Sunday, March 29, 2015

Mohawk Community Choir at St. Paul's

I went to hear the Mohawk Community Choir Sat. March 28 at St. Paul's United Church in Dundas. There were at least two local other choral concerts scheduled for the same time; A Howard Dyck-led Messiah in downtown Hamilton and Rachel Rensink-Hoff's McMaster Women's Choir on Locke St.

It is a source of frustration that we can go for weeks without any classical music events of any kind and then face the metaphysical challenge of being in two places at once. I missed last weekend's McMaster Choir concert to attend a Hamilton Philharmonic concert.

David Holler's Mohawk Community Choir (previously the Mohawk Singers, soon to be Chorus Hamilton) is a professionally-led amateur choir of about seventy-five voices.

David Holler

The important difference between this choir's concerts and that of others of a similar ilk in this region is the programming. There are no opera choruses here. Nor is there music of modern popular composers like Bob Chilcott. Mr. Holler concentrates on serious choral repertoire and programs a major piece in each concert, frequently singing in languages other than English.

The major works in last night's offering were the Ariel Ramírez's Misa Criolla and Leonard Bernstein's Chichester Psalms. He hired a percussionist (essential to the Ramírez and Bernstein) and used him in the opening number of last night's concert, Randall Thompson's The Last Words of David. This piece includes sforzando-piano singing, amongst other effects, and, with percussion accents, is an impressive curtain raiser.

They followed with Canadian Donald Patriquin's setting of the folk song Ah! Si Mon Moine. It was well performed but I prefer Harry Somer's setting.

The first half ended with the Misa Criolla. Ramírez wrote it in the early sixties, shortly after Vatican II allowed vernacular languages to be used in the Mass. He was an Argentine and includes Argentine folk song rhythms. The piece was very popular in its early years but seems dated now. Two University of Toronto undergrads, Conor Murphy and Daniel Robinson, did a fine job of the solo parts. I suspect they're both headed for a Masters and the U of T Opera School.

After a long break the choir sang Eric Whitacre's Five Hebrew Love Songs. This is not the Whitacre of Leonardo Dreams of His Flying Machine or Sleep. The Love Songs are earlier and more conventional for lack of a better word. They were accompanied by piano and violin and were lovely, challenging and well performed.

Eric Whitacre

They finished with the incomparable Leonard Bernstein's Chichester Psalms, also sung in Hebrew.The original version was composed for a large orchestra including two harps, solo quartet and treble singer. I watched an interview with Bernstein once in which he said that, when orchestrating, he wrote the harp parts first, then filled in the other instruments. He made a reduced version later for one harp, organ and percussion. For whatever reason, that's not what we heard last night. The percussion remained, but the harp and organ were replaced by one piano, played with extraordinary facility by Erika Reiman. There was no solo quartet and the treble solo was, against Bernsteins's express wishes, sung (very quietly) by soprano Clare MacPherson.

Leonard Bernstein

For all that, it was a very impressive performance of a piece which would challenge any choir and isn't heard very often.

The shortcomings of this group are common to most choirs of this kind and were already evident in the opening number. There are too many women for the men to balance. The soprano sound is thin and a little pinched at the top. They have difficulty with sustained singing.

Having said that, Holler is aware of these shortcomings and is working to eliminate them, which I can say with confidence having heard this group on several occasions over the past few years. The Mohawk Singers are getting better and are likely the best amateur adult choir in Greater Hamilton. They certainly sing the most challenging and interesting repertoire of any choral organization in town.

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