1906 choralscene1-rantmaggierantEver heard a purported “Great Work of Art” and been thoroughly underwhelmed? At least one of the well-known compositions l’ve written about this year – perhaps even in this column – has regularly left me cold, either when performing or listening to it. I won’t say which, because I don’t have any intention of stepping on other musicians’ hard work and dedication. But on occasion I’ve recalled Glenn Gould’s remark about one composer’s reputation being based entirely on gossip, and wondered if there isn’t something about that in our approach to certain works by certain names.

It’s relevant to this column’s exploration of new choral works, which are not to be found overmuch in this month’s listing – the mid-season part of the year is often when choirs essay the well-known works of the choral repertoire, and exploration of new music gets left for another time.

When hearing a new work, our attitude is often, “Okay, impress me” – or to use a sports phrase, “You got game?”. But when encountering masterworks, we expect to be impressed or even overwhelmed, to feel a sense of connection to transcendence that we know others before us have undoubtedly experienced. Our thought is something like – to carry the sports analogy back to its schoolyard roots – “Can I play too? Pick me!”.

This is not a bad thing, of course – a sense of openness and receptiveness to music is vital for a satisfying listening experience. The key is to carry that sensibility into the realm of the unfamiliar, even the uncomfortable. In this season of masterworks there are still ways to do it – attend a concert that features music you have never heard live, or find a choir in your region that you have not heard perform. Or pick a composer whose works you have never liked, and go to the concert with that sense of receptiveness you reserve for your favourite music alone.

1906 choralscene2Elijah in Guelph: Speaking of masterworks, I am pleased to see that Guelph is going to be treated to a performance of Mendelssohn’s Elijah on March 22, by the Guelph Chamber Choir, Western University Singers and the Musica Viva Orchestra, with Daniel Lichti in the role of Elijah.

Greatly popular in the 19th century, Mendelssohn’s reputation suffered in the century that followed. His oratorio Elijah has never left the repertory, but it always seems to lack the must-see/can’t-miss quality that attends any live performance of Handel’s Messiah, Mozart’s D Minor Requiem or Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. This is a shame, because it’s a more coherent work than the first two pieces listed above and is easily as dramatic as the final one.

Elijah was first performed at the legendary Birmingham Music Festival in 1846, with an English text. Structurally it is modelled on the oratorios of Bach and Handel that Mendelssohn had studied and admired and in the case of Bach, revived for a 19th century audience.

Based on the performances it sometimes receives, it’s easy to mistake Elijah for a grandiose hunk of early Victorian Anglo-choral stodge. But when performed with rhythmic elan and suppleness, it has a kick like a mule, in part because of the tremendous energy of the choruses and the dramatic scope of the baritone role of Elijah. Mendelssohn’s Elijah is an intensely flawed and human character, pious and savage by turns, brought low but ultimately redeemed. Baritone Daniel Lichti is one of Canada`s most accomplished oratorio singers and his Elijah is not to be missed.

Elijah is also one of the relatively few European oratorios that tells the story of a Jewish protagonist, written by a Jewish composer. Mendelssohn was baptized as a child by his assimilated parents, of course, but the energy of Elijah (contrasted with the dullness of his St. Paul) makes a case for residual pride in and understanding of his family`s religious background.

On to the listings:

March 15: Joseph Haydn’s Creation is a lively interpretation of the Genesis story, filled with programmatic depictions of the world’s birth, the creation of plants and animals and a childishly romantic Adam and Eve as yet untouched by the snake’s temptation. The NYCO Symphony Orchestra performs this work with the choral sections handled by the Hart House Chorus and Oakville Choral Society.

On March 16 the Hart House Singers perform Mozart’s famous Requiem in D Minor. The evening also provides an opportunity to hear Franz Schubert’s setting of the Stabat Mater text. The concert is free, and food donations to the University of Toronto foodbank are welcome.

The Amadeus Choir performs Celtic Celebration on March 22, in both the afternoon and the evening. This concert is a fundraiser for the choir, and will include a silent auction as well as a tasty selection of Scottish, Irish and Maritime tunes. The Celtic trio North Atlantic Drift are guest players. Another Celtic instrumental and choral summit takes place earlier in the month in London on March 7, when the Canadian Celtic Choir teams up with the Celtic fusion group Rant Maggie Rant.

