Saturday, 7 April 2012

Pro Coro shares Easter season with friends

Pro Coro's Good Friday tradition continued April 6 at the Winspear Centre with an eclectic program of music fit for the saddest day of the Christian calendar. The choir, which was joined for several selections by the University of Alberta Madrigal Singers and was led by guest conductor Len Ratzlaff, who also leads the Madrigals and put the program together.
 About 1,000 people attended.
Leonard Ratzlaff
Even with the heftier forces of two chamber choirs, amounting to about 50 singers, it's always dicey placing such an ensemble too far back on the Winspear stage, even with the hall's excellent acoustics. For the opening piece, a sixteen-part setting of the motet Crucifixus by Antonio Caldara, an early Baroque composer, the singers were lined up single file along the shallow arc of stage's back wall.
 Ratzlaff must have had a technical reason for such a configuration since the full group's later collaborations were sung  more down stage and in  rows. The helpful accompaniment of organist Jeremy Spurgeon and Josephine van Lier on Baroque cello reinforced the slow, resonant unfolding of this meditative reminder that Christ "was crucified for us, under Pontius Pilate, suffered and was buried", but the effect of the still relatively small choral forces diffused as they were at the back was not as strong as an opening number should probably be. A piece with sixteen voice parts means small groups must emerge and recede with power and subtlety. I missed that in the Caldara.
The first four pieces were sung by the combined choir. Bruckner's Christus factus est pro nobis (the choir was forward and more clustered) highlighted the vocal of the singers in this a cappella motet. The Bruckner and contemporary composer Jeff Enns' Litany would be lovely things to hear at any Sunday morning church service.
Knut Nystedt's O Crux has recurring shades of dissonance common in much challenging contemporary choral music, enough seconds and minor seconds too convey notions of distress one expects from art depicting an execution site. The general point of the text doesn't dwell on the purpose of the Cross; its message is the paradox of the Christian teaching that somehow Christ's torture and execution is a good thing, and therefore so too must be the wooden scaffold on which he was killed. Many years the Pro Coro Good Friday event has featured classics like various Bach Passions, and one year, probably the most well-attended, Mozart's Requiem. It's always nice to hear less familiar music sung with musical quality and conviction.
Jolaine Kerley
Pro Coro sang Domenico Scarlatti's Stabat Mater by themselves, a piece made for Good Friday if there ever was one, a meditation on the helpless, grieving mother. Soprano Jolaine Kerley and tenor Caleb Nelson sang their short solo parts pristinely. The choir was in its element.
The second half began with an arrangement Amazing Grace. You can turn anything into a choral piece, I suppose, and choirs sing this hymn all the time. Erik Esenvalds' arrangement, sung by the Madrigals and Pro Coro, certainly gave the choir some lovely harmonies to sing, but I see Amazing Grace as a single singer's piece, and when Abra Whitney had her turn to express the penitent's remorse and gratitude, the song really sang the way I like it. She should have got an outright solo.
The final piece, supplemented by a number of Edmonton Symphony string players, was an inspired choice. Esenvalds Passion and Resurrection includes an extremely dramatic soprano solo role, and Kerley was brilliant doing it. The piece also calls for a vocal quartet, which Ratzlaff situated in the second balcony box to the right of the stage. This ensemble, too, was excellent. The text, like Handel's Messiah, is an assortment of biblical passages surveying the Christian story. This treatment of the story, has more to do with the Passion than the Resurrection, and Esenvalds uses the strings, choir and quartet in a great range of ways to capture all the anguish and hope in the religious tale. The strings controlled much of the dissonant effects, and Kerley carried the elevated emotions with great soloist flair.
This piece was a revelation, in itself, and it concluded a very intelligent program of music reflecting on the Holy Week drama.
Clearly Ratzlaff selected pieces that told different aspects of the Easter story: the Good Friday crucifixion, the meaning of the sacrifice, the sorrow that is ultimately ironic, the sorrowful song of the tearful believer who plays out the apparent mournful tragedy each Good Friday, a paean to the Christian's ultimate symbol,  the useful Cross and the grieving mother at its foot, and finally, the revelation that it was all a joke. You never expect a barrel of laughs from the Easter punchline, but excellent art is probably just as good.

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