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Volume 19 Issue 5 - February 2014

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Beat by Beat | Choral

Beat by Beat | Choral SceneBack Then ForthBENJAMIN STEINThere are awesome concerts on the horizon for February andMarch, and I will try to give shoutout space to as many of them aspossible. Please check out the listings for the ones I miss – thereare great choices for every taste.First, though, as part of this year’s continuing exploration of newchoral music, this column will look back at several Toronto events thattook place in January – a rare retrospective angle for a listings column,but one that points to engaging developments and possibilities in theToronto choral scene; choral aficionados, take note.On January 17, as part of their celebration of 60 years of professionalchoral singing, Soundstreams programmed a salon nightentitled, “New Directions in Choral Music.” Soundstreams’ Salon 21is a monthly performance and lecture event, inventively curated byKyle Brenders, with a wide variety of performers and composers. It isfree of charge, and you can sit with a glass of wine as the discussiontakes place.This evening brought together two groups that on the face of it,seem wildly disparate. As the evening progressed, interesting connectionsemerged.Choir! Choir! Choir! is the brainchild of two easygoing but skilledmusicians, Nobu Adilman and Daveed Goldman. For three years theyhave been meeting interested participants, usually in a bar, handingout song sheets and then creating fun and inventive arrangements ofpop and rock songs, sometimes on the spot.The initiative has been wildly successful, and has led to recordingsand media appearances. At the Soundstreams event the audiencewatched a video of Choir! Choir! Choir! performing Daft Punk’sGet Lucky. a club number which was one of last year’s catchierguitar riffs.The night’s other group, the Element Choir, is a different phenomenonaltogether. This ensemble works entirely in improvised form.The conductor and founder of the Element Choir, Christine Duncan,has a two-page lexicon of gestures that have specific sonic meaning,and as the piece progresses, she improvises its shape and structure bycombining different sounds and letting their combinations grow anddevelop organically.The performance was only several minutes long, but often thepieces become extended soundscapes that can last as long as an hour.It is certainly not the usual paradigm that one expects from a choralconcert, but it is an absolutely arresting experience.The singers in the ensemble improvise fearlessly, and one hearsclicks, wooshing, yelps, growls and hums as well as melodic fragmentsand timbres that evoke classical, jazz and folk singing techniques. TheElement Choir works more like an orchestral ensemble than a traditionalchoir, as the skills of individual members of the ensemble areemployed to create solo lines that blend into the larger soundscape.The aspect of each group that represented the clearest challenge tothe traditional choral model is that neither ensemble used sheet music– a tool that most choirs cannot do without. Choir! Choir! Choir! useslyric sheets, but presumably can dispense with these once parts havebeen learned.Choir! Choir! Choir!’s arrangements of pop songs use repeatedsyncopation, as is stylistically appropriate. These type of rhythms, socommon throughout the last century, often represents a challenge forclassically trained choirs. While Choir! Choir! Choir!’s syncopationsare not wildly difficult to hear or replicate, some of them would lookawkward and confusing when notated with traditional sheet music,and would likely cause a few stutters for classically trained musicians.Choir! Choir! Choir! relies instead on their singers’ ears, and isaccompanied by guitar rather than the ubiquitous rehearsal piano. Inoticed that both the syncopations and the tuning of this group had alively quality that piano-trained choirs often lack.The ElementChoir, meanwhile,dispensesalmost entirelywith the divisionof labour that mostchoirs embody– a composition,usually createdby one individual,that the conductorand singersmust attempt toexecute. Instead,the conductorand singers areco-creators,blending theirskills and ideasin an improvisedprocessthat will never berepeated in thesame manner.Culchahworks Arts Collective. We StillDare To Dream,January 20, 2014.The work of these two groups has its own inherent value, of course– but as I listened to the performances, I couldn’t help thinking whata shot in the arm the techniques employed in these ensembles wouldbe to more standard classical choral training as well. The ability toexecute complex rhythms, improvise and experiment with extendedperformance techniques without a musical score in hand, is of coursean integral part of music training. But how often are these skills calledon in choirs?Imagine entire university courses devoted to either of these choralparadigms. How much more confident young singers would be in a12 | February 1, 2014 - March 7, 2014 thewholenote.com

variety of musical situations,many of whichthey will encounterin the working world,in which they have tothink – and sing – ontheir feet.Daring to Dream:Moving on to anotherchoral event – onJanuary 20, theAmerican holiday celebratingthe birthday ofMartin Luther King Jr.,the Culchahworks ArtsCollective presentedWe Still Dare ToDream, a new oratoriowritten to commemoratethe 50th anniversaryof King’shistoric “I Have aDream” speech.The work wasconceived by Andrew Craig, an astonishingly talented composer,producer and performer who has also worked as a radio personalityfor the CBC. The oratorio grew out of a promise that Craig made tohis mother that he would somehow mark this occasion with a newmusical work, even if he had to stand outside and play it on the streeton January 20.Craig had originally hoped to use the text of the actual speech,but when this proved impossible, he simply decided to write hisown libretto and set it to music. He enlisted the support of theFaith Chorale and the University of Toronto Gospel Choir, as wellas assembling a third choral ensemble, band and violin soloist(Andréa Tyniec).We Still Dare To Dream is a sprawling and ambitious mixture ofsolos, choruses and spoken recitations that seeks to bring the ideasand challenges posed by King’s oration into a new century of conflictand challenge.I was unfortunately not in Toronto during the performance, but Iattended the dress rehearsal in an effort to get a sense of some aspectsof the work.I wonder how effective the spoken word facet of the oratorio ultimatelywas. Dramatic recitation is an incredibly difficult technique tomake work; even with musical underscoring, it can too easily slip intoearnestness or portentousness.But the musical sections of the piece were superb. The choralwriting generally supported the vocal solos, which were executed byfour virtuoso Toronto singers from Jewish, Muslim, East Indian andAmerican gospel traditions: David Wall, Waleed Abdulhamid, SubaSankaran and Sharon Riley.There was also a delightful section in which a group of youngToronto primary and secondary school students came out and sang,danced, executed martial arts moves and engaged in a call-andresponserap with Craig.Craig is a master of gospel composition, but he did not limit himselfto that genre, instead executing convincing and catchy compositionalriffs on ragas and middle eastern vocal techniques from religious traditionsthat often find themselves at war. The syncretic aspects of themusic reflected the composition’s essential theme, which was reconciliation,unity, peace and activism.I can see this work having a life beyond this particular anniversaryoccasion. The American Paul Winter Consort spent years travelling todifferent cities, performing the Missa Gaia. The experienced musiciansof the ensemble often combined with local choirs, especiallyyouth and children’s groups. Craig’s work has the potential to be aCanadian version of this performance model. I hope other ensemblesEWEN LEWIS PHOTOGRAPHYOURSEASONMarch 26, 2014 | 7:30 pmKoerner Hall, TELUS Centre for Performance and Learning273 Bloor St. WestMASS INB MINORThe TMC’s clarity of expression and ConductorNoel Edison’s artistry at combining choral andorchestral forces will create an emotionallyand intellectually uplifting experience of Bach’smonumental work.Noel Edison conductorJennifer Taverner sopranoLesley Bouza sopranoJennifer Enns Modolo mezzo-sopranoIsaiah Bell tenorMichael York baritoneFestival OrchestraBOX OFFICE416-408-0208 | www.tmchoir.org/bminorTICKETS SENIORS VOX TIX– $ 87 $ 35– $ 81 $ 25 FOR 30 & UNDERthewholenote.com February 1, 2014 - March 7, 2014 | 13

Volume 26 (2020- )

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