Also on March 22 Ron Ka Ming Cheung’s Voices Chamber Choir performs Brahms’ German Requiem. Usually scored for full romantic orchestra, there is also a chamber version for two pianos that Brahms himself created. Although piano accompaniment lacks the varied timbres and grandeur of an orchestra, it also gives listeners an opportunity to hear more clearly the interplay of the work’s different choral parts, which can easily be obscured (obliterated, actually) in orchestral settings. Brahms’ choral writing is almost unparalleled in its inventiveness and challenge. Like Bach and Mozart, it can actually benefit from stripped-down choral forces.

On March 23 the Ukrainian Canadian Congress sponsors a gala concert commemorating the 200th birthday anniversary of Taras Shevchenko. Shevchenko (1814-1861) was a pivotal cultural figure in the development of Ukrainian culture, as a writer, painter and political actor. The concert is a summit of Ukrainian-Canadian choirs, and features the Vesnivka Choir, Orion Men’s Choir, Levada Women’s Choir and the Toronto Ukrainian Male Chamber Choir.

March 26: If there is an ultimate masterwork in the choral repertoire, it’s probably Bach’s Mass in B Minor. The challenge for any choir, as with the Brahms Requiem, is to forget that it is a masterwork and look instead for the human qualities that bring it to life – exuberance, pathos and a questioning spirit. The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir performs this work on March 26, with an excellent group of soloists.

On April 7 Grace Church on-the-Hill, which boasts a lively and extensive choral program, hosts a workshop with special guests the Oxford Christ Church Cathedral Choir. This choir is the newest version of an ongoing tradition of choral cathedral music that stretches back five hundred years. The workshop allows Toronto choral singers and conductors to work on repertoire with this ensemble, taking part in a performance at the end of the day. It sounds like a fascinating event, especially for students and aficionados of the English cathedral sound. The choir also performs on April 8, and there are group rates available for groups who attend the workshop. (www.choirsontario.org/index.jsp)

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

There are awesome concerts on the horizon for February and March, and I will try to give shoutout space to as many of them as possible. Please check out the listings for the ones I miss – there are great choices for every taste.

First, though, as part of this year’s continuing exploration of new choral music, this column will look back at several Toronto events that took place in January – a rare retrospective angle for a listings column, but one that points to engaging developments and possibilities in the Toronto choral scene; choral aficionados, take note.

On January 17, as part of their celebration of 60 years of professional choral singing, Soundstreams programmed a salon night entitled, “New Directions in Choral Music.” Soundstreams’ Salon 21 is a monthly performance and lecture event, inventively curated by Kyle Brenders, with a wide variety of performers and composers. It is free of charge, and you can sit with a glass of wine as the discussion takes place.

This evening brought together two groups that on the face of it, seem wildly disparate. As the evening progressed, interesting connections emerged.

bbb - choral sceneChoir! Choir! Choir! is the brainchild of two easygoing but skilled musicians, Nobu Adilman and Daveed Goldman. For three years they have been meeting interested participants, usually in a bar, handing out song sheets and then creating fun and inventive arrangements of pop and rock songs, sometimes on the spot.

The initiative has been wildly successful, and has led to recordings and media appearances. At the Soundstreams event the audience watched a video of Choir! Choir! Choir! performing Daft Punk’s Get Lucky. a club number which was one of last year’s catchier guitar riffs.

The night’s other group, the Element Choir, is a different phenomenon altogether. This ensemble works entirely in improvised form. The conductor and founder of the Element Choir, Christine Duncan, has a two-page lexicon of gestures that have specific sonic meaning, and as the piece progresses, she improvises its shape and structure by combining different sounds and letting their combinations grow and develop organically.

The performance was only several minutes long, but often the pieces become extended soundscapes that can last as long as an hour. It is certainly not the usual paradigm that one expects from a choral concert, but it is an absolutely arresting experience.

The singers in the ensemble improvise fearlessly, and one hears clicks, wooshing, yelps, growls and hums as well as melodic fragments and timbres that evoke classical, jazz and folk singing techniques.  The Element Choir works more like an orchestral ensemble than a traditional choir, as the skills of individual members of the ensemble are employed to create solo lines that blend into the larger soundscape.

