Psalms & Sonnets: The Poetry of Song

Dates and Venue Friday, 26 September 2008 @ 8pm Sunday, 28 September 2008 @ 3pm | Ryerson United Church

Conductor Jon Washburn

Reviewer Ed Farolan


I should probably not come to the matinee performances because I tend to doze off especially when the choir sings music that is soft and quiet. However, in this particular matinee, I managed to keep awake because of some songs that were unique and innovative.

What I enjoyed most was the second part of the concert, a choral plethora of Shakesperean passages from the Bard's plays and sonnets. What went on in my mind while listening to these Shakesperean renditions was: Why doesn't Jon Washburn get together with Christopher Gaze and do some kind of project together?

Let me give my thoughts about the second part of the concert which was the more interesting part. I learned a few things about contemporary choral composers who used Shakespeare in their compositions. I like jazz and I didn't even know there was a choral jazz version of Shakeare's sonnets. One of Sweden's most influential jazz musicians, Bengt Hallberg (b.1932) composed a concerto for piano and chorus using three sonnets of Shakespeare: "On a day...", Live with me and be my love...", and "Love's Answer". What was even more interesting was the jazz interpretation of these sonnets through the skillful piano playing of Linda Thomas who sounded like Dave Brubeck in some instances.

The concerto had a mishmash of Gershwin, the blues, Stan Getz and Quincy Jones, and in the words of Washburn, "the Swedish angst". But I enjoyed this piece, and Washburn has that talent, for all the long years as a conductor, to put the best piece at the end of the show.

The other two composers who created music using Shakespeare were the American composer Steven Sametz (b. 1954) and Finnish composer Jaakko Mantyjarvi (b. 1963). Sametz composed his music "When he shall die" which he dedicated to the memory of Louis Botto, the founder of Chanticleer, who died quite young. He was a good friend and colleague to both Washburn and Sametz. This beautiful passage is soliloquized by Juliet in Romeo and Juliet (III,2): "...when he shall die,/Take him and cut him out in little stars,/And he will make the face of heaven so fine..." It is a sad song and it was sung beautifully by the choir.

Mantyjarvi, on the other hand, took the witches' "Double, double toil and trouble" (Macbeth, IV, 1) and the result was a colourful rendition by the choir who ended the piece by stomping their feet on the floor to the delight of the audience.

The first part of the show were compositions by the classic composers Bach, Brahms and Mendelssohn, followed by 20th century composers Britten, Raminsh and Harvey who based their compositions on the Old Testament's Psalms of David. This was the portion of the concert where I almost dozed off.

Congratulations, bravo, and I hope the subscribers start filling out those forms and sending in their checks because this is, according to Washburn, how the company survives.


© 2008 Ed Farolan