The Tale of Two Choirs

March 9, 2010

Richard Eaton Singers

Leonard Ratzlaff, Artistic Director with the Vancouver Chamber Choir; John Washburn, Artistic Director.  "UNDER THE SINGING SKIES"

Music by Watson Henderson, Lotti, Schütz, Nickel, Teehan, Kampen, Chatman, Dvo?ak, Stanford, Hodkinson, Washburn, Macmillan, Willan.

First Presbyterian Church



I must begin with a frank statement: I went to the recent performance by The Richard Eaton Singers only because they were doing a work set to poetry by one of my former teachers at the University of Alberta, who also happened for a period of time to be one of their singers.  Their annual concert series is advertised this season by a strange slogan, "Let yourself go!", as if their take on choral repertoire really offered unrestrained abandon.   Well, far from it.  Rock band they ain't - which is OK, really - and to find a fanatical follower in me, someone to let himself go, they will have to work a bit harder (which they will not).  I am not talking about them as performers, for I think the Richard Eaton Singers are a fabulous instrument.  I am talking about the music itself, and this is, as far as I am concerned, bland (here I refer mostly to the ultra-conservative Anglo-Saxon choral tradition).


Do not get me wrong.  I have not much against a conservative work, a work which is well-written (that's the easy part) and, more importantly, offers a moment of metaphysical astonishment, a moment in which time has stopped - and you let yourself go emotionally, totally overwhelmed by the music and immersed in it, even if the piece is intended as humorous.  However, this seldom happens.  In the North American choral milieu, and the same goes for the organ community here, mediocrity is the norm.  It almost looks like there is a special breed of untalented composers who will only write for choirs (or organ, often for both) because they would not have made it anywhere else.  In a sense, they are like parasites that live off the living dead body of the predominantly white and Protestant (or Roman Catholic) conservatism.  But the mummy does not reject them; it wants more - a symbiotic relationship, bent on perpetuating primitive, Soviet-like populism.


The concert in question only confirmed what I had feared.  It was a very, very successful performance by any account.  (By the way, I see nothing wrong with the audience members being largely of retirement age.  Again, what's wrong with that?)  This time around, the Richard Eaton Singers sang along with the widely admired Vancouver Chamber Choir, then on tour.  In terms of performance quality, it was a treat.  In terms of the repertoire, a bore.  Had it not been for two Baroque works, I would have had nothing to write about, with a couple of exceptions.


One of these exceptions was the première of a new work by the Toronto-based Ruth Watson Henderson, a setting of poetry by E. D. Blodgett, Edmonton's former Poet Laureate and the recipient of two Governor General's Awards.  Blodgett is a national treasure, a writer whose vision transcends the boundaries of language, culture, and time.  His poetry has a pure, universal quality (universal in the simplest sense of the word), at the same time being often complex, perhaps even intentionally obscure.  He is, well, normal, an honest artist who treats his potential readers as equals, as partners in a dialogue, in which both sides are expected to rely on each other's intelligence, knowledge, and sensitivity.  That's the way it should be.


The four poems he wrote for this project represent the traditional bucolic poetry of the seasons.  Reading the text, I had a bout of uneasiness, as I suspected the author forced himself to write in a slightly different, much more "straightforward" style, more suited to the anticipated character of the music, perhaps?  In the end, the poetry was neither simple enough nor complex enough within the context of the resultant musical setting, at least not so to my liking.  Watson Henderson's piece (called rather unimaginatively A Song of the Seasons) did not strike me as particularly adventurous, but was nonetheless better than the usual Canadian fare.  All in all, a satisfying piece, in which good poetry was met by good music.  This work was performed by the two choirs together, and conducted, as always with quiet yet impressive assuredness, by the RES Artistic Director, Leonard Ratzlaff.


That contemporary choral music is indeed capable of helping you let yourself go was proven by the Vancouver Chamber Choir performance of a gem of a work, a little masterpiece (little in size, not in quality), the onomatopoeic Clocks (the text imitating noises made by various, presumably old, clocks), composed by Stephen Chatman, also living in Vancouver.  In North American choral world, Chatman is a giant and it shows.  His choral music, representing a rather traditionalist stance, is so wisely conceived, so wittily designed, and then so well written, it is pointless to discuss his technique or stylistic choices.  I experience similar metaphysical joy while listening to choral music by Imant Raminsh or R. Murray Schafer (the latter the king of Canadian innovators).  So, here you go - a decidedly conservative work, yet so extraordinary that its style and compositional technique are irrelevant.  What counts is the incredible worth of that piece, reversely proportional to its brevity.  Kudos to the Vancouver Chamber Choir and their Artistic Director, John Washburn, for championing Chatman's work. 


Two more compositions, also sung by the Vancouver group, stick in my memory, the Crucifixus by Antonio Lotti (1667-1740), written in the style, which even during his time was considered conservative (here you go again!), but incredibly intense and beautiful in its subdued evocation of Christ's suffering; and the Deutsches Magnificat by Heinrich Schütz (1584-1672), a piece situated on the opposite end of the emotional spectrum - an uplifting and reassuring confession of simple, unfaltering faith. 


In a sense, this old music (plus the Chatman) made the choir shine, whereas the majority of new stuff performed on that programme was made shine by the choir.  The difference is significant.


more in Music Feature     |     posted Mar 26th, 2010 at 9:25am     

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