By Colin Eatock
TORONTO – First appearing on Toronto’s crowded concert scene in 1982, Soundstreams Canada quickly established itself as an ambitious presenter of contemporary music. Over the years, artistic director Lawrence Cherney has focused on several genres of new music, and one of these is choral repertoire. Playing to his strengths, for Soundstreams’ Feb. 2 concert he presented a program of choral music from Canada and Europe in Toronto’s Koerner Hall that was billed as a celebration of Canadian choirs.
Choral singing has deep roots in Canada, dating back to the earliest European settlements. During the Victorian era, choral activity blossomed, and every major center had at least one large amateur choir. Their performances were a staple of Canada’s concert life decades before most cities had permanent orchestras.
However, it wasn’t this long-standing amateur tradition that Soundstreams was celebrating – rather, it was something more recent. It was 60 years ago that an aspiring conductor named Elmer Iseler founded Canada’s first professional choir. The Festival Singers of Canada, based in Toronto, was a group of about two dozen singers, but it soon made a name for itself. In 1965, the ensemble’s recording of Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms (conducted by the composer) was nominated for a Grammy award. Two years later, Iseler’s choir toured the U.S., performing at the White House.
Similar professional choirs were established in other parts of Canada – and today the country can boast a handful of small but virtuosic ensembles, well suited to challenging contemporary repertoire.
For this concert, Cherney brought together three of Canada’s best professional chamber choirs: the ensemble that Iseler founded (now called the Elmer Iseler Singers), the Vancouver Chamber Choir, and Pro Coro Canada, based in Edmonton, Alberta. In so doing, he created a 60-voice “super-choir,” with plenty of vocal strength, yet with the supple flexibility of a smaller group.
It was a great idea, and it ought to have yielded a great concert — if only the music had been as consistently impressive as the choristers assembled to perform it.
Each of the three choirs was given its moment in the spotlight. The Iseler Singers, directed (since Iseler’s death in 1998) by Lydia Adams, was first out of the gate, with a disappointing selection. Three slender movements by the Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho – “Spring,” “Autumn,” and “Winter” from her Tag des Jahrs, for choir and pre-recorded electronics – were given readings so poised as to be precious.
The Vancouver Chamber Choir’s artistic director, Jon Washburn, also made a dubious choice. He presented Sharon Fragments, by Canadian composer John Beckwith – a prosaic setting of texts by an obscure 19th-century religious leader. It didn’t help that Washburn’s approach tended to be brusque and rigid.
Pro Coro Canada, led by Michael Zaugg, fared better. Zaugg led a spirited performance of Laudibus in Sanctis by the Latvian composer Uģis Prauliņš. Boldly and rhythmically chordal, it was something that a top-notch chamber choir could really sink its teeth into. Zaugg went straight to the heart of this rich and powerful piece.
Even when all three choirs were brought together, under the baton of guest conductor Kaspars Putniņš (director of the Latvian Radio Choir), the results were uneven. Immortal Bach by Norwegian composer Knut Nystedt proved to be a thin and diffuse work, based on the opening bars of J.S. Bach’s chorale Komm süßer Tod. In Putniņš’ hands, it seemed deliberately inexpressive.
R. Murray Schafer, one of Canada’s leading composers, can usually be relied upon for a sense of dramatic flair. And there was a quirky kind of drama in the world premiere of his Hear the Sounds go Round – achieved through stamping feet, spoken text, and other non-traditional devices cleverly employed. Happily, Putniņš picked up on the humor of the piece.
However, Schafer’s newest work was hobbled by its silly, childish text (which he authored), making Hear the Sounds go Round a modest contribution to his oeuvre.
The program concluded with the expansive Miserere by the Polish composer Henryk Górecki. Here, the control that Putniņš displayed as he drew all three choirs into a long, gradual crescendo was nothing short of astonishing. And the glorious forte outburst at the climax demonstrated what 60 excellent choristers can do – if only they’re given music worthy of their potential.
Colin Eatock is a Toronto-based critic and composer. Last year, his book Remembering Glenn Gould was published by Penumbra Press, and his compact disc Colin Eatock: Chamber Music was released on the Centrediscs label.