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.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Sci-fi Spectacular at the HPO

We went Sat. March 21 to hear the Hamilton Philharmonic play a concert of mostly film music from Sci-fi movies. The orchestra was under the baton of David Martin (who also played trombone) with featured trumpet soloist Larry Larson (who conducted while Martin played).

David Martin
Larry Larson

Both are accomplished soloists and this program is a partnership. Larson is, among other things, the principal trumpet of the KW Symphony. Martin played one season as first trombone of the Montréal Symphony and has a multi-faceted career which includes teaching at the Université de Montréal.

The Hollywood orchestras that record film scores are full of first-rate players who are able to produce super-accurate performances with minimal rehearsal. The original Star Wars music was recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra. The HPO rendered carbon copy versions of the scores and played beautifully throughout. It's especially enjoyable to hear a live performance of music which wasn't originally intended to be heard that way.

Two pieces of standard concert music were played. They began with a performance of the opening of Strauss' Also Sprach Zarathustra (2001: A Space Odyssey) which didn't miss the enormous orchestra and pipe organ the composer intended. They also played Mars from Holst's suite The Planets which is the source of much of the martial music film composers write.

There were two pieces not drawn from films. One was Martin's trombone rendition of When You Wish Upon a Star. He reminded us that John Williams has the orchestra plays the song in long notes at the end of E.T: The Extraterrestrial.

The second was Larry Larson's performance of an arrangement of Hoagy Carmichael's Stardust lifted from Cliff Brown's 1955 album Cliff with Strings.
A bit of a stretch to get to the concert's theme but a very tasty, jazzy piece.

There was lots of John William's music on the program as you'd expect. He's a great composer. He seems to have an inexhaustible ability to imagine catchy, effective and appropriate themes. Does much of the music sound similar?Certainly, but, to the untutored ear so do many Haydn symphonies or Bach organ works. And don't forget, in addition to Star Wars and Indiana Jones he wrote the heart-rending score of Schindler's List.

They even brought Imperial Storm Troopers, Princess Leia and Darth Vader out for the Imperial March. The audience lapped it up. Me, not so much. It just distracted from the music.

An interesting choice was The Chase from Jerry Goldsmith's score to the original Planet of the Apes. It's a twelve-tone work and Martin had the cellos play a pizzicato version of the row for the audience to hear. Some of them even raised their hands when asked if they'd ever heard of Arnold Schoenberg. The piece stands up very well as a concert piece and was an effective contrast to the rest of the music, all of which was very melody driven.

Damn you! God damn you all to hell!
There was a Star Trek medley with music from the various TV series by four different composers. They also played a couple of cues from the original series. One was for a fight between Kirk and Spock and the music was reused in other episodes. Martin confessed something that confirms, in my eyes anyway, his extraordinary musical ability. The "fight" music is not available in written form at all. Martin had  faithfully transcribed the music, orchestration and all, from a recording.

That I don't have the typical listener's ear became very evident at opening of the second half. I don't have an encyclopedic knowledge of TV themes but I can sing lots of those that I've heard, some from my childhood. The program told us we'd hear Marius Constant's short pieces that were used as the opening of The Twilight Zone. I knew immediately what to expect.

Apparently, many in the audience didn't. If you aren't old enough to watch TV in the Sixties that's understandable but if you were and watched TV? When the music started the buzz of recognition from audience members nearly drowned out the orchestra. Then, Martin recited Rod Serling's opening monologue so it was impossible to hear the music. Too bad.

The hall was nearly sold out last night, the biggest crowd of the season. For an orchestra struggling to build an audience, it raises a quandary. If a concert like this can be so successful, why not do it more often?

The answer is disturbingly obvious and possible intractable. The audience for pops concerts and the audience for orchestral concert music overlap, but are not identical. Straight serious music concerts don't usually draw the former. It's less clear who amongst the latter group attend pops concerts. Many people who are interested in hearing Brahm's Fourth Symphony, which the HPO will play the next time out, won't pay to hear a crossover vocalist like Basia Bulat (who has sung with the HPO) and aren't going to be tolerant of audience members who pull out their cell phones to take a photo, or talk off and on through the concert.

It'll be very, very interesting to see what the new Artistic Director and Principal Conductor will do to program the next season.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Chapman Stick

I'd hear of the Chapman Stick some time ago and was reminded of it the other day when somebody posted this video of Bob Culbertson's virtuoso performance of While My Guitar Gently Weeps on Facebook. I think you'll agree it's an extraordinary performance.

He demonstrates many of the possibilities of this instrument which integrates the potential for electronic instruments that were becoming available in the Seventies much as Les Paul had done with the electric guitar twenty five-years earlier.

I was interested to learn more about the purely technical aspects and abilities of the instrument. Fortunately Emmett Chapman, the instrument's inventor, is also there on YouTube. He doesn't play it nearly as well as Culbertson but his explanation is clear enough for me, at least.