Monday, December 2, 2013

The Xmas Choral Season Commences in Hamilton with the Mac Choirs

The Annual Yule Yell, as the Hamilton Spectator's former music critic Hugh Fraser dubbed it, has begun in earnest. Unfortunately, I started to hear Xmas music several weeks ago in stores and on television. Frankly, the second time I heard Gene Autrey sing Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer was already once too many and that was long ago. Personally, I think there should be a law banning commercial use of seasonal music before American Thanksgiving.

Nonetheless, I took in the concert by the McMaster Choirs under Rachel Rensink-Hoff on Friday night at Central Presbyterian Church in Hamilton. It wasn't quite December yet but the choir, a credit course for some, must wrap up its activities before the end of the school term.

I've no official connection to McMaster but my wife taught there for more than 20 years and I accompanied her to many concerts by the Mac choir conducted by Philip Sarabura (now conductor of the Brantford Symphony and violinist in the Hamilton Philharmonic), David Holler (now conductor of the Fanshawe Choir, the Gerald Fagan Singers and the Mohawk Community Choir) and, at present, Rachel Rensink-Hoff. Each demonstrated his/her professional expertise and personal taste through his/her choice of music for this choir of about 100 members.

This time, it was a diverse program. They sang 4 different settings of O Magnum Mysterium (one in English). Except for three selections, the program was comprised entirely of modern music or modern arrangements (i.e. post 1970).  There was the celebrated O Magnum Mysterium by the Spanish High-Renaissance composer Thom├ís Luis Victoria, an elaborate sectional Ave Maria by Felix Mendelssohn with tenor solo, semi-choir and organ (expertly played by Central's Music Director Paul Grimwood) and The Three Kings composed by Canadian choral music icon Healy Willan.

Doctor Rensink-Hoff may have chosen so much music written specifically for the sort of choir she conducts (i.e. a university chorus) as an antidote to last year's seasonal offering, a full-blown performance of Handel's Messiah. In this concert she demonstrated that she is a highly skilled and knowledgeable choral conductor, eliciting a diverse and polished musical performance from her young performers.

 Professor Rachel Rensink-Hoff

She must have considered, in her programming choices (aside from the obvious consideration of difficulty) how the music would be received by her singers and the audience. No conductor is likely to choose repertoire which she knows will be disliked by either, however much she might like it herself. She is also a Music Educator and, even though many of her choristers are not singing in the choir for credit, she has a responsibility to provide them with a balanced and enriching musical experience and, although the program was very heavily weighted to new music, it was varied and of very high quality. Certainly, the performance suggested that the choristers enjoyed the music a lot.

She may not have given much thought to how the audience would react. This is, after all, a school choir and the audience must have been made up, for the most part, of the chorister's families who, as any music teacher knows, will be impressed with whatever their children sing. Any audience would have loved this concert and this one gave it the seemingly obligatory standing O.

My professional chorister's ear was most impressed by the 35 voice Women's Choir. Typically such a university group is made up of the women who, for whatever reason, aren't singing in the SATB group. They sang beautifully, notably in the three pieces (God Will Give Orders and All His Angels by Sarah Quartel and Nada Te Trube by Joan Szymko) with 'cellist Kirk Starkey. Conductor Rensink-Hoff clearly knows her craft to be able to coax such sound and interpretation from what might be her least promising singers.

As for the full choir, highlights included Vaclav Neylybel's Estampie Natalis (with percussion and Mac music professor David Gerry's piccolo), an exciting performance. I also enjoyed hearing such beautiful singing in the glorious O Nata Lux by American Morten Lauridsen.

It was, altogether, a very enjoyable evening of quality choral singing.