After a long hiatus, I’ve finally heard a concert I felt I couldn’t go without writing about! Under the direction of Grand Philharmonic conductor and University of Waterloo instructor Mark Vuorinen, the University of Waterloo’s jewel choral ensemble, Chamber Choir, presented a ravishing program to finish their Fall 2016 term. And I truly do mean ravishing; the works selected, the organization of the pieces into themed groups, the dynamic control, all added up to what was perhaps the most impactful choral performance I’ve heard in a long time.
It’s no surprise that the Chamber Choir is the University of Waterloo’s most respected choral ensemble. Composed of 32 voices, four part, the choir holds a level of poise and collectivity that one only finds with innately-skilled mid-size choral ensembles. It takes a special group to be able to mount both chest-shaking fortissimos and incredibly delicate pianissimo lines that have consistent integrity and balance, and this choir mounted the challenge.
In Saturday’s hall, the sanctuary of St. John the Evangelist Anglican Church, there was no want for power from the choir, and the control, especially the subtlety of the lower dynamics, had a clarity that is reserved for chamber ensembles. In the same way that with small chamber groups of strings, for example, you are able to hear individual players, the weaving of intricate parts, and individual articulation, so to was the case here. The clarity of the syllables, the transients of the consonants, the tightness of the dynamic control, was all laid on display. The hall’s high ceilings no doubt contributed to the massive sound of the smaller choral ensemble, but did so without marring the nimbleness of the quick passages.
That clarity was exceptionally evident in Pilons l’orge, a composition of Francis Poulenc pulled from his “Huit Chansons Françaises”. The short piece showcased not only the nimbleness of the choir, and their ability to accurately track fast-moving consonants (of which their pronunciation was spot-on), but it revealed something that even professional recordings cannot get right – the choir’s richness. Even when moving quickly, bouncing from note to note, the fullness and the rich lower registers came through without fail. The same was true of the all-male Dulaman, Michael McGlynn’s Celtic masterpiece (featuring an enthusiastic, if a touch free-spirited, solo by Alex Wharton), where both the speed and clarity were not obscured but the rich lower registers of the male ranks of voices. Perhaps it was the room reinforcing this rich lower fundamental, which wouldn’t surprise me, but in any case, the choir’s ability to remain tonally weighty with such quick-moving lines was revelatory.
The division of pieces into four distinct thematic groups created a journey, a roller-coaster of emotion that was just brilliant. I am not sure of the motivations behind assembling the concert this way, but I can guarantee you that I was not the only one who was aware of the brilliance of this organization; looking at the faces around me as the concert progressed showcased the wide spectrum of emotions present.
What really got me, though, was the impeccable performance of Ola Gjeilo’s Luminous Night of the Soul, a piece which screams for attention in both the subtlest and most emotionally-riveting fashions. It’s captivating cello opening, played by guest cellist Youngho Yo (coincidentally one of the two former Orchestra@UWaterloo performers on the piece, the other being violist Robert Gooding) leads right onto a gorgeous, soft voice phrase that is delicately controlled. As I was making notes like ‘raw power’ and ‘exquisite’, I was literally frozen as the medley and harmonic phrase at around the six-minute mark took hold. Have a listen to any recording of this piece and you will know exactly what I am talking about. I stopped writing, swept away by the emotional power of this composition, and the incredible fluency with which this choir communicated. I would have given that piece a standing ovation at the half, were it not for my frozen stature in my seat. Impeccable!
Of course, as entrancing as the concert was, it was not without fault. There were moments where that perfect balance I remarked of as being a trait of chamber ensembles was shattered by strident alto and soprano lines. The men simply could not keep up with the projection and power of the women in spots, and this broke the captivity that the choir held me in. There were a handful of wrong notes, yes indeed, and there were poorly-chosen pieces. Prayer of St. Francis, for example, composed by Barrie Cabena, was one of those pieces that simply did not work. There was power in his setting of this iconic text, but the juxtaposition of words and music spanned the range from comical to simply non-communicative. It didn’t make sense to me, though I know exactly what Cabena was thinking in his composition, as the prayer lends itself to trading dissonance with consonance, aggression with softness; it works in places, like its opening, but in others it just doesn’t go anywhere, doesn’t pull the listener in. I hoped for more from this, but, through no fault of the choir, it did not deliver.
The other issue with such a diverse, dynamic program, is it is nearly impossible to give each piece its due mention. From Rachmaninov to Ēriks Ešenvalds (the Ešenvalds accompanied by what sounded like celesta, though from my vantage point I could not be sure), the choir showed poise and restraint. I suppose the most appropriate term for this concert is dynamic, in repertoire, choral resolve, and the performance character. Time and again, I was taken by the ability of the choir to let loose such a wall of sound after being duly restrained and precise in its performance. Witness, composed by Jack Halloran, was a perfect example of this, it’s gospel character threading lines from each of the SATB sections until they culminate in the final phrase of the piece, a great forte-piano swell into a wall of sound at the peak of their crescendo. It was an incredible display of the dynamic control and sheer power of the ensemble.
Dr. Mark Vuorinen knew exactly how to pull the best from this group of young vocalists, that is without question. It was certainly enough to get me to put pen to paper, and in a time where I simply haven’t been moved by the performances I have been seeing to do so, that speaks volumes for what this group achieved. If there was a repeat performance, I would not hesitate to see this twice.
Concert date: 26 November 2016
St. John the Evangelist Anglican Parish, 23 Water St. N, Kitchener
Full program available here: https://uwaterloo.ca/music/events/chamber-choir-maidens-mystics-myths-and-memories