Luminous Voices provides perfect polychoral pleasure

Stephan Bonfield for The Calgary Herald
June 1, 2015

It was an evening of pure polychoral pleasure for the packed house gathered to hear Luminous Voices under the direction of Timothy Shantz present their One Voice … Many Voices season finale concert Sunday night at Knox United Church. With Central Memorial High School Chamber Choir and the William Aberhart Concert Choir on hand to provide excellent performances of fuller multiple choral breadth in some pieces, the evening rocked the downtown church’s cavernous acoustic with a wide-ranging lineup of choral esthetics, resonating from the neo-Renaissance to the minimalist modern, delivering both the divine and the delightful.

Although the marquee offering was Italian traditional twentieth-century composer Ildebrando Pizzetti’s Requiem, the central work that stole the show was an eagerly anticipated performance of Jonathan Dove’s famous choral cycle The Passing of the Year (2000). Equally important for Calgary choral music fans was a performance of Calgary native composer Zach Wadsworth’s Come to the Road.

I am a growing fan of Wadsworth’s music, if only to say that the best years of his choral writing and maturity are here right now, and considerably more lie in front of him, as evidenced when Luminous Voices sang the world première of his cantata The Far West, this past November.

Finished two years ago and commissioned by Cornell University for performance at its 145th Commencement Ceremonies, Come to the Road, with poetry by the great American writer Paul Laurence Dunbar, is a serene work of considerable impact, beckoning the listener repeatedly to a wanderer’s way upon the road of life. Wadsworth’s musical language gets this idea just perfectly with lush harmonic chordal parallelism, gentle lyricism, and quiet hypnotic self-assurance, inviting the listener to a bucolic carefree world. Luminous Voices coalesced the work into a much-needed focused sound, which I prefer to a larger choral exposition, lending a spectral intimacy to every chord that illuminated every word of text.

And so it was with that fine opening to the concert’s second half that we were ably prepared to appreciate Jonathan Dove’s dedicated work to the untimely passing of his mother. The Passing of the Year, cast in seven poems taken from the works of William Blake, Emily Dickinson, George Peele, Thomas Nashe and Alfred, Lord Tennyson, runs the emotional gamut celebrating a life in art from spring (Blake’s O Earth, return) to winter (Tennyson’s Ring in the thousand years of peace). Here was Luminous Voices at its best, rising to the task of stringently demanding singing, primarily of minimalist, rhythmic ostinato persuasion, yet nevertheless emotionally taxing in its breadth of content.

If you want to understand Luminous Voices and what its artistic mandate is all about it was easily found in Sunday night’s perfect performance of Dove’s distilled essence of pure musicality. Whether it was conversationalist caprice in Dickenson’s Answer July, or immaculate rounded tone and clearest diction, centred with glowing vowel sounds depicting the black shade of a hot summer sun as symbolized perfectly in Peele’s poem, Luminous Voices showed why the purest, practised, polished choral technique can grant life and illumination to Dove’s — or any other composer’s — masterpiece the ensemble chooses to perform.

And with the best technique of just about any choir in Canada today, it is not hard to hear how Luminous Voices can transcend the barriers of stodgy interpretation to a well-cultivated, elevated musicality. Here is where director Tim Shantz excels most. In Pizzetti’s Requiem, his polychoral conducting of the Sanctus and Agnus Dei, in the traditional “cori spezzati” style, was masterful, splitting the 24-member choir into three lofts to bring home the textual eloquence of the work’s neo-Renaissance musical language.

And Luminous Voices made perfect narrative/musical sense of the lengthy and overwrought Dies Irae — not an easy task with so many passages frequently shifting in musical style. Even more striking was a stunningly sublime performance of Frank Martin’s Agnus Dei, taken from his classic Mass for Double Choir that left us all breathless.

Finally, Central Memorial’s offering of Wilby’s North Country Folk Songs, directed exceedingly well by Anne Gardner and the Aberhart Concert Choir’s lusciously slow rendition of the Hatfield arrangement of All too Soon, a favourite of mine, closely directed by Monique Olivier, showed why Calgary’s junior choral scene has always been one of the best in Canada — bar none.

Ultimately, Luminous Voices’ choral intonation, relaxed perfectly-paced tempi, and enduringly full harmonic spectra carried off with uncommon ease, comprise an art that conceals art, a gift that gives luminously, and, much like their encore conveyed perfectly, will be something Calgarians can perpetually lean on.

© Calgary Herald 2015