Sunday, April 13, 2014

Karl Jenkins' Stabat Mater with a Cast of Hundreds

I went last night to hear a mixed program presented by the Mohawk College Community Choir who were joined by members of Fanshawe Chorus London (both conducted by U of T DMA candidate David Holler) and the Redeemer University College Sinfonia (led by Music Department Head Paul Thorlakson). The featured work, which was played after a short first half, was Karl Jenkins' Stabat Mater featuring mezzo-soprano Jennifer Enns-Modolo.

The concert took place at West Highland Baptist Church on the West Mountain in Hamilton. The sanctuary, while not as big as it appears from the street, must seat 1200 people in a fan-shaped arrangement of padded pews on two levels. The acoustic, probably designed with microphoned speakers and an amplified Praise Band in mind, was very dry and not well suited to choral singing.

The Mohawk College Community Choir and Fanshawe Chorus London, both sizeable amateur groups, certainly benefited from being combined. As I discovered conducting school groups, unless you're leading the Vienna Choir Boys, a bigger choir is always better.

Redeemer University College Sinfonia is a mixed group which includes community orchestra players, Redeemer Music students, some high school players and a few professional coach-instructors.

They opened with Eclogue by Gerald Finzi, a work for piano and strings. Paul Thorlakson played the solo part very nicely. It's a very understated piece and the style of this most characteristically English composer was evident throughout.  In most student and amateur orchestras, strings, first violins in particular, face the most difficulty with challenging passages and tuning. Here they played surprisingly well as, indeed, they did throughout the concert.

 Johannes Brahms' Nänie, a short piece for four-part chorus and small orchestra, followed. The unforgiving acoustic sometimes revealed some unpleasant sounds from amongst the numerous sopranos, especially on the highest notes. The tenors, the most vulnerable section in amateur groups, fared better.

After the interval, the choirs and Jennifer Enns-Modolo, accompanied by a full Romantic orchestra, including 5 percussionists, performed the Jenkins' Stabat Mater. This composer has had success, first as a jazzman, then in composing advertising themes. He turned to concert music and his mass The Armed Man was a huge classical hit in 2008 on Deutsche Gramophon no less. Here's his best known music, Palladio, adapted from a De Beers Diamond ad.

The choirs sang pretty well although the choral parts didn't seem to be very demanding. The orchestra also coped capably with the music and, again, the strings played much better than I'd expected.

Jennifer Enns-Modolo sang her solo passages beautifully, the almost unaccompanied Incantation in particular. After this quiet movement, she demonstrated a big sound, especially in lower passages, when pitted against the choirs and full orchestra.

I didn't like the piece itself very much. Jenkins' confuses repetitions, with added flourishes and rising dynamics, for variation. Several of the movements could do with considerable pruning as the same musical themes returned, again and again. And the Mother did Weep, in particular, seemed interminable. The big tutti movements, especially the concluding Paradisi Gloria, included short sections that are repeated, over and over again, louder and louder, in a symphony of bombast, all accompanied by tympani, bass drum and two floor toms banging out the beat. Our ears were grateful for the dry acoustic there!

Considering the number of performances this work is getting, lots of influential musicians must like this sort of thing. Last night's audience jumped to their feet at the work's conclusion. But, to be clear, it doesn't employ the type of repetition used in Musical Minimalism. This is something far simpler and familiar from film scores where the primary interest is on the screen. Goodness knows, the time was long past for New Music to abandon the absence of an underlying pulse, but there must be a subtler and more interesting way to achieve it than music like this.

Paradisi Gloria: Final Movement of Karl Jenkins' Stabat Mater

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