by Kenneth DeLong for the Calgary Herald
Last accessed: 26 February 2018
It is now five years since Luminous Voices, Calgary’s first professional choir, hung out its shingle as a new choral ensemble. The brainchild of conductor Timothy Shantz, Luminous Voices quickly established itself as the city’s premiere choral group: an ensemble that can produce the most ravishingly beautiful choral sounds, and has the ability to perform complex music beyond what is possible for other amateur choral groups.
This last point was strikingly made in last Sunday afternoon’s concert in the attractive Bella Concert Hall of Mount Royal Conservatory. With the exception of a double-choir motet by J.S. Bach — itself plenty difficult — and a set of secular choral songs by Brahms, the program consisted entirely of contemporary music — all of impressive difficulty.
Central to the concert was a newly commissioned work for choir and two flute soloists by one-time Calgary composer Peter-Anthony Togni. Togni, now based in Halifax, has certainly had an impressive run recently as a composer. Two CDs of his choral music have been released in the past three years, including a recording of Responsio, excerpts of which were performed in Calgary by Luminous Voices recently. And during the same period he has had a new opera performed, as well as yet another large choral work (with percussion) entitled Warriors Songs, and a choral piece for Nova Scotia’s Camerata with a brass ensemble accompaniment.
Sunday’s new piece, called Sea Dreams, originated during a Banff residency by Togni and Sarah Hahn, the CPO’s first flute. It was she who made the suggestion for the commission. In many ways, it is a continuation of Togni’s recent works, in which choral writing is blended with unusual accompanying instrumental support — in this case, two flutes, that provided garlands of sound that both blended with the voices and, upon occasion, stood separately in musical function.
The framing movements of the work draw on texts from T.S. Elliot’s Four Quartets, with the middle movement employing the words of the Marian hymn Alma Redemptoris Mater. Central to the imagistic world of this piece is the sea, not just pictorially, but as a life metaphor, with its implicit suggestion of journeying, inward emotions and ever uncertainties.
Togni is an experienced choral composer, and with this experience comes craft, including a fine sense of what sounds well for choral voices. Mixing chant-based melodies, richly complex chords, and highly imaginative writing for the two flutes, the total work made a very positive impression and was very well received.
Flutists Sara Hahn and Sarah Gieck blended beautifully, and their sound was both full and pure. Much of the writing was based in arabesques and figures reminiscent of composers like Debussy and Roussel, and all the better for it in the idiomatic writing for the instruments.
The choral writing, alternately lyrical and dramatic, was delivered with polish and commitment to the expressive gestures, in ably assisted solo spots by soprano Katie Partridge and tenor Oliver Munar, both of whom were remarkably secure in their challenging solos.
I particularly enjoy the final two movements, both as music and in performance, with freedom of the imagination evident everywhere. An impressive work, extended in length, and with memorable musical ideas, Sea Dreams is further evidence of Togni as one of Canada’s most important contemporary choral composers.
The remainder of the program was no less impressive, both as music and in the performance. Special mention must be given to Rautavaara’s Die Erste Elegie, a setting of a very dense, complex poem by Rainer Maria Rilke. With recent recordings of his music and more performances, the stature of Rautavaara has risen recently, and the complex beauties of this work give able evidence why.
Immensely challenging for any choir, it has mostly been the preserve of only the most elite ensembles, and its fine performance on this occasion was a testimony to the high competence of Luminous Voices, even in the most challenging music.
The concluding work, Eric Whitacre’s unusual Leonardo Dreams of a Flying Machine, a continuation of a series of work that includes Whitacre’s well-known Cloudburst, was, perhaps, the most completely successful performance of the afternoon. Here the biting, but delicious, dissonances and varied textures emerged with complete conviction.
In the more traditional numbers, the choral songs by Brahms fared better than the opening Bach motet, which was a trifle level in its treatment of dynamics and articulation. The encore, Palestrina’s exceptionally beautiful Alma Redemptoris Mater, concluded the afternoon in a most suitable way, the audience having received their fill of great choral singing.