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Soundstreams presents mystical choral works

Koerner Hall
02/02/2012 -  and Februrary 3*, 2012
Kaija Saariaho: Tag des Jahrs
Rodion Shchedrin: The Sealed Angel

Amadeus Choir, The Elmer Iseler Singers, Lydia Adams (Conductor)
Leslie Newman (Flute)
Dancers from ProArteDanza, Lars Scheibner (Choreographer)

ProArteDanza members (© Sophie Giraud)

This is Soundstreams 29th year of operation, all under its founder, Lawrence Cherney. Its aim has always been to present new, innovative music from all over the world in innovative ways, as born out by this pair of concerts.

The concert opened with Kaija Saariaho’s Tag des Jahrs (“Day of the Year”) completed in 2002 to four poems (Der Frühling, Der Sommer, Der Herbst, Der Winter - “Spring”, “Summer,” “Autumn”, “Winter”) by Friedrich Hölderlin. The work is for choir (in this case the 21-voice Elmer Iseler Singers) performing a capella with an accompaniment of electronic sounds. It lasts about 15 minutes.

The electronic sounds are manipulated by a member of the choir (in this case tenor Mitchell Cady) as directed by the conductor - i.e., the electronic soundscape is not a fixed element that the singers must adjust to, but operates more like another manipulable instrument. The sounds are mostly very subtle, conjuring up, i.e., not merely imitating) natural sounds inspired by the four nature poems.

Each poem is performed straightforwardly with no rhetorical reiteration of words or phrases. The words are intoned (or floated) mostly very gently, and the last few lines of Der Winter are whispered. One might expect Der Herbst to be, well, autumnal, but it bounces along in a sprightly manner.

The composer uses the term “archaic” to describe her approach, and states that she wanted to avoid any sense of time or place. The result is effectively mysterious. It was instructive to be able to hear this just one day after attending her opera L’Amour de loin currently being performed by the Canadian Opera Company.

Rodion Shchedrin’s The Sealed Angel is a 70-minute work for large choir (in this case about 70 voices), with a flutist playing during the interludes between the nine sections. It is a liturgical work completed in 1988 for the millennial celebrations of Russia’s adoption of Christianity. The title is a reference to a 19th century story by Nikolai Leskov (author also of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk) telling of an icon officially defaced by hot sealing wax; its creator defiantly restores it. The work does not recount the tale. The title is a sideswipe at the official atheism of the soviet state (and who knew it would end so soon after the work was composed!?) The piece does not strictly follow Orthodox liturgy but is actually more a meditation on it and stands as an example
of the spiritual power of art.

While the work is composed for choir and flute, on this occasion it was performed with choreographed movement. Five female members of Toronto’s ProArteDanza troupe were chosen by Berlin-based choreographer Lars Scheibner to recreate his choreography first presented with The Sealed Angel when performed by the Berlin Radio Choir in 2005. The choristers also move around the stage after entering down the aisles of the auditorium - in fact they have to move en masse on 22 occasions during the piece. This can be tricky; at one point, while carrying their illuminated portable music stands, they had to walk backwards - while singing - being careful not to step on any of the dancers who were at that point lying on the stage. Through all this the composition is quite the roller-coaster of emotive expression. Conductor Lydia Adams manages to keep things on track throughout.

These Toronto performances were the fifth iteration of Scheibner’s production (Lawrence Cherney saw it in Copenhagen in 2008 and decided on the spot to present it here). This was also the North American premiere of Shchedrin's piece.

Lars Scheibner changed the work somewhat for the Toronto production as here he had an all-female instead of a mixed group because, as he stated in a pre-performance session, the five women were the strongest of the 40 or so dancers he had to choose from.

The choreographic style is emphatic barefoot modernism and was given fully committed performances by the five dancers (Brittany Castiglione, Andrea Gregorio, Erin Poole, Kelly Shaw, and Paulina Witkowski). Flutist Leslie Newman also participated in the stage dynamics. Singers with brief but atmospheric solos were tenor Bud Roach and trebles Daniel Bedrossian and Nicholas Rita.

The music, much like Rachmaninoff’s vespers, marvelously evokes the ecstatic and sometimes anguished expressions of its chosen religious mysteries. I am sure it can be performed simply by choir and flutist without the stage business, but Lars Scheibner’s choreography proves to be a positive contribution to an absorbing experience.

Most performances of rarified contemporary music gets just a single performance. It’s quite a feather in the cap for Soundstreams to attract a large audience for two performances in the 1100-seat Koerner Hall - an ideal venue, by the way, for this and so much else.

Michael Johnson



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