Saturday, 30 March 2013

Pro Coro's Good Friday tradition continues

 Bill Rankin

Pro Coro's Good Friday concert tradition on, uh, Friday, attracted about a thousand listeners to Edmonton's Winspear Centre. The Good Friday event has always been an excellent draw for Pro Coro, especially when there's a well-known choral work on the program, and this year it was one of the top five pieces in the canon: Mozart's Requiem.
But before the audience heard the Requiem in the second half, Pro Coro did what it has always done best; it sang a couple of acapella pieces, demonstrating that as music directors come and go, the ethos of the choir stays the same. Its strength has always been attention to exquisite tuning and entrancing harmonic blend, and it's still its strength.
Under the relatively new leadership of Michael Zaugg, the choir opened the evening with the short piece In manus tuas by Ottawa-based composer Nicholas Piper. The piece offered Pro Coro the opportunity to display its power in a slow, only occasionally dissonant liturgical work rich in close harmony luxuriating choral writing. With the bolstered forces of 26 singers, the choir, on risers upstage at the Winspear, projected effectively into the hall, and the voices of all sections made a strong impression.
The under card also included the North American premiere of Peter Togni's Missa Liberationis, an acapella piece written for the Latvian youth choir Balsis. Togni's Lamentatio Jeremiae Prophetae was nominated for a Juno in 2011, and in my opinion, should have taken the prize that year rather than R. Murray Schafer's Wild Bird, a duo for violin and piano.
The mass we heard Friday was quite appropriate for the most somber day of the Christian calendar. Togni's mass includes five of the six parts of the Ordinary of the Mass, absent a Benedictus, and each section remains tethered to moods of reverence, contemplation and other sober religious sentiments. The tempi by and large are slow, and with the exception of a few sharp soprano stabs at more elevated, even inspirational emotion in the Sanctus, the overall tenor of the piece is subdued and severe. The piece eschews declamatory feelings; the Credo begins so inwardly that it carries no evangelical weight.
The choir, of course, immersed itself in the overall stillness of Togni's approach, rendering the work impeccably in the spirit the composer likely intended. Togni was in the audience for the performance, and when called to the stage, emanated the unpretentious, good-humoured demeanour he conveys in his various stints on CBC Radio Two, where he hosts Choral Concert on Sunday mornings.
Incidentally, in years past, the CBC would certainly have recorded this concert for future broadcast. Relentless cutbacks to live classical music recording renders so much excellent Canadian talent nearly invisible to the rest of the nation, and that's nothing to be proud of. On Good Friday, one might even say it is something to be ashamed of.
Mozart's Requiem, the Süssmayr completion, featured the string players of the Alberta Baroque Ensemble interspersed with the singers on the risers. This is a professional choir with singers who can hold their own in difficult musical circumstances, so there was no evidence that having an instrumentalists stationed so close to the vocalists had any untoward effect on the performance. The ABE was supplemented with winds, brass, organ and timpani, and the instrumentalists played a consistently supportive role for the singers. (Recently retired Edmonton Arts Council director John Mahon, a clarinetist, has more time to play his instrument these day; he appeared in the orchestra on the basset horn.)
The soloists, who, by and large, appear and disappear intermittently after small contributions to the Requiem, made a strong impression. Bass Philippe Sly, whom I've never heard, has physical and vocal charisma. His Tuba Mirum was commanding, and made me feel, at least, that it was too bad the Requiem didn't have more for him to do.
Sly was the first prize winner of the 2012 Concours Musical International de Montréal and a grand prize winner of the 2011 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. He'll have a real career, I predict, and it would be great to hear him in an Edmonton Opera production sometime down the line.
Local soprano Jolaine Kerley is a Pro Coro alumnus, and since I first heard her about a decade ago, she has become a rich musical presence in the Edmonton community. Her performance Friday was immensely satisfying, penetrating and supremely confident and relaxed, not qualities she always exuded in her early career.
Edmonton-born mezzo Aidan Ferguson, trained at McGill, is making a name for herself in North America. The Requiem doesn't give the mezzo much spotlight time, but Ferguson made the most of her opportunity, demonstrating poise and unaffected professionalism every time she was called to centre stage. She, too, is a talent Edmonton Opera should take a look at. She's just finished her third season with Montreal Opera's Atelier Lyrique, and has had the good fortune to work with Yannick Nézet-Séguin as well. She's been singing since she was a kid (she sang with two of my kids in the Edmonton Children's Choir) years ago), and it's great to see that her passion is bearing fruit in her chosen profession.
Tenor Tim Shantz has a timbre that is both sweet and penetrating. He distinguished himself beautifully in the small part Mozart gave him.
Overall, the choir and company presented a fine Requiem. The men's sound didn't always make it to the back wall of the Winspear as well as the sopranos so effortlessly can, but in general, the performance reinforced the longstanding programming decision made years ago to make a big splash on Good Friday in one of Canada's best concert halls, and the standing O the Requiem received was well-deserved.
Mr. Zaugg appears to be doing a terrific job of maintaining the high-standard of choral excellence Edmontonians have come to expect from its professional chamber choir.
Postscript: It was a great idea to get CKUA's Orest Soltykevych to emcee the opening of the concert. In the past, with the best of intentions, the Pro Coro board members who've done the introductions, haven't quite shown the polish that Soltykevych displayed.

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