The aspect of each group that represented the clearest challenge to the traditional choral model is that neither ensemble used sheet music – a tool that most choirs cannot do without. Choir! Choir! Choir! uses lyric sheets, but presumably can dispense with these once parts have been learned.

Choir! Choir! Choir!’s arrangements of pop songs use repeated syncopation, as is stylistically appropriate. These type of rhythms, so common throughout the last century, often represents a challenge for classically trained choirs. While Choir! Choir! Choir!’s syncopations are not wildly difficult to hear or replicate, some of them would look awkward and confusing when notated with traditional sheet music, and would likely cause a few stutters for classically trained musicians.

Choir! Choir! Choir! relies instead on their singers’ ears, and is accompanied by guitar rather than the ubiquitous rehearsal piano. I noticed that both the syncopations and the tuning of this group had a lively quality that piano-trained choirs often lack.

The Element Choir, meanwhile, dispenses almost entirely with the division of labour that most choirs embody – a composition, usually created by one individual, that the conductor and singers must attempt to execute. Instead, the conductor and singers are co-creators, blending their skills and ideas in an improvised process that will never be repeated in the same manner.

The work of these two groups has its own inherent value, of course – but as I listened to the performances, I couldn’t help thinking what a shot in the arm the techniques employed in these ensembles would be to more standard classical choral training as well.  The ability to execute complex rhythms, improvise and experiment with extended performance techniques without a musical score in hand, is of course an integral part of music training. But how often are these skills called on in choirs?

Imagine entire university courses devoted to either of these choral paradigms. How much more confident young singers would be in a variety of musical situations, many of which they will encounter in the working world, in which they have to think – and sing – on their feet.

Daring to Dream: Moving on to another choral event – on January 20, the American holiday celebrating the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr., the Culchahworks Arts Collective presented We Still Dare To Dream, a new oratorio written to commemorate the 50th anniversary of King’s historic “I Have a Dream” speech.

The work was conceived by Andrew Craig, an astonishingly talented composer, producer and performer who has also worked as a radio personality for the CBC. The oratorio grew out of a promise that Craig made to his mother that he would somehow mark this occasion with a new musical work, even if he had to stand outside and play it on the street on January 20.

Craig had originally hoped to use the text of the actual speech, but when this proved impossible, he simply decided to write his own libretto and set it to music. He enlisted the support of the Faith Chorale and the University of Toronto Gospel Choir, as well as assembling a third choral ensemble, band and violin soloist (Andréa Tyniec).

We Still Dare To Dream is a sprawling and ambitious mixture of solos, choruses and spoken recitations that seeks to bring the ideas and challenges posed by King’s oration into a new century of conflict and challenge.

I was unfortunately not in Toronto during the performance, but I attended the dress rehearsal in an effort to get a sense of some aspects of the work.

I wonder how effective the spoken word facet of the oratorio ultimately was. Dramatic recitation is an incredibly difficult technique to make work; even with musical underscoring, it can too easily slip into earnestness or portentousness.

But the musical sections of the piece were superb. The choral writing generally supported the vocal solos, which were executed by four virtuoso Toronto singers from Jewish, Muslim, East Indian and American gospel traditions: David Wall, Waleed Abdulhamid, Suba Sankaran and Sharon Riley.

There was also a delightful section in which a group of young Toronto primary and secondary school students came out and sang, danced, executed martial arts moves and engaged in a call-and-response rap with Craig.

Craig is a master of gospel composition, but he did not limit himself to that genre, instead executing convincing and catchy compositional riffs on ragas and middle eastern vocal techniques from religious traditions that often find themselves at war. The syncretic aspects of the music reflected the composition’s essential theme, which was reconciliation, unity, peace and activism.

I can see this work having a life beyond this particular anniversary occasion. The American Paul Winter Consort spent years travelling to different cities, performing the Missa Gaia. The experienced musicians of the ensemble often combined with local choirs, especially youth and children’s groups. Craig’s work has the potential to be a Canadian version of this performance model. I hope other ensembles have a future chance to engage with this music – it certainly deserves a repeat performance and a wider audience in Toronto and other parts of the country.

