Luminous Voices opens season with joyous Petite Messe Solennelle

Kenneth Delong for The Calgary Herald
October 17, 2016

Luminous Voices, Calgary’s professional choir, opened its new season Sunday at Bella Concert Hall with a performance of Rossini’s Petite Messe Solennelle. As a choral work it is, as is sometimes mentioned, neither petite (small) or solennelle (solemn). Rather, it is largely a joyous work of unbuttoned Italian character, even if here and there one finds passages that could be called serious.

Today, this work is rarely performed, and if this was not the first Calgary performance, it must be close to it. It exists in two versions, one with orchestra, the other, a more intimate version, scored for two pianos, harmonium, and (originally) 12 singers and four soloists.

It was this smaller, original version that was heard on this occasion, with the choir doubled to accommodate the larger space of the Bella Concert Hall. The only significantly inauthentic element in the performance was the tasteful elimination of Rossini’s original requirement of four castrati—difficult to find at the best of times, and not even in Paris of 1860s when it was first performed.

In the years since its formulation, Luminous Voices has developed into a flexible choral ensemble of considerable technical accomplishment, remarkable for its blend, refinement, and polish. And, natural to groups of this type, it normally projects the choral good manners of a professional ensemble.

But that is not quite what is needed to make this unusual work sound convincing. Born of the spirit of Southern Italian opera, this work needs singers of operatic capacity, not only the soloists, but the choir as a whole. And it was remarkable how readily the choir was able to turn itself into an Italian-sounding ensemble, with ringing high notes, histrionic basses and mezzos—all the trappings of mid-19th-century Italian opera.

It was remarkable how readily the choir was able to turn itself into an Italian-sounding ensemble, with ringing high notes, histrionic basses and mezzos—all the trappings of mid-19th-century Italian opera.

From the bouncy Gloria to the powerful Credo, this was a chance for the choir to show off its stuff, and great stuff it seems to have. Very few choirs have tenors who can deliver tenor thrills as this section did on this occasion, as if the choir was filled with Mimi’s and Rudolfo’s from Puccini’s La Boheme.

The four soloists all had quite a lot to do, from quartet singing to a variety of solos. While all the soloists sang remarkably well, bass Jihwan Cho was given (by Rossini) the most to do, and he delivered the expressive lines with remarkable composure and authority. This was an outstanding performance in every way. He was well matched by Lawrence Wiliford’s smooth, elegant tenor, yet another memorable Calgary performance from the artistically sophisticated Wiliford.

There was much to admire too in the expressive singing of mezzo-soprano Patricia Thompson and soprano Laura Hynes. Hynes’ big moment came in the Crucifixus, a movement reflecting on the the crucifixion of Christ, but here set operatically as a virtual drawing room love ballad in the operatic style. Hynes’ flexible voice was heard to fine effect here, and her singing was technically assured and expressive throughout.

The piano accompaniment, far richer and more complex than the word accompaniment would imply, was performed by Cheryl Emery and Leanne Regehr. Beautifully together, they played as if they were a regular two-piano team. Emery was given the larger task, performing frequently by herself as the accompanist to the individual soloists, and also having an extended fugal movement to play by herself between the Gloria and the Credo. This was piano playing of a high order, especially in the eloquent weaving of the many lines. The audience listened in rapt attention.

The churchy part of the soundscape came from the harmonium, which was performed with high competence by Nathaniel Schmidt. And putting it all together was conductor Timothy Schantz, who led his disciplined choir with energy and real flair.

This is the music of sunny ways, of happy smiles, and the physical enjoyment in the act of singing. The performance produced a tremendous response from the audience, which was evidently completely captivated by the eloquence and joy of the singing. A great start to the new season.

© Calgary Herald 2016