Many season openers tend to displays of bravado and vivacity. Soundstreams’ sold-out opener at Royal Conservatory Toronto’s Koerner Hall on Tuesday, October 1, 2013, however, opted for hushed tones and a decidedly reverent atmosphere throughout, and the concert was all the more memorable for it. The program featured Canadian premieres of Arvo Pärt’s L’Abbé Agathon (2004) and Adam’s Lament (2009), as well as two world premieres of Canadian works commissioned by Soundstreams: Open Road (2013) by James Rolfe, and Ave Maria (2013) by Esko Riho Maimets. What on paper seemed like a night chock full of sacred music was, to the temples of the ear, quite simply a lush and soul replenishing experience.
After a brief introduction by Soundstreams’ artistic director Lawrence Cherney in which he dedicated the concert to the memory of Larry Lake, long-time host of CBC Radio’s Two New Hours, soprano Shannon Mercer stepped onto the stage with choral conductor Tönu Kaljuste and an eight-piece string ensemble comprised of members from the Virtuoso String Orchestra. The performance began with L’Abbé Agathon, a piece set to text inspired by a 4th century legend of the namesake Father Agathon. As the narrator of Agathon’s story, Mercer’s soprano was bright and expressive but in a highly controlled manner, leaving the audience with plenty of room to discover all the nuances in Pärt’s music. The acoustics of Koerner Hall were particularly well-suited to the performance as the sound emanating from the stage felt at once both spacious and intimate, much like L’Abbé Agathon itself: the tale of one man’s charity and humility, but a tale that speaks to the essence of humanity on a much grander scale.
In fact, the same can be said of the second piece of the night, Open Road by James Rolfe. While the text itself, an edited version of Walt Whitman’s Song of the Open Road, strayed from the rest of the program with its secular and more contemporary prose, Rolfe’s spirited composition did well to match Pärt and Maimet’s sacred pieces in warmth and fervor. For this piece, the on-stage performers were joined by baritone Geoffery Sirett, the rest of Virtuoso String Orchestra, as well as Choir 21. The rapport between the two lead vocalists, the chorus and the orchestra was a splendid thing to hear, a fine balancing act which Kaljuste conducted immaculately. These overlapping exchanges culminated in a most haunting slow burn of the final line, “Shall we stick by each other as long as we live?,” into silence and nothingness.
25-year old Riho Esko Maimets composed the third work on the program, Ave Maria, as his first commission from Soundstreams. Simple and understated, Ave Maria stood out as a highly sophisticated piece of sacred work that felt anything but antiquated. Above all, Maimets has managed to free his composition from the weighted associations of similarly titled settings by Bach, Schubert and Gounod, not an easy task by any means. Both Maimet’s music and its performance were incredibly mature, commanding absolute attention without having to scream and shout for it. Ave Maria received a standing ovation from many in the crowd who were in absolute awe of this young composer’s feat.
The concert closed with Pärt’s Adam’s Lament which saw Choir 21 and Virtuoso String Orchestra operating at full breadth and capacity. This piece was in many ways alive, often taking patient breaths between swells and lilts of somber melody, and slowly building up to a moment of agonizing intensity not heard earlier in the program. The burden and suffering of biblical Adam is to Pärt a reflection of humanity in all its tragic depths and bouts of glory, Adam’s Lament surely brought these feelings to life, transcending the need to differentiate between the sacred and the secular, the spiritual and the mundane. As Lawrence Cherney wrote in his director’s note, “each is contained in the other,” and what a profound note to start on for Soundstreams’ 2013/2014 season.