Ottawa Choral Society takes Beethoven for a spin

Jean-Sebastien Vallée is the music director to the Ottawa Choral Society. Photo: Sophimage

The Ottawa Choral Society presents it’s take on Ludwig Van Beethoven this Friday. To offer a sense of what to expect from this concert, music director Jean-Sebastian Vallée answered some questions emailed by Artsfile’s Peter Robb.

Q. This is your “debut” in a large orchestral setting with the OCS. How are you approaching this concert?

A. This upcoming concert is indeed my ‘debut’ conducting OCS in a masterwork with orchestra. My work with the ensemble since the beginning of the season has been focused on the mastery of choral techniques … homogeneity of the voices, quality of tone, expressivity and precision of the diction and declamation, and unity of musical intent. It is always a bigger challenge to prepare a larger work, especially works by Beethoven, since they are more vocally challenging and require incredible focus.

Q. You are exploring Beethoven’s musical beginnings in this piece. What is the appeal of that work for you? 

A. The two main pieces are Beethoven’s Mass in C and his Choral-Fantasy. In both cases, Beethoven breaks formal, harmonic and stylistic molds, while staying mostly anchored in the classical aesthetic. In the Choral Fantasy, one can clearly  hear the first sketches of his 9th Symphony. In this case, Beethoven adds soloists and a chorus to the frame of the piano concerto (the same way he adds the same components to the symphony in the 9th). The melodic material and the humanistic text of the fantasy also remind of the famous Ode to Joy. In the case of the Mass in C, Beethoven wrote the piece as a commission for Prince Esterhazy (who was Joseph Haydn’s employer). In this mass setting, Beethoven tries to ‘imitate’ Haydn’s late masses – but somehow can’t escape his unique style and creates a piece completely Beethoven-like. From the free treatment of the text, the clear cyclical form of the work,  the harmony modulating to the mediant in the opening phrase, to the  surprising a cappella beginning of the work, everything here (although in a more restrained manner than in the Missa Solemnis) screams Beethoven. Therefore, working with earlier works that content the essence of what Beethoven is all about is one of the most inspiring and stimulating thing to conduct.

Q. The piece by James Wright, Immortal Beloved, is in a sense music about the other end of Beethoven’s life. Can you talk about this piece for me. Why did you want to program it?

James’s piece set to music Beethoven’s love letters that were found in his bedside table shortly after his death. Although those letters were most likely written at the end of the composer’s life – the enigma and mystery that come with them is at the core of Beethoven’s persona and can be found even in his earlier works – such as the fantasy and the mass. I programmed this piece to offer a more intimate, personal look at the composer’s life and soul. It is often hard to feel personally connected to a composer when hearing a large setting of a mass, so my hope is to make Beethoven’s music as well as his life at the centre of this concert.

