Monday, April 23, 2012

Strata Sings Whitacre

We attended the Earth Day Concert of the Strata Vocal Ensemble at MacNeill Baptist Church on Sunday April 22 in the afternoon.  MacNeill is close by McMaster University, on busy King St. so there is some ambient noise. It is, however, a lovely space seating fewer than 300 souls including the gallery, with a good grand piano and fine acoustics.

This chamber choir of 22 voices performed a well constructed and varied program. It's a very competent amateur group, none of whom is an accomplished soloist, who make a lovely sound when singing together. I'll recall some of the highlights of the concert and write at more length about one composer, Eric Whitacre.

They opened with a Palestrina motet, Sicut Cervus, which they followed with Ego, Flor Campi by Clemens non Papa. I've come to think that Renaissance choral music is often enjoyed more by the singers than the audience. Even when it's well prepared the textures are very homogenous to the modern ear and, after a while, it all begins to sound the same. Nonetheless, this music must be performed and heard, in a balanced program, and there wasn't too much of it on this occasion. In another concert, which I do not fondly recall, a choir performed the entire Palestrina's Missa Papae Marcelli. That was too much.

The choir gave an impressive performance of Randall Thompson's setting of Frost's poem, Choose Something Like a Star, a beautiful piece with which I was not familiar and which I look forward to hearing again. Another lovely moment was Stanford's The Bluebird.

Their reading of the very difficult Three Shakespeare Songs by Vaughn-Williams was marred by some tuning problems but, otherwise, made a good effect.

The choir also performed pieces for the ladies (Stephen Chatman's In the Glow of the Moon) and men alone (Larry Nickel's arrangement of Bruce Cockburn's All the Diamonds in the World with guitar).

The linchpin of the concert was Eric Whitacre's Leonardo Dreams of His Flying Machine.

Eric Whitacre has become famous both through the widespread performance of his choral pieces (Sleep must be one of the most frequently performed contemporary choral works) and his Virtual Choir project. He is a handsome and, apparently, charismatic figure.

I have listened to his CD "Light and Gold" numerous times. It's performed by a small group of astonishingly accomplished English singers.

Many of Whitacre's works are slow and mostly homophonic with phrase endings characterized by cluster dissonances. An intelligent choral director wouldn't likely program two of them on the same program; they're too similar.

Leonardo Dreams is not a typical Whitacre piece although it includes his repertoire of characteristic choral gestures. It has more varied textures and includes silences, and changing tempos. It is in one movement of multiple sections, includes tambourine and drum, and some staging near the end, and lasts about 9 minutes. It's a challenging piece and I thought the Strata Vocal Ensemble gave a thoroughly competent performance. I'd encourage other directors of smaller choirs to include it in their programs.

It will be interesting to hear whether Whitacre develops his composition style over time or whether, having found something that works and has brought him great success, he will simply continue on in the same vein. It will also be interesting to see whether his works continue to be performed after the novelty wears off.

Only time will tell. We all remember W.A. Mozart. Salieri, not so much.

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