Choirs join forces for powerful performance

Kenneth Delong for The Calgary Herald
February 5, 2016

Normally, concerts by the CPO feature the orchestra. But this year the orchestra is striking out in a new direction: it occasionally functions as the impresario for events performed by other organizations.

This was the case Thursday evening, which had all the trappings of a CPO concert — only the orchestra wasn’t there. Instead, the performing forces consisted of Alberta’s two professional choirs in an all-Russian program that featured Rachmaninoff’s Vespers.

This was an occasion to be a proud Calgarian: after many years of indifferent choral performances in Calgary, the city now has an exemplary professional choir, Luminous Voices, one that matches what Edmonton has enjoyed lo these many years. And to have them share a concert with its Edmonton counterpart, Pro Coro Canada, each half conducted by a different conductor, was wonderful to hear—evidence of the choral excellence that now present in both cities.

The program was, to say the least, a challenging one. The Rachmaninoff Vespers lasts a full hour and makes considerable demands on a choir in terms of tuning and sonorous tone. It also demands a full vocal range, extending into the top of the soprano notes and to the spectral world of Russian basses. Even more demanding in musical terms, however, were the works presented on the first half of the concert—a series of modern compositions, based in the Russian orthodox choral tradition, but extending the world of expression far into the world of musical modernism.

Central to this part of the program, expertly conducted by Michael Zaugg, were the first two movements of Alfred Schnittke’s amazing Concerto for Choir.  In general, Schnittke is better known for his striking instrumental works, which typically show a strong musical personality, with a vividly original sense of sound and harmony. These qualities were fully present in this massive choral work, with its divided choral writing and powerful emotional contrasts.

That the choir could sing this music at all was remarkable, and that they could sing it with such authority and security was even more impressive. Not only was there a solid core to the sound, but this core was able to expand into wide expanses of tone, reaching the highest notes in the soprano register, as well as a subterranean bottom. The sense of a profound lament, drawn from the biblical words, was powerfully present throughout this impressive performance.

Two works of a related character completed the brief survey of modern Russian choral music: Roman Hurko’s Tranquil Light and Let My Prayer Arise by Arturs Maskats, both composers of a generation after Schnittke. Here too the choral writing was dramatic and impressive, balancing passages of traditional choralism with modern harmonies of considerable complexity, challenges the choir met fearlessly, including the four-octave chords at the end of the Maskats work. This last piece, particularly gripping, benefitted from the expert solo work by soprano Dawn Bailey and bass Michael Kurschat.

The first half concluded more quietly with Now the Powers of Heaven by Alexander Sheremetev, a composer from the later phase of the Russian romantic tradition. On comfortable choral turf, the combined choirs tucked into the ripely romantic harmonies with relish, with a solid perogie-style middle to the sound. Happy smiles from everyone here.

The piece de resistance came in the second half with the Rachmaninoff Vespers. Conducted by Timothy Shantz, this was a richly expressive account of this great work, a sense of vocal warmth characterizing the performance, with the contrasts in texture well marked. There are many musical highlights in this great choral work, certainly including beautiful alto solo in the second movement, expressively sung by Aoife Bonaventure, as well as the third movement, with its wonderful alleluia sections. Oliver Munar, formerly of Calgary, was the tenor soloist in several of the movements, his lyric voice soaring above the orchestra with ease and beauty.

Perhaps the most directly compelling movement was the setting of the Gloria, the musical energy building to a wonderful conclusion. It was a movement that brought out the best from the choirs, the textures lucid and the tonal sheen particularly beguiling.

Here, and throughout the evening, there was a special demand on the men’s voices, evident in the need for that unique sweet tenor tone typical of Russian choral singing, as well as the deep bass notes for which Russian basses are famed. In a Canadian context, it is slightly easier to find the right tenor sound than the weight of basses that need to extend even below low C and with evident weight. Stretched to their limit, the basses just managed the extremes of the vocal demands the music imposes.

For the sizable audience that attended, this was an evening to wallow in some of the most richly written music that exists for choirs. That music of this type could be heard performed to this level in our city is a cause for rejoicing. Choral performance in Alberta now takes its place with the best of modern Canadian choral singing.

© Calgary Herald 2016