On to this month’s concerts. To get the month started, in Kingston the Melos Choir and Chamber Orchestra perform an early music program, Eros and Agape: Love’s Longing and Laments on February 9. The concert includes works by Hildegard von Bingen, Victoria, Palestrina, Machaut, Dufay and others. Guillaume de Machaut, wrote in 14th century France, and is one of the earliest composers from whom we have comprehensive musical scores. It is always fascinating to hear his music live.

For more early music choices (mixed with a little Beatles) the Annex Singers perform works by Josquin and Palestrina on February 22.

In a later vein, the Tafelmusik Chamber Choir performs Handel’s Saul on February 21 to 23. Saul explores the themes of jealousy, love and ambition that characterize the rivalry between the biblical Saul, king of Israel, and the young, charismatic shepherd and musician David, who will ultimately usurp the Israelite throne. David’s loving relationship with Saul’s son, the doomed young warrior Jonathan, adds the final element through which internecine conflict becomes tragedy. It is one of the most dramatic stories of the Hebrew scriptures, and one that is beautifully suited to Handelian choruses and solos of ferocity, triumph and lament.

Richard III was the last Plantagenet king of England before the rise of the Tudor dynasty. He was killed in battle in 1485 at the end of the War of the Roses. These guys basically spent centuries killing each other back and forth, which ought to put Prince Harry’s naughty Las Vegas adventures in a bit of perspective. On March 1 the Tallis Choir sings a Requiem for Richard III, a recreation of a requiem mass as it might have been celebrated at the end of the 15th century. The music will include medieval carols and some of the the stunning late English Renaissance choral works of the Chapel Royal of Richard’s Tudor usurper, Henry VII. Which is kind of rubbing it in.

In Hamilton on February 28 and March 2the Bach Elgar Choir perform two midsize masterworks of the classical repertoire, Fauré’s Requiem and Vaughan Williams’ Mass in G. The Fauré work in particular is a small miracle of orchestration and melodic and harmonic invention. It’s a piece every fan of choral music ought to know, and every choral singer must perform at least once.

In Kitchener on February 22, the Grand Philharmonic Choir also performs theVaughan Williams work, as part of an anglophile program entitled Glorious England.

Also in the classical vein, on March 2 the Toronto Classical Singers perform Handel’s Dettingen Te Deum and Haydn’s Mass in the Time of War (In Haydn’s original autograph, the Missa in tempore belli.) Haydn’s mass was first performed in 1796 Vienna, during the turbulent and violent era of upheaval following the French Revolution and prior to the rise of Napoleon. Anyone who asserts that the works of classical composers are ivory tower art, divorced from the political realities that buffet us all, would be advised to listen to this mass, which contains dramatic moments that approach savagery.

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

1904 choralThe concept of the musical “guilty pleasure” is a dumb notion that needs to be permanently retired. Guilty pleasures, of course, are things you enjoy that aren’t especially healthy for you. The holiday season gives you an opportunity to indulge in, oh, one or two of them. So a (not especially convincing) case can be made for feeling guilt about taking pleasure in things that, in excess, can lead to ill health — food and drink certainly fall into this category.

But the idea of guilty pleasure is also commonly and perniciously associated with music, though as of this writing science has yet to establish the link between listening choice and terminal disease.

The idea is a powerful one. If your self-image is somehow shaped by your musical preferences — for many people, it is — then anything that apparently contradicts that image must be listened to on the sly, becoming a “guilty pleasure”: the Bach expert who likes to kick back with Italian pop ballads by Bocelli (while her unsuspecting husband snoozes upstairs); or the thrash metal enthusiast whose eyes mist up listening to a heartbreak ballad on his daughter’s Taylor Swift album.

During this holiday season, in which pretty much every choir around presents a program with the intent to delight and enchant, perhaps we can agree that guilt should have no place in our musical choices — no matter what the time of year.

I’ll write more about this curious but widespread phenomenon in the next column — it’s entirely relevant to our ongoing discussion of new music. In the meantime, having focused almost exclusively on the Britten centenary last month, I will turn the column over to December concerts.

