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!

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Instant Première!

I've gotten used to a long lag between the completion of works and having them sung or played. It's sometimes been more than a year between the time when I've finished a piece and the date of the first performance.

So it's a bit of a surprise that my most recent work (the first section of a projected three movement piece), which I finished writing on Thursday, will be played by cellist Kirk Starkey next Thursday, May 3 at the Artword Artbar 15 Colbourne St. in Hamilton just west of James St. N. This event is part of the Catherine North studio's Lost and Found series.

I first heard Kirk play more than a year ago, in a recital he shared with his wife flautist Sarah Traficante.

Kirk is a fine cellist who is comfortable in many styles. In addition to classical repertoire, he's recorded with popular musicians and played on television sound tracks. He's also has considerable prowess working with computers and, expecially, in digital recording.

In his live show, Kirk mikes the cello and runs it through a computer and mixing board. The sound of the live cello can be processed, as the sound of a miked or electric guitar might be, and is also recorded and can then be played back in whatever manner the artist has decided.

It took a great deal of thought, planning and compositional innovation on my part and the resulting 5' 30'' of music that I wrote for Kirk is unlike anything else I have written.

And really, how often have I been able to attended a première of one of my works with a beer in my hand?

Monday, April 23, 2012

Strata Sings Whitacre

We attended the Earth Day Concert of the Strata Vocal Ensemble at MacNeill Baptist Church on Sunday April 22 in the afternoon.  MacNeill is close by McMaster University, on busy King St. so there is some ambient noise. It is, however, a lovely space seating fewer than 300 souls including the gallery, with a good grand piano and fine acoustics.

This chamber choir of 22 voices performed a well constructed and varied program. It's a very competent amateur group, none of whom is an accomplished soloist, who make a lovely sound when singing together. I'll recall some of the highlights of the concert and write at more length about one composer, Eric Whitacre.

They opened with a Palestrina motet, Sicut Cervus, which they followed with Ego, Flor Campi by Clemens non Papa. I've come to think that Renaissance choral music is often enjoyed more by the singers than the audience. Even when it's well prepared the textures are very homogenous to the modern ear and, after a while, it all begins to sound the same. Nonetheless, this music must be performed and heard, in a balanced program, and there wasn't too much of it on this occasion. In another concert, which I do not fondly recall, a choir performed the entire Palestrina's Missa Papae Marcelli. That was too much.

The choir gave an impressive performance of Randall Thompson's setting of Frost's poem, Choose Something Like a Star, a beautiful piece with which I was not familiar and which I look forward to hearing again. Another lovely moment was Stanford's The Bluebird.

Their reading of the very difficult Three Shakespeare Songs by Vaughn-Williams was marred by some tuning problems but, otherwise, made a good effect.

The choir also performed pieces for the ladies (Stephen Chatman's In the Glow of the Moon) and men alone (Larry Nickel's arrangement of Bruce Cockburn's All the Diamonds in the World with guitar).

The linchpin of the concert was Eric Whitacre's Leonardo Dreams of His Flying Machine.

Eric Whitacre has become famous both through the widespread performance of his choral pieces (Sleep must be one of the most frequently performed contemporary choral works) and his Virtual Choir project. He is a handsome and, apparently, charismatic figure.

I have listened to his CD "Light and Gold" numerous times. It's performed by a small group of astonishingly accomplished English singers.

Many of Whitacre's works are slow and mostly homophonic with phrase endings characterized by cluster dissonances. An intelligent choral director wouldn't likely program two of them on the same program; they're too similar.

Leonardo Dreams is not a typical Whitacre piece although it includes his repertoire of characteristic choral gestures. It has more varied textures and includes silences, and changing tempos. It is in one movement of multiple sections, includes tambourine and drum, and some staging near the end, and lasts about 9 minutes. It's a challenging piece and I thought the Strata Vocal Ensemble gave a thoroughly competent performance. I'd encourage other directors of smaller choirs to include it in their programs.

It will be interesting to hear whether Whitacre develops his composition style over time or whether, having found something that works and has brought him great success, he will simply continue on in the same vein. It will also be interesting to see whether his works continue to be performed after the novelty wears off.

Only time will tell. We all remember W.A. Mozart. Salieri, not so much.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Trovatore at Opera Hamilton

I attended the April 15 performance of Il Trovatore at Theatre Aquarius with some trepidation. We WagJagged again and found ourselves near the right side of the house in Row E, which led to a much more satisfying opera going experience than sitting closer to the middle in Row B as we had for Il Barbiere in the fall.
Maestro Speers led a diminutive orchestra of 29 players which turned out to be perfectly adequate in this small space. I still had memories of the four front bell horns in Otello, at Hamilton Place some years ago, resonating in my ears, however.
It was thrilling to hear these four first-rate principals at close quarters, but not too close as had been the case for The Barber. It is, none the less, a very dry and difficult acoustic, orders of magnitude the inferior of Hamilton Place or the Four Seasons Centre.
Joni Henson was a fine Leonora. She hasn't the "floaty" pianissimos that one sometimes hears in this role (and are indicated in the score) but I personally didn't miss them. She possesses a beautiful full soprano, acts convincingly and has a physical presence that persuades us that the the Count di Luna and Manrico might both have fallen for her.
Amelia Boteva, as Azucena, started carefully (Stride la vampa is, after all, virtually the first thing she sings) but grew stronger as the opera progressed. She matched the other singers vocally and is a fine actor who melodramatically depicted  this over the top character.
Tenor Richard Margison has sung Manrico hundreds times and seemed more comfortable in this role than he did as Bacchus in Ariadne auf Naxos when I heard him last at the COC. He sang and portrayed his character assuredly. I'd be remiss if  I didn't mention that he experienced every singer's nightmare, what seemed to be something on his chords during the Di quella pira, a harrowing experience both for him and this audience member. He was back in form for Act IV.
James Westman, as Conte di Luna was surely the star of the show. He has a beautiful baritone voice, with a secure ringing top and is tall and handsome besides. Surely he will soon be featured at Covent Garden and the Met.
A special mention to Mia Lennox-Williams who did an excellent job as Leonora's lady in waiting, Inez. She matched Joni Henson vocally when they sang together, no mean feat for a second mezzo.
The production is rather spare with a simple set and projections. The female chorus was adequate but the male chorus was simply awful and the staging and performance of the Squilli, echeggi la tromba chorus was unintentionally comical.
Manrico got the sequins on his coat entangled in the dying Leonara's wig resulting in giggles from the audience, in what is supposed to be a touching moment, as he attempted to get free.
All things considered, I've got to give full marks to Artistic Director David Speer for putting together this excellent cast of principal singers. These are, after all, the same singers one would hear at the COC, in a smaller house without the hassle associated with a trip to TO. Bravo.
It's unfortunate that other production values must be sacrificed to meet the company's bottom line. Building a subscriber base requires a commitment from folks who are not necessarily big opera fans and, for whom, really top notch singers may be less important than the general impression the production creates.