Monday, April 30, 2012

Te Deum with the Mohawk Choir

Perhaps it wasn't such a good idea to listen to the Prague Philharmonic and their choir perform the Dvořák Te Deum before I went to hear it performed. I wasn't familiar with the piece and I thought I might enjoy it more if I'd heard it.

As the composer intended, it's a big work requiring a standard Romantic orchestra, a correspondingly large choir and soprano and baritone soloists who can complement such forces.

The Mohawk College Community Choir performed it with rather more modest means. Accompanist Lucy Bledig substituted for the orchestra. There were two perfectly capable soloists and a choir of sixty all led by David Holler.

It's an impressive piece but, at about 20 minutes duration, it must be difficult to program and is not often heard.

Mr. Holler has learned the strength and limitations of this choir. They are really very well prepared. Breaths and final consonants are performed with good coordination. The choir makes an impressive sound when they singing loudly and Mr. Holler manages them when more subtle singing is required.

Ms. Bledig played the piano accompaniment well, but it's hard to do justice to an orchestral reduction of such a work which, in its original form, depends in large part on instrumental colour and effects like the solo tympani figure at the very beginning and brass fanfares.

The soloists fared better. Soprano Melanie Conly, surely possessing a lighter voice than the composer had in mind, sang expressively and gave her all when the music required it. The young baritone Fabian Arciniegas, was adequate in this situation, but his lower notes aren't yet ready for a full orchestra in a bigger venue. He also makes crescendos on all the longer notes, no doubt to maintain their sustain, but the notes sometimes end with a little push. Preparation with a good coach would surely eliminate this tendency which he mustn't allow to become a habit.

The result was rather less impressive than what Dvořák had in mind. It was interesting, but not convincing. Surely there is repertoire than would better suit this choir at this point in their development. I suspect the conductor was encouraged to program this Romantic piece in order to balance the repertoire in the practicum of the Doctoral program in which he is enrolled.

In the second half, they sang Fauré's Requiem, a work which I spoke of at some length back in November.

The tempos were generally faster than those I expect in this piece, but that's not necessarily bad. As I said earlier, Mr. Holler has learned what this choir can and cannot do and he knows as well as I what the standard tempos are, and it was a more convincing performance than the Dvořák had been.

Both soloists performed well. Ms. Conly gave a lovely, nuanced rendition of the Pie Jesu.

Numerous lines in this piece are indicated to be sung by a single section, accompanied by the orchestra (in this case, organ). The choir's tenors are not numerous so the basses sang along with them. Mostly, this worked out nicely yielding greater strength and homogeneity to the sound. Some of the basses ought, however, to have chosen not to sing the highest phrases and the sound became strained. Better to break into head voice than push up from the middle in this situation. Don't sing it if you can't.

This strategy worked out better with the women although, since they are far more numerous, I don't see why the sopranos should sing with the altos or vice versa. Better to respect the composer's wishes. (It's almost always better to respect the composer's wishes.)

Much of this program will be repeated on Sunday, May 6 at 3 P.M. at St. Paul's Presbyterian Church, 70 James St. N., Hamilton.

I won't be at that one, though. I'm planning to hear Valerie Tryon play the first Lizst piano concerto with Symphony Hamilton at the Burlington Performing Arts Centre at the same time!

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