Toronto has a wealth of excellent children’s choirs, and two of the most accomplished present seasonal programs in December. The Bach Children’s Chorus and Bach Chamber Youth Choir present “This Frosty Tide” on December 7; and the Toronto Children’s Chorus presents “A Chorus Christmas: Fanciful Fantasies” on December 21.

A newly formed children’s choir, the ASLAN Boys Choir of Toronto, presents their debut performance “Now is the Time!” on December 15.

The Nathaniel Dett Chorale, a choir devoted to music of the African diaspora, performs “An Indigo Christmas” on December 3. Inspired by the famous “Nigra Sum” text from the Song of Songs (“I am black but comely, O ye daughters of Jerusalem”), the concert is a collection of “Songs to the Black Virgin” — music inspired by Madonna figures from around the world.

Messiah concerts: you’re on your own. Do I really need to talk up this piece at this stage in human history? Go and support the many excellent choirs who have made it a central part of their concert season. Here’s my suggestion — throw a dart at a page of the listings, chosen at random; then go see the Messiah performance that you hit. (Or if you prefer, there’s a handy Messiah Quick Picks at the end of this column!)

Handelian alternatives:For those who want to hear works by composers from the classical canon (other than Handel), there are several other good choices.

On December 7 the Cantores Celestes Women’s Choir performs Vivaldi’s Gloria as well as other seasonal favourites. This concert celebrates the ensemble’s 25th anniversary.

The day before, December 6, the Upper Canada Choristers also perform the Vivaldi work, as well as music by Praetorius and Handel.

Poulenc’s Gloria is the highlight of the Oakville Choral Society’s “A Christmas Celebration of English and French Music” on December 13.

J.S. Bach’s setting of the Magnificat text, jubilant and haunting by turns, is also a good seasonal choice for choirs and audiences. The VOCA Chorus of Toronto performs this work on December 7.

For another Bach choice, also on December 7, the Etobicoke Centennial Choir performs Cantata BWV140 “Sleepers Awake” (Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme), as well as Jewish-Canadian composer Srul Irving Glick’s tuneful Kedusha.

More Bach: On December 14 the Toronto Chamber Choir presents “Christmas with J.S. Bach,” a concert that combines works for Advent and Christmas.

On December 8 the Toronto Beach Chorale performs a Christmas concert that features some tasty and unusual early 20th century British works: Finzi’s In Terra Pax, Holst’s Christmas Day and Vaughan Williams’ moving Fantasia on Christmas Carols.

One of the great virtues of Christmas music is its multicultural depth. On December 14 the Canadian Men’s Chorus presents “En Hiver,” a concert that includes the premiere of Toronto composer/conductor Norman Reintamm’s Three Estonian Carols. In the same spirit, on December 7, Chorus Niagara performs “A Canadian Christmas Carol,” a concert combining Canadian carols, poetry, prose and images.

For those who want to balance their carol intake with music from another world festival, the Toronto Jewish Folk Choir presents Chanukah concerts on December 9 and 11.

Looking ahead to January: A special choral event is taking place in Hamilton on January 19. Our city’s best choral gospel ensemble, the Toronto Mass Choir is performing a joint concert with the McMaster University Choir. Karen Burke, the TMC’s conductor, is actually a graduate of McMaster University, and the concert will be a culmination of a series of workshops in which the two choirs will collaborate and develop repertoire. This is a rare opportunity for people in the Hamilton region to enjoy a visit from this terrific ensemble.

One final thought:The print run of this December/January issue of The WholeNote will likely have disappeared well before the beginning of February, but I wanted to make note of a Soundstreams choral concert celebrating 60 years of professional choral singing in Canada. Three of Canada’s top professional chamber ensembles, Elmer Iseler Singers, Pro Coro Canada and the Vancouver Chamber Choir will perform individually in three concerts February 1 and then combine on February 2, conducted by Kaspars Putniņš, the leader of the renowned Latvian Radio Choir.

Soundstreams will also sponsor an intriguing sounding lecture on January 17, ”New Directions in Choral Music.” The event will explore innovations in the use of the voice in modern choral writing and performance.

In the meantime, check out the rest of the listings, enjoy the season, and remember that when it comes to music, no pleasure should be a guilty one. Still, I could be wrong. I’ll ponder it over some whiskey and chocolate. 

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

Concert Note: Feb 01 7:30: Metropolitan United ChurchTrue Colours. Bach Children’s Chorus, Linda Beaupré, conductor; Metropolitan Church Choir, Patricia Wright, conductor and organ; Northern Lights, Steve Armstrong and Jordan Travis, conductors; and others. 56 Queen St. E. 316-363-0331 x26. $20; $10(18 and under).  Proceeds benefit the restoration of the Metropolitan United Church organ.

No one should ever need an excuse to attend a concert of the music of iconic English composer Benjamin Britten. But if modern music remains something you consider forbidding or unpleasant, find a reason to hear some Britten — experiencing some of his music live could be an enjoyable way to forge a new perspective. This is the centenary year of Britten’s birth and there will be many opportunities to hear his works. This year’s focus on modern music in the Choral Scene column gives me a chance to devote some space to this important composer.

choral scene - still singing brittens praises 1Celebrated from an early age, Britten enjoyed both respect from his colleagues and a rare level of public popularity throughout his career. His first opera, Peter Grimes, was an international hit in 1945. He continued to compose operas throughout his career, but also wrote forall manner of choirs, ensembles and solo instrumentalists.

Britten founded his own music festival in 1948 — The Aldeburgh Festival — and maintained a profitable relationship with Decca Records that ensured that his works would be recorded almost as soon as they were produced. The stereotypical model of the 20th century modernist composer — a writer of unpleasant and inaccessible music, ignored by and scornful of the crowd — is not one that Britten ever believed in or embodied.

Of course, only in the museum-like culture of classical music would a composer who was born a century ago and died in 1976 even be considered modern. Surely for those who are interested in new sounds, other composers have gone farther since. Why bother with Britten?

I’d argue that like Beethoven and Mozart, Britten’s music appeals on many different levels. His ability to draw on and interpret elements of popular music, folk song and baroque music (notably that of Purcell, whose work Britten helped revive) has always attracted listeners who like strong tunes and lively rhythms.

But his individual voice and singular musical outlook moulded and developed these popular elements in unique ways. He was no musical conservative, playing it safe with conventional sounds. His work often took melodies and obvious chord changes and nudged the musical language sideways into areas that no one could anticipate or expect. A lot of mid-century music that is more simplistic – or more experimental — has dated more obviously than the best of Britten’s work.

While Britten will likely be most remembered for his operas — which contain stunning choral sections, notably in Peter Grimes, Billy Budd and Death in Venice — his music also furthered the English cathedral choral tradition.

English choral music of the Renaissance and early Baroque was brilliant and accomplished, but then languished in the decades that followed until the end of the 19th century, when it was revitalized by the the work of composers such as Holst, Elgar and Vaughan Williams. Britten further enlivened this tradition in the 20th century with oratorios and anthems that balanced immediate appeal with inventiveness and innovation. Several concerts take place in the coming weeks that will give choral audiences a chance to hear some of these compositions.

Toronto Mendelssohn Choir performs a Britten double bill November 20, with his Saint Nicolas (1948) and The Company of Heaven (1937). Saint Nicolas, of course, is the fourth-century Greek bishop and saint whose legendary exploits form the basis for the modern Santa Claus. But Britten’s cantata is thankfully free of any kind of cutesiness or sentimentality, and instead presents a portrait of Nicolas as vulnerable, dynamic and conflicted.

Because the cantata was written to be performed in part by schoolchildren, the music is also both mischievous and exuberant, especially in the choral sections. St Nicolas has wonderful moments — an exciting musical depiction of a storm at sea which Nicholas calms with prayer (“He Journeys to Palestine”), and a grisly but entertaining sequence in which children eaten by starving villagers are brought back to life (“The Pickled Boys”).

This work is great fun for children and youth to perform and attend, especially when staged. It really ought to be a Christmas perennial, a familiar favourite on the level of other choral works regularly performed at that time of year.

Unfortunately, a performance of St. Nicolas is relatively rare, and a performance of his 1937 The Company of Heaven is even rarer. I have never actually heard this piece live, and am looking forward to attending this concert. The theme of the cantata is of angels — the “company of heaven” — and their metaphysical battle with evil. Britten assembled poetry on this theme from diverse sources ranging from the Bible to Christina Rossetti and William Blake. Some of the poetry is set to music, some is recited. Britten combines his own music with a setting of the hymn “Ye watchers and ye holy ones,” a standard of the Anglican tradition, and one that would have had deep resonance for a nation on the edge of war.

Orpheus: Another opportunity to hear Britten comes courtesy of the Orpheus Choir of Toronto, which performs his 1938 cantata World of the Spirit on November 5. Britten was a life-long pacifist whose loathing of cruelty, especially involving children, is a theme that recurs in many of his compositions. Britten lived briefly in America during the beginning of WWII, in part because his pacifist leanings were not well received in pre-war Britain. World of the Spirit, a piece that draws on varied texts that express love, hope and tolerance, is both manifesto and plea. This performance is the Canadian premiere of this rare work, so attending the concert is a chance to take part in a bit of Britten’s own ongoing history.

This concert also features a very special event. John Freund, a great lover and supporter of music in Toronto, is also a survivor of the Nazi concentration camps Terezin and Auschwitz. He will read from his memoir I Was One of the Lucky Few: The Story of My Childhood. The readings will be interspersed with choral music and visual imagery, in the kind of multimedia presentation that has become an Orpheus Choir specialty.

I hope I’ve persuaded those unfamiliar with Britten to consider having a listen at some point this year. But I’m conscious that I’ve neglected other groups in doing so, especially since the number of choral concerts taking place increases exponentially as the end of the calendar year approaches. Here are “quick pick” listings for some of the other choral offerings available this month — there is some very inventive programming taking place.

Quick Picks

choral scene - still singing brittens praises 2All the following are well worth checking out in the listings.

Nov 2, 7:30: Chorus Niagara. Handel: Grand and Glorious. Beyond GTA.

Nov 2, 8:00: Renaissance Singers. Psalms of David. Beyond GTA.

Nov 9, 8:00: DaCapo Chamber Choir. Evening Song. Beyond GTA.

Nov 9, 8:00: Guelph Chamber Choir. Passion of Joan of Arc
(Carl Dreyer’s 1928 silent film with live music). Beyond GTA.

Nov 9, 7:30: Amadeus Choir. The Writer’s War: A Tribute to War Correspondents.

Nov 13, 7:30: St. James Cathedral. Mozart’s Requiem.

Nov 16, 7:00: Church of the Ascension. Toronto Mass Choir.

Nov 22, 7:30: Georgetown Bach Chorale and Baroque Soloists.

Bach: Christmas Oratorio Part One and Magnificat.

Nov 23, 7:30: Cantemus Singers. Sing Noel!

Nov 23, 7:30: Jubilate Singers. This Shining Night.

Nov 23, 8:00: Bell’Arte Singers. Of Remembrance and Hope.

Nov 27, 7:30: Toronto Children’s Chorus. Take Flight. 

Ben Stein is a Toronto tenor and theorbist. He can be
contacted at choralscene@thewholenote.com.
Visit his website at benjaminstein.ca.
photo for choral quick picks.

choral scene 1Those of you dropping in on this column for the first time will have missed the start of a discussion of modern music begun here last month, revolving around the question: why did composers start writing music that sounded so weird?

Short answer: It’s a complex subject that touches on global economics, cultural history, evolutions in class and ethnic mobility, the changing nature of music education and concert-going, religion in society, European nationalism, industrialization and technological progress in instrument building.

So let’s move on. In practical terms, 1) choral audiences sometimes want to hear music they haven’t heard before and 2) choral composers want to keep composing new repertoire. So how do we bring the two parties together to meet on the dance floor? Like any healthy relationship, it takes a leap of faith and a bit of compromise.

So, to the audience member who runs for the doors at the hint of an unfamiliar or apparently unpleasant sound: you have to be willing to give these new musical experiences not just a first, but a second and third chance. The first time you went up on a two-wheel bike you probably wobbled and fell. But you persevered, ’cause you had some sense that on the other side of the challenge were new vistas of excitement, freedom and enjoyment.

And to those composers who write in a way that ignores the two reasons why the vast majority of people listen to music — pleasure and solace: you will simply lose your audience — a principled but self-destructive path that many mid-20th-century composers chose.

The musician who wants to connect with listeners must be willing to meet them at least part of the way. This means being open to musical elements that have appeal to non-musicians — traditional tonal harmonic systems, melodic contour that has a comprehensible arc and graspable structure, rhythmic grooves that are anchored in movement and dance, and other elements of popular, folk and indigenous music.

If you think this is the kind of pandering to which no artiste should stoop, go back and listen to pretty much every composer of note from the last 500 years — they knew their dance numbers and their folk songs, their pub cheers and theatre numbers and children’s lullabies and they infused their compositions with these elements, even as they extended the boundaries of where music could go and what it could express. They knew that to both thrive and survive, they had to consider the needs of the people around them as much as their own.

The point I made in last month’s column is that many modern composers are already doing this. The mid-20th century experiments of atonality and serialism, Musique concrète, aleatoric music and spatialization — I know, I know, even the names are off-putting — have almost been entirely abandoned. Or, they are being combined with an aesthetic that does not insist on purging music of the elements the non-specialist listener identifies as music.

English composer Thomas Adès writes very much in this conciliatory mode. His Dances from Powder Her Face is being performed on October 31 and November 1 and 2 by the Toronto Symphony, the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir and Toronto Children’s Chorus. The concert also includes Benjamin Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings and Carl Orff’s choral favourite Carmina Burana.

Carmina was a hit when it was first performed in Frankfurt in 1937, and has never waned in popularity. Orff wrote in a manner that wedded the varied and complex sonorities of the modern orchestra to music of deceptive simplicity. In some ways Orff’s music can be seen as the distant ancestor of the groove-based compositions of postmodernists Glass and Reich. Adès’ music also shares certain qualities with Orff’s, combining fun with edginess and possessing an earthy, sensual quality that seems to evoke bar fights and assignations rather than concert halls.

Dances from Powder Her Face, a Canadian premiere, is presumably a suite of music from Adès‘ chamber opera of the same name. The piece may or may not involve choir, but if not, and you want to hear some of his vocal music, take a chance and listen to the opera from which the Dances is derived. I think many listeners ought to be intrigued by some of the arresting vocal and instrumental writing that illustrates the scandal-ridden story of the Duchess of Argyll.

Britten’s Serenade is also a brilliant work. Many ensembles will be programming Britten’s works this year — 2013 being his birth centenary — and if you are willing to take a leap into unfamiliar 20th-century music, Britten is a very good place to begin.

Britten worked throughout his career almost entirely within the framework of “extended tonality.” What is this, exactly? Extended tonality is to traditional tonality as X-Man Wolverine is to pocket knives — that is, more dangerous but cooler.

On October 19 the Grand Philharmonic Choir performs Britten’s War Requiem, considered to be one of the 20th century’s masterworks. Premiered in 1962, it blends the traditional requiem mass text with poems by Wilfred Owen. Owen perished in the First World War, but not before writing poetry that ripped the veils of piety and patriotism away from the gruesome reality of WWI trench combat.

choral scene 2On October 20 the Elmer Iseler Singers will perform St. Cecilia Sings! A Tribute to Benjamin Britten, a concert that also includes music by Howells, Schubert, Vaughan Williams and Canadian Eleanor Daley, who has amassed a body of choral music that is becoming part of the standard repertoire of many Canadian choirs.

On November 6 at Grace Church on-the-Hill, and again on November 15 at Temple Sinai synagogue, the Temple Sinai Ensemble Choir, Toronto Jewish Folk Choir and Upper Canada Choristers join forces during Holocaust Education Week to perform music that addresses the same theme as the Britten requiem — war’s destruction.

The evening includes an original composition by cantor/composer Charles Osborne titled I Didn’t Speak Out, based on the famous indictment of apathy in the face of evil attributed to German theologian Martin Niemoeller. The concerts are free. More information can be found here.

Finally, modern composition reaches back to ancient tradition, as the Pax Christi Chorale hosts the Great Canadian Hymn Competition on October 6. PCC has fashioned itself the sponsor of new works in an area that is notoriously conservative — hymn singing. As with concert music, the continued vitality of the tradition depends on new works. Hosting the event is one of Canada’s greatest singers, Catherine Robbin. More information can be found here. 

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

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