16 October 2017
By Kenneth DeLong for the Calgary Herald
After five seasons before the Calgary public, Luminous Voices is now an established choral ensemble, with an enviable track record of prizes, CDs, and, most important, a series of outstanding live performances. Their contribution and importance to the increasingly sophisticated classical music scene in the city can hardly be overstated.
This last point was abundantly evident from Sunday afternoon’s concert in Mount Royal University’s Bella Concert Hall, a program devoted to (mostly) modern works treating the timeless text of the Catholic Latin mass. The title work on the program, thought to be the “draw” for the concert, was Arvo Part’s Berliner Messe, a well-known work by a composer who has become something of a cult figure with his expressive, minimalist-tinged scores.
But it was the Frank Martin Mass for double choir on the first half that proved to be the most arresting work on the program. Martin is not a well-known composer, outside of a circle of flute players; and it must be said that some of his music has an odd quality that does not immediately attract fans. But not here.
This mass, not available for performance until relatively recently, is a masterpiece of the modern choral repertoire, even given the present rich panoply of present-day works. Harmonically rich and imaginative, the mass straddles the worlds of the past and the present, rising to great heights of emotion and the depths of religious feeling.
However, it is also a work of tremendous vocal challenge, not the least for the sopranos, the demands upon which place it outside the capacities of almost every amateur choir. It was here that Luminous Voices excels, handling the demands of the music with security and aplomb. This was a marvellously detailed performance, one in which could fully enjoy Martin’s powerful imagination.
From the full choral tone to the most refined individual lines, this was choral singing at it finest, the music always filled with life and buoyancy. While every section of choir contributed to the effect, the sopranos were in relief here, the purity of their high-lying lines a marvel, with radiant climaxes in the very top notes.
The Berliner Messe made a suitable foil for the more dramatic Martin work, the subtle shadings enhanced by a beautifully scored (and played) string accompaniment. There is a very personal element to this music, needing the capacity of the choir to draw listeners into a private world of religious/music reflection. Here there was much to enjoy in the soft singing that was always well supported on the breath and projected refinement and feeling.
The concert was framed by Brahms’s Bach-inspired Warum ist das Licht gegeben, a work of such contrapuntal complexity and darkness that it seldom fares well in live performances. And, despite its medium range for the voices, it is remarkably hard to sing well. Once again, it was the sheer vocal capacity of the ensemble that dispelled the difficulties in a performance as expressive as it was beautiful.
The concert ended on an uplifting note with From Heaven Distilled a Clemency by English composer Tarik O-Regan, a joyful piece about the end of war, and embracing a variety of religious and cultural traditions in the text. Rhythmic and energized, it received a strongly characterized performance by the choir. Hannah Pagenkopf provided the attractively sung solo in the middle of the movement.
No choir can achieve this level of excellence in such difficult music without fine singers and a conductor of talent and advanced musical capability. And this latter role Luminous Voices has with Timothy Shantz.
With a start like this, Luminous Voices begins its sixth season, a season that will no doubt contain more magical moments.