Thursday, March 22, 2012

Invictus: 5 Henley Songs

These songs will receive their premiére performance by tenor Bud Roach and pianist Erica Reiman on Sun. March 15, 2012 at 3 P.M. at Central Presbyterian Church in Hamilton.

I encountered 2 of the poems Invictus and I am the Reaper in a collection of Victorian Poetry and was struck by how  modern sounding and straightforward was the the verse at a time when many English language poets were still employing convoluted grammar, thee, thou, and thine, and pastoral imagery in the manner of the Jacobeans.

I sought out more poems by this author (William Ernest Henley) and chose five which are contrasting in mood and form. Henley was an extraordinary figure; poet, newspaper editor, lifelong friend of Robert Louis Stevenson and (his foot amputated as a result of tuberculosis) the inspiration for Long John Silver!

These songs were written over a period of several years, all of them before the recent notoriety of the poem Invictus as a result of the film of the same name.

I tailored the musical vocabulary to fit the poetry. As a result the songs sound rather romantic compared to my other recent song cycles, Five Snow Songs (Archibald Lampman) and Six Zen Lyrics (various poets in English translations). Each of the songs was written in a distinc style to reflect the poet's mood. Invictus is powerful and expository. The Rain and the Wind is stormy. Madame Life's is cynical and hints at the music hall, Between the Dusk is languid and romantic. I am the Reaper is majestic, almost monumental.

Although written for a male singer there's nothing in the poetry to preclude a woman from singing them. They are available in High and Medium keys c/o the composer.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Liturgical Choral Repertoire

Everyone knows that, by and large, fewer people attend church in 2012 than did 30 or 35 years ago. When I taught a class of 25 children, typically only 1/4 of the kids went at all. Some parents might identify themselves as Christians, even name a specific denomination, but most of them didn't go to church or send their kids to Sunday school.

I've just come from a Choral Evensong at Central Presbyterian Church in Hamilton. Presbyterians don't, as a rule, celebrate Evensong, which is a C of E service. At this church they do so once a year as part of a Lenten Concert Series.
The music included the Harwood Magnificat & Nunc Dimittis in A♭and C. H. H. Parry's Blessed Pair of Sirens.

This is the sort of music which I never knew as a teen chorister in the modest United Church in which I grew up. It would have been too difficult, anyway, and it doesn't fit with the U.C. liturgy, such as it is.  I encountered Service Music much later as a choral mercenary in Anglican churches along with C.V. Stanford and Herbert Howells and all the other professional composers who worked in this tradition.
My question is: If this music isn't going to be performed in churches as a part of the liturgy (the purpose for which it was composed), when will it be performed?

It's too difficult for a great many Anglican church choirs and completely out of step with the Praise and Worship songs which are the repertoire of so many others. It doesn't fit comfortably into choral concert programs. Yet television audiences are bowled over when they hear it in the course of a Royal Wedding. They even check it out on YouTube or buy it from iTunes. Too bad most of us (including myself) can't be bothered to get out of our recliners because this music, along with choral singing in general, is dying the death of a thousand cuts.

Children don't sing in choirs at church (because they don't go) or at school (because it's not an educational priority.) If they sing as teens it's likely because of Glee. If they sing as adults, it's only because they learned to do so as children and teens and, as I noted above, people aren't doing that very much any more.

It's enough to drive a musician to despair.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Symphony on the Bay

I chose to spend 2 hours of this beautiful afternoon listening to Symphony on the Bay, previously Symphony Hamilton play an impressive and diverse program in their new home at the Burlington Performing Arts Centre.

It's a block from the waterfront and a block west of downtown. The centre has a large lobby and the capacity is between 700 and 735 seats, depending on the set-up (i.e. whether there's a pit.)
It is a beautiful theatre and, with its light wood walls, is  reminiscent of the Four Seasons Centre in Toronto on a smaller scale.
The sound is excellent. One of the ushers told me that he'd stood pretty well everywhere he could and the the sound was uniformly good. I sat on the opposite side of the house from the flute soloist and at times I had some difficulty hearing her, but she was nearly as far to the audience's left as I was to the right. The harp, only a metre closer to me was perfectly audible.

They opened with the Dances sacrée et profane, by Debussy for harp and strings. The soloist was Erica Goodman. It's not a work with which I was familiar but contains many of the attributes of other mid-period Debussy pieces like whole tone scales and adventurous non-functional harmonies. Erica Goodman must have played it many times and communicated the music very effectively. The strings played accurately, convincingly supporting the soloist.

She was joined by Suzanne Shulman (in a matching outfit!) for the Mozart Concerto for Flute and Harp. It never ceases to amaze me that a community orchestra is able to present high profile soloists who one might otherwise hear with performing with a professional orchestra. These soloists obviously have established a fine rapport and played the piece beautifully, especially the glorious slow movement. There were some tuning problems in the violins in the faster passages of the finale but, otherwise, the orchestra played well. 

The second half was the Tchaikovsky Symphony #4. I must admit to having outgrown my fascination with this composer in my 'teens and, even then, this isn't one of my favourite Tchaik' works. However, the orchestra has played it before and it showed. The opening brass fanfares were impressive. The strings achieved fine unisons in the running passages in the finale. The only tuning problems occurred, not in the violins where they might be expected, but rather in exposed 'cello melodies. Special kudos to principal bassoon Sandy Wilson and principal clarinet Zoltan Kalman, both of whom played wonderfully in their solo passages. It was, altogether, a impressive performance for this community orchestra.

Much of the credit must go to Maestro James McKay. His years of experience working with student and community orchestras have clearly taught him what repertoire is appropriate for the ensembles with which he works. It's very well to program overly difficult music simply because the musicians want the challenge and wish to have played more varied repertoire but when a conductor does that, he is taking a risk. McKay chooses the music carefully for this group ensuring that the orchestra is within its realm of expertise, neither annoying the audience with near misses nor potentially embarrassing the musicians.

Certainly, the new venue helped the orchestra to be better heard, and I'll go back to hear Valerie Tryon play the Lizst Concerto #1 and the Rachmaninoff Symphony #2 on May 6