical and contemporary choral spheres while always maintaining a strong commentary on issues facing our world. Their concert “We Can’t Keep Quiet!” takes its name from the #ICANTKEEPQUIET campaign created by American musician MILCK based on her song Quiet. An artist that “finds comfort in discomfort,” MILCK created the campaign to be a rallying call to break cycles of oppression and fear. The song was performed by a guerilla choir during the Women’s March on Washington, DC, on January 21, 2017.
Echo will be joined by a host of friends under the leadership of Becca Whitla and Alan Gasser. Frequent collaborator and artist-in-residence Annabelle Chvostek will take the reins for her song Firewalker. Including a host of different songs, Echo recently had a workshop with Hussein Janmohamed. Janmohamed is an Ismaili Canadian composer, performer, and educator who led Echo in what Gasser calls “a cultural and spiritual encounter.” Based on the title “Composing Pluralism: Music at the Intersections,” Janmohamed led the choir on a shared musical journey with inspirations from Christian, Muslim, folk, and other traditions.
“The whole thing was a big exercise in trust,” says Gasser. “Normally a workshop leader will work carefully to make a performance piece that’s almost satisfying to sing, all in one day… . But what he did was to open us up, as if he were operating on our compassionate hearts, and to trust that we’d understand how to make ourselves whole and ready to perform.” Janmohamed is a unique arts educator in his ability to open our ways of knowing and coming to music. He was similarly featured along with Shireen Abu Khader at SingOntario!, the recent annual Choirs Ontario festival, with a similar experience.
Gasser continues: “Hussein used a combination of the folk song Shenandoah, with an Islamic chant. He also trusted our community enough to sing the [Islamic] call to prayer (Azan), in an intimate way, that kept us open to sacred silence as a response.” Another song explored was the Dona Nobis Pacem, musically intertwined with a chant that asks Allah to bless Mohammed (peace be upon him) and his household with peace.
The choir will share the musical results of this journey they were led on by Janmohamed. Other features include Leonard Cohen’s Sisters of Mercy, a set of Georgian folk songs and Peggy Seeger’s Ballad of Springhill.
Echo Women’s Choir presents “We Can’t Keep Quiet!” celebrating their 25 th anniversary, Sunday, April 30, 3pm at Church of the Holy Trinity.
Sacred Music Quick Picks for the Easter season
The Easter season is second only to Christmas in activity for the choral community. Many choirs are presenting concerts themed around Easter and many fall on Good Friday. The offerings are wide and fantastic.
Apr 12, 14: The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir presents “Sacred Music for a Sacred Space.” (I sing tenor in the choir.) Always a highlight of the TMC concert season, two performances are offered this year, a chance to catch some beautiful choral highlights including the transcendent Lux Aeterna based on Elgar’s Enigma Variations, the Allegri Miserere and some not-often performed gems from Healey Willan: How They So Softly Rest, written to commemorate the lives of servicemen lost from Willan’s congregation to World War II and his grand work An Apostrophe to the Heavenly Hosts.
Apr 13, 14, 15, 16: St Anne’s Anglican Church presents “Holy Week and Easter” featuring sections from Schütz’s Johannes-Passion; Handel’s Messiah, and Mozart’s Exsultate Jubilate.
Apr 14: The Toronto Beach Chorale presents “Mozart’s Requiem and More.” Featuring the eternally popular Mozart Requiem, the Chorale is including performed monologues from Peter Shaffer’s play, Amadeus. Salieri’s Te Deum is also on the evening’s program for the evening.
Apr 14: The Grand Philharmonic Choir presents Beethoven’s second most popular choral work, the Missa Solemnis, under the baton of Mark Vuorinen. This incredibly challenging work is a sure treat for choral lovers. Bach’s Mass in B Minor and the Missa Solemnis are hallmarks of the common mass. Pay special attention to the end of the Credo with its exceptionally difficult fugue in “Et vitam venturi saeculi.”
Apr 15: The Niagara Symphony Orchestra is joined by the Faith Chorale Gospel Choir, and the Laura Secord Secondary School Concert Choir in “Too Hot to Handel! – The Gospel Messiah.” This glorious performance will feature blues, gospel, funk, jazz and more, all with familiar melodies we know and love. The original Gospel Messiah was the brainchild of the legendary Marin Alsop who conducted the premiere in 1993.
Apr 19: Edmonton’s Axios Men’s Ensemble visits Toronto’s St. Paul’s Bloor Street to present “Resurrection: Music from the Ukrainian Sacred Choral Tradition.” The feature is Father John Sembrat’s setting of the Resurrectional Divine Liturgy. Axios will be joined by Pro Coro Canada and a host of international friends including Boyan Ensemble of Kyiv (Revutsky Academic Male Capella), the Chorus of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, the Homin Municipal Choir of Lviv, and the Vydubychi Church Choir of Kyiv.
Apr 29, 30: Musikay presents Handel’s Messiah in two performances, one in Hamilton, the other in Oakville. The work, normally performed at Christmas, was meant to be performed at Easter according to Handel.
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