Jon Washburn, Conductor
Linda Lee Thomas and Terence Dawson, Duo Painaists
David Sinclair, Guitar
Ryerson United Church
Satruday May 2, 1998
A RICH TAPESTRY OF CHORAL MUSIC, SACRED AND SUBLIME
By Roxanne Davies
Evensong is a lovely part of Anglican liturgical ceremony. It refers to an evening prayer, an evening service or an evening hymn. The audience which filled the charming and hallowed Ryerson United Church in the heart of Kerrisdale, settled in for joyous and sacred choral music that would showcase the world-class talent of the Vancouver Chamber Choir.
The twenty- voice choir was formed in 1971 by conductor Jon Washburn and has performed throughout Canada and has gained international acclaim through many and diverse tours throughout the world. They have been awarded numerous gold medals in chamber music competitions.
The evening's repertoire, chosen by artistic director and conductor, Jon Washburn was one full of various themes. There was the theme of springtime, of the customary evensong repertoire, sacred and solemn choral piecesñ and then there was the unspoken theme which makes vocal music so rich, according to Washburn. Besides the music there is wonderful text and poetry. The different textures heighthen the meaning behind the words.
Directly in front of me sat an elderly gentleman, with tousled white hair and an innocent smile on his lined face - -the beginning of Alzheimers or perhaps a life long condition that made him appear as uncomplicated as a child. As the choir performed their musical magic, this gentleman would gently raise his hand skyward as if to catch a note that soared above his head.
I felt like doing that myself at some points in the evening as I luxuriated in the rich tapestry of sound provided by this world class choir.
The first part of the concert, entirely a cappella, was conducted by musical assistant George Roberts. After his discrete toot to locate middle C, the choir launched into song-- sure, powerful and sweeping tones caressed our ears. Occasionally, the soaring soprano, the confident tenor. All the time, 20 voices in such perfect balance, it beautifully proved that the musical whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
The evening began with Three Motets by Charles Villiers Stanford. The composer and conductor was longtime professor of Composition at both Cambridge and the Royal College of Music.
Each motet uses a slightly different voicing, the first being for four parts with divisi, the second for double choir and the last in a rich six-part texture which often juxtaposes the women's voices against the men.
The men in this choir looked very dashing in their tuxes. The women, standing in front, in flowing black gowns, trimmed in Haida designs, a tribute to this province's rich cultural heritage.
We were also treated to two variations of the beautifully familiar Ave Maria, one a Brazilian version written by Heitor Villa-Lobos and the German version, by Franz Biebl.
Of the two Aves, I must admit I was enthralled by the German version. The choir members left the front of the altar and positioned themselves in two groups in the front alcoves. Aldona McLean, soprano, Liz Hamel, alto and Gordon Crozier, tenor performed beautifully from the left hand nave. The rest of the choir sang from the right. This double choir became a refrain which alternated with simple plainchant verses derived from liturgical texts. The effect was richly satisfying and garnered some of the most sustained applauses of the evening.
May Magnificat, composed by John Paynter is based on the poems of 19th Century Jesuit poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins. A complex piece with individual choir members singing the same melody at different times, it was challenging to listen to. It figures that such intellectual and radically complex music should accompany Jesuit poetry.
Following Paul Halley's Love Songs for Spring, with their lighthearted texts and simple melodies, we heard a work by Halifax composer Scott Macmillan, a Celtic and Canadian folk-music expert who has made arrangements for Ashley MacIssac, Rita McNeil and the Rankins.
The Three That Seek My Heart comes from the Celtic tradition. Macmillan's wife, librettist Jennyfer Brickenden adapted the text from ancient Gaelic poems. The piece includes the choir, two pianos and electric guitar. Like many modern pieces, it involved concentrated listening, but the effort was worthwhile.
The words of the poem are sublime:
"The zeal that seeks my living soul, the three that seek my heart, to cherish, to aid, to enfold thee./Each thing mine eye sees, each sound mine ears hears, each odour that goes to my nostrils./The three be about thy head, the three be about they breast, the three be about thy body. /Each night and each day, in the encompassment of the Three,/ Throughout thy life long. Bless to me, my reason, my purpose, the handling of my hands, the angeling of my rest."
The evening finished with a medley of Stephen Foster favorites. It was somehow disconcerting to hear Oh! Susanna sung with stained glass windows and the giant organ pipes as backdrop.. I was gratified to hear one of my favorite Foster tunes, Beautiful Dreamer, sung with intense clarity by alto Laverne G'Froerer.
The piano duo provided perfect accompaninet , never overpowering the vocal presentation. And the audience simply could not let go of the evening without an encore, Blow Blow Thou Winter Wind, which Washburn hoped would be an antidote to the hot and unseasonably muggy weather which also found its way into the church.
No matter, the evening was totally satisfying, which is what audiences have come to expect from Vancouver's premier chamber choir.