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A worthy performance of Elgar's monumental work

Centre in the Square
01/16/2010 -  
Edward Elgar: The Dream of Gerontius, opus 38
John Mac Master (Tenor), Susan Platts (Mezzo-soprano), Daniel Lichti (Bass-baritone)
Grand Philharmonic Choir, Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony Orchestra, Howard Dyck (Conductor)

H. Dyck (Courtesy of the Grand Philharmonic Choir)

Kitchener is a city that manages to punch above its weight musically. An industrial city with a successful hi-tech sector (ever hear of RIM and its Blackberry?), the metropolitan area has two universities, one of which has a music faculty. Adding a boost to the area’s Anglo-Canadian choral tradition is its notable German-Canadian population (in fact the city was called Berlin until World War I). Many of them are Mennonites, and that group’s strong choral tradition further bolsters the city’s musical life. This performance’s bass-baritone soloist, Daniel Lichti, is one of several members of that community to go on to a successful solo career.

The venue is the Centre in the Square (completed in 1980). Its main performance space, the Raffi Armenian Theatre (capacity 2047), is adaptable to both concert and opera performances thanks to an adjustable proscenium and movable banks of boxes. The design is such a success I am surprised it has not been emulated elsewhere.

The name of the Grand Philharmonic Choir sounds rather boastful, but “Grand” in this case refers to the name of the local river. Howard Dyck has been the choir's director for the past 38 years of its 88-year history. The Dream of Gerontius is just one of several ambitious works the choir is performing in this, his farewell season.

Elgar’s great work (premiered in 1900) is considered a (or perhaps the) high-water mark of the English oratorio tradition. It’s a singular work, recounting an elderly man’s slow death and subsequent entry into purgatory, described in Cardinal Henry Newman’s poem as a lake of cleansing flame.

The season also features soloists who are Canadian or residents. Ben Heppner, who was forced by illness to withdraw from the Canadian Opera Company’s diamond anniversary gala in November, also bowed out of this engagement the day before the performance. Luckily, John Mac Master had been lined up “just in case”, and did a marvelous job. He vehemently characterized the title role in Part I, driving home the anguish and fear of the dying man. In Part II, as the Soul of Gerontius, he voiced a calmer, more reconciled tone containing more than a trace of wonderment.

Daniel Lichti, as both the Priest (Part I) and the Angel of the Agony (Part II) sang with a strong, warm, steady tone. Here’s a singer whose prime years show no sign of abating.

Susan Platts got an early start in her career and spent some years apparently trying out different approaches to her repertory. This performance of the guiding Angel gave evidence of full maturity (her recent mentoring by Jessye Norman might be partly responsible). She deserves to be in line for a definitive recording of this role.

The choir had the requisite heft for the climaxes, as well it should given 114 voices. Tension slackened somewhat in the sections of musical filigree sung by the Choir of Angelicals, though, and the demons’ repeated Ha Has could have been more, well, demonic.

Like many choral specialists, Howard Dyck knows how to handle an orchestra as well. Elgar’s distinctive harmonies were brought into full relief. The work’s ending on a long-held chord followed by several seconds of rapt silence gave sure evidence of the spell the performance cast over the near-capacity audience.

Still to come in Howard Dyck’s farewell season: in April, Bach’s Mass in B-Minor (with Suzie Lablanc, Laura Pudwell, Michael Schade, and Russell Braun) and in May, the Verdi Messa di Requiem (with Sondra Radvanovsky, Marie-Nicole Lemieux, Richard Margison, and Nathan Berg).

Michael Johnson



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