Canada is an expansive country in terms of its geography as well as its musical diversity. Soundstreams paid tribute to this very fact on Sunday, February 2, 2014 as three distinguished choirs were brought together from coast to coast—Elmer Iseler Singers (Toronto), Pro Coro Canada (Edmonton), and Vancouver Chamber Choir—for a truly Canadian choral celebration at Koerner Hall.
The program opened with Norwegian composer Knut Nystedt’s Immortal Bach (1987), a performance conducted by Kaspars Putniņš which combined members from all three choirs. Many of the singers stood off-stage along the aisles of Koerner Hall, giving the audience an up-close and highly intimate introduction to the musical instrument that is the human voice en masse. The piece itself was a beautifully meditative continuum of vocal layers, with text borrowed from the first stanza of J.S. Bach’s chorale Komm, süßer Tod, and despite the choir spread out across the venue, the subtleties of the Nystedt’s composition were performed with great control, precision, and care. The low sustain at the end of Immortal Bach was particularly stunning as it felt much like hearing silence manifest, if silence could be sung.
Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho’s Tag des Jahrs (2002), performed by the Elmer Iseler Singers and conducted by Lydia Adams, was the only piece of the afternoon to feature electroacoustic elements, placing the vocals in an alternative spatial context. The interplay between the choir and the recordings of natural sounds and spoken word made for a unique display of sonic textures, ranging from the lush and sparse to the sharp yet soft. The lyrical content of Tag des Jahrs – especially the breathy whispers of Friedrich Hölderlein’s poem Der Winter – was also prominent in John Beckwith’s Sharon Fragments (1966), namely in the form of storytelling through song. This folkloric composition, performed by the Vancouver Chamber Choir under the conduction of Jon Washburn, was based on texts and hymn tunes originating from the historic Sharon Temple in East Gwillimbury, Ontario where a small religious community known as the Children of Peace dwelled in the 1820s.
Fellow Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer’s Hear the Sounds go Round (2013) came next, bringing together all three choirs again for the world premiere of this Soundstreams commissioned piece. True to Schafer’s signature style, Hear the Sounds go Round was a playful and humorous exploration (also blurring) of the boundaries between voice, language, music, and sound. The curious nature of this composition brought to mind the writing of Dr. Seuss with delightful lines like “And if you could see me would it be true? The voice with the face or the face with the voice? The voice that was new or the face that you knew? Better to hear – or to see with your ear“.
Michael Zaugg and Pro Coro Canada took to the stage after intermission to perform Uģis Prauliņš ‘ Laudibus in Sanctis (2008), a euphoric composition set to the text of Psalm 150. This was by far the strongest and most assertive performance of the concert; Pro Coro’s singers demonstrated a strong sense of solidarity and confidence in their ensemble which was communicated quite magnificently through the music itself. Last of the program was Henryk Górecki’s Miserere (1981) which showcased solidarity in a different sense – namely, in the way breaths were drawn between words, which in turn gave shape to Górecki’s concerns about the state of political turmoil in Poland the year this piece was written. Laudibus in Sanctis made for a quietly intense (and as such, daring) conclusion to Soundstreams’ Canadian Choral Celebration, a gradual slow burn of voices which eventually brought the audience back to where the afternoon began: a choir, standing together in stillness and in silence, seeing with their ears.