This review is posted on the Conrad Grebel website; take a moment to visit: https://uwaterloo.ca/music/news/sir-james-macmillan-concert-big-success-read-review-concert
Freshly-knighted Scottish composer Sir James MacMillan blessed Waterloo Region March 6th with an amalgamated-choral concert. Conducting his own works and those of his contemporaries, MacMillan’s fluency both as a composer and florid conductor was clearly highlighted in the midday sun shining through the windows of St. Peter’s Lutheran church in downtown Kitchener. The concert featured the voices of three separate chamber choral ensembles: the Grand Philharmonic Choir Chamber Singers, the University of Waterloo Chamber Choir, and the Soundstreams Choir 21.
A few choice words highlighting the support of Conrad Grebel University College, the Grand Philharmonic Choir, Soundstreams, and the Rodney and Lorna Sawatsky Visiting Scholar Lecture opened the program, preceding MacMillan’s entrance to the stage. With the anticipatory remarks through, a swift stroke of MacMillan’s baton brought forth the first notes of Immortal Bach, a piece written by Norwegian composer Knut Nystedt. Designed as an exercise in prolongation, the massed choirs were split into five separate sections, each arranged along the walls of the church, creating a pseudo-stereo effect that allowed a stark differentiation between each group’s notes. This fitting opening showcased the power, control, and authority of these three choral groups working as one, as their atmospheric, etherial, and dynamic voices filled the hall in both prolonged dissonance and deserved tonic resolution.
The first of MacMillan’s self-composed pieces followed, the short and powerful organ-accompanied A New Song. The dynamics of the Grand Philharmonic and University of Waterloo choirs were set against an incredibly delicate organ, rising in arpeggiated, trickling high-frequency runs that gradually slowed into a grounded chord. The staggered, floral entries of each section of the choir, grounded by the male voices, demonstrated the emotive power of well-composed choral pieces; the minor chord progressions and the tension created by the swirling vocal entries was transcendent. The piece finished with an incredible, powerful crescendoed organ solo, concluding what was perhaps the most emotionally-driven piece of the afternoon.
A selection of three of MacMillan’s Strathclyde Motets followed, written for Liturgical celebrations across the entire Christian calendar. O Radiant Dawn, an Advent Antiphon with a simple and moving minor structure, continued the passion invoked by A New Song; I’ve no doubt MacMillan sequenced these two pieces back-to-back for precisely this reason. While it may well be the simplest of the pieces performed, it was a stunning example of a committed, tightly-cohesive choir under expressive direction; it was also the only English motet performed.
Benedicimus Deum caeli began on a slightly unstable harmonic foundation, as it seemed the choir was uncomfortable with the key, or their notes, or perhaps both. This Trinity Sunday motet quickly settled into place, however, painting a bright picture of rich harmony while still firmly situated in minority. The dynamic control of the group again came to the fore, with contrasting forte and mezzo-piano sections and subtle phrasing pushes that breathed life into the performance.
The most ornamental and difficult of perhaps any of the pieces performed during the afternoon, Data est mihi omnes potestas, proved a challenge for the ensemble. The balance of the highly-figured opening and closing sections of the piece resulted in articulation that was slightly smeared, rather than precise and clear. The intimate middle section, phrasing, and dynamic control was again top-notch from the group, as was the powerful foundational harmony that bordered the piece. It may have been my listening position, or perhaps the reverberation of the hall, that created a sense of blurring between the fast ‘Alleluia’ lines in both the soprano and tenor, but I was hoping for more from such a sophisticated and delicate piece of vocal repertoire.
The Soundstreams Choir 21, who despite its name is made up of sixteen vocalists, proceeded to perform three pieces of contrasting quality, the first of which being appropriately Scottish in origin. MacMillan’s The Gallant Weaver is an introduction to his secular composition, setting poet Robert Burns’ text to a florid, tranquil melodic line. The music is reflective of both the art and ornament of weaving, as inflections and soaring soprano lines were plentiful throughout the work. Gentle and rocking, sections rounded entries painted a rather sea-like image in this reviewer’s head, with moments of gorgeous harmony that made my breath catch and tears spring from my eyes; the emotive effect of this piece, in its serenity, was remarkable.
When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d followed, a piece based on the lyric elegy of the same name written by great American poet Walt Whitman following the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. This piece was intricately designed to mimic the 88 keys of a piano, densely rich with harmony. The choir was divided into eight separate sections, each composed of two vocalists, together forming the compressed effect of a tightly-orchestrated piano piece. Syncopation and short, jabbing phrases from the sopranos punctuated this piece, which is as substantial as the poem it is set to. The piece progressed from a gentle, repeated ‘over and over’ ostinato into a far denser, louder and more chaotic middle section. The orchestration and awareness of each vocal section that this choir held throughout the piece was phenomenal.
Choir 21 remained onstage for a final pair of hymns extracted from Murray Schafer’s The Fall Into Light. A gentle, floating, ascending quality marked these pieces, as if calling to mind a lark ascending into the heavens, spirits soaring into the ether. Not explicitly related to Vaughan-Williams The Lark Ascending, the same etherial, atmospheric ascension was present in these hymns, a sort of metaphysical effect through the harmonic structures and melodic lines. It is prudent to make mention that Choir 21’s guest vocalist Janelle Santi, who filled a spot in the soprano section, was highlighted in sunlight cascading through one of the church windows, essentially spotlighting her, along with MacMillan himself, as the pair of hymns drew to a close; a fitting pathetic fallacy for a promising young vocalist.
The final piece, and certainly the most authoritative, was MacMillan’s own setting of Psalm 21, a text immortalized by great Italian composer Gregorio Allegri. Titled Miserere, it begins with a haunting opening melody in the male voices that dissolves to an equally striking staggered soprano line. The power and delicacy of the amassed choirs in this piece was breathtaking; the dynamic range and subtle shading of expressiveness that MacMillan was able to coax from the choir brought such life, such impact to the piece that one cannot imagine performing this work with any other intonation. An emotional coda finishes the piece as each voice returns in one of the most incredible choral a harmonic progressions I have ever heard. Simply an incredible performance.
The list of credits to MacMillan’s name certainly exceeds a small church concert on a Sunday afternoon in a Canadian city, but he bestowed upon his audience something that will not soon be forgotten. A standing ovation well-deserved, and an emotional revelation conferred in the most eloquent of ways.