JWR Articles: Live Event - Ontario University Choral Festival (Conductor: Harris Loewen) - February 6, 2006

Ontario University Choral Festival

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Gloria greatly appreciated

Following the final release of what quite possibly is the most harmonic Amen ever penned, the capacity crowd stood as one to applaud and cheer the world première of Peter Landey’s Gloria. Landey, wearing both his heart and reverence for liturgy on his sleeve has conjured up an unabashedly honest setting that successfully manages to make something old new again.

From the opening “Gloria in excelsis Deo,” the hall was awash in confident hope and strength as the combined choral forces added their obvious enthusiasm, inspired and driven by conductor Harris Loewen. Loewen was an able champion and brought out the full range of dynamics and colour, notably the ethereal texture of “Domine Deus” and the full-cry launch in “Qui sedes ad desteram Patris,” which kept audience and performers alike riveted throughout.

Lesley Kingham provided the organ accompaniment and had solved the slight ensemble problems that prevented the earlier Schütz’s Danksagen wir alle Gott from achieving the same level of excellence. Landey uses the organ for much more than vocal reinforcement. The interludes between sections are full of harmonic surprises and delectable dissonance. His bass lines often slip into the realm of “blue” just long enough to keep the compositional purists at bay and “chordal” admirers intrigued. These excursions into the unexpected and the composer’s mastery of voicing, combine to lift this work into the highest level of new music whose first performance, like too many “commissions,” should not also be its last. No worries: given that four other conductors were in the room and witnessed the impact, this Gloria should delight concertgoers for decades.

The first half of the program was devoted to demonstrating the current state-of-the-art of the four choirs separately. Noted composer and choral conductor, Dr. Leonard Enns did double duty as affable emcee and thoughtful adjudicator.

The McMaster University Choir provided the other Gloria of the afternoon. The chorus was best in its mid-range: the top occasionally out of reach while the men need more air support to balance their colleagues. The solo quartet, anchored by Geoff Ball, bass, acquitted themselves well. Conductor David Holler found the perfect lilt for Offenbach’s confection, “Neighbour’s Chorus,” delivering a performance that added welcome contrast to the proceedings. Next time, en français, j’espère?

Next up was the University of Guelph Choir singing Mozart. The Ave Verum began promisingly but came up a bit short of pitch accuracy and truly fluid legato. Conductor Marta McCarthy was most certainly clear, however using her hands to actually shape the music and “pull” the tone from her charges could only add to the result. In <“em>Laudate Dominum,” the soprano soloist had an incredibly beautiful change of register that was savoured and appreciated.

In many ways Arvo Pärt’s Magnificat was the finest work of the “competition” portion of the day. Christiaan Teeuwsen lovingly sculpted the stark work with an intensity that was reinforced by his carefully developed dynamic plan. In the Gabrieli which followed, apprentice conductor Katrina Meerveld was a model of clarity and precision and now needs to explore the possibilities and capabilities of the left hand, which can be so much more than mirror the right.

Loewen’s readings with the Brock University Chamber Choir were consistently fine. Notable was Locus Iste where he drew a broad range of feeling—from menace to wonder—out of his attentive singers. His bonbon, Watson Henderson’s “The Poor Little Girls of Ontario,” was great fun, just needing an ounce of relaxation to slip it into the category of superb.

The organizers of this festival and the educational institutions involved are to be commended for bringing so many students together for a weekend of music making and camaraderie. Having just reviewed 15 (five gang members struggle to find meaning for their lives on the streets of Singapore—cross-reference below) it is heartening to see these young people actively engaged in choral art. One wonders if everyone, early on (and no matter what their beliefs), had the opportunity to sing “Gloria in excelsis Deo” to the top of their lungs, whether more lives might avoid the hollow affection and atmosphere of despair that permeate the culture of thugs. JWR

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The Last Word of David - Randall Thompson
Alleluia - Randall Thompson
Coronation Mass in C Major, KV 317 - Gloria - Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Neighbour's Chorus - Jacques Offenbach
Laudate Dominum - Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Magnificat - Arvo Pärt
Nunc Dimittis - Giovanni Gabrieli
O Be Joyful - John Rutter
Danksagen wir alle Gott - Henrich Schütz
Locus Iste - Anton Bruckner
The Dark Hills - Keith Bissell
The Poor Little Girls of Ontario - Ruth Watson Henderson
Gloria - Peter Landey
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