Vancouver Bach Choir
A Sea Symphony

Date:27 March 2004 at 8.00pm
: Orpheum Theatre

Reviewer: June Heywood





When more than one hundred and fifty voices blend as one, it's magic. Under the skilled baton of maestro Bruce Pullan, the combined voices of the Vancouver Choir, Edmonton's Richard Eaton Singers; soprano, Svetlana Sech; alto Maryem Toller; and bass baritone, Nathan Berg, Saturday night's performance was spellbinding.

Two symphonies were played, this evening.
Sepulcher of Life was written by Christos Hatzis two months after a trip to the Great Pyramid in Gizah. Overwhelmed by the experience Mr. Hatzis wrote the words and music to his symphony within two months. This was its world premiere.

Sepulcher of Life is written in four movements. Sarcophagus, the first movement, sets a solemn tone of spiritual longing for Ms Sech's soft, clear voice that is accompanied by Concertmaster, Akira Nagai's solo violin. The low brass and strings are introduced and rise to a full crescendo. The choir turns solemnity to joy at the end of the movement.

The second movement, Encomium, also follows the Greek Orthodox Church's Good Friday theme - Christ's crucifiction. However, it is more regal than mournful and more like a coronation than a burial. The audience is meant to join the choir for the six verses. This was ineffective as the words were written in Hellenistic Greek and the choir appeared to out number the audience.

Myrrh Bearer is the most exciting movement. Intrigued by Maryam Toller's multi-gendred, Middle-Eastern voice, Mr. Hatzis wrote this part for her. Soft strings and singing woodwind reverently introduce the piece. Then a capella, Ms Toller, as Christ's close disciple Mary Magdalene, showed a wonderful range of depth and feeling as she expressed her grief. The composer writes that this is "A Baroque-like variation of the Greek Orthodox encomium (Good Friday service) and…dark Gypsy-like music featuring a…virtuoso solo violin part for the concertmaster. The movement ends with alto, choir and orchestra loudly expressing their grief.






The theme of the symphony - life, death, love, Christ - come together in the final movement, Sepulcher of Life. "The melody, harmony, and orchestration lean heavily towards popular music idioms." The intention was to write a classless and borderless composition. The final crescendo of hope was thrilling.

A Sea Symphony composed by Vaughan Williams to the words of a Walt Whitman poem, also displays the range and beauty of the human voice as a musical instrument.

The first movement begins with the roll of drums and the clashing of cymbals to evoke "white sails undulating on the heaving breast" of the sea. Then the brass section calms the waves.

When asked in a telephone interview what he liked about A Sea Symphony, bass baritone, Nathan Berg replied that he was attracted to its beautiful atmosphere. He conceded that the high vocal range and technical difficulties were challenging for a bass baritone. However, in the gloomy, speculative second stanza, On the Beach at Night Alone, he surpassed these challenges.

The third movement, (Scherzo) The Waves, began with the pizzicato of cellos. The choir and the orchestra demonstrated with their instruments the "ceaseless flow…of undulating waves".

The Explorers, is the final and longest movement. Just as Walt Whitman exhorts man to become one with nature, he also describes earth "swimming in space". The soloists portray Adam, Eve, and their progeny "wandering, yearning, baffled, and feverish…launching out on the trackless sea". The final climax, "steer for the deep waters only" had all instruments working together. "O my brave soul!", was the last, gentle duet. The voices sang and the orchestra played until a lone double bass faded to silence like a tall sailing ship slipping over the horizon.

2004, June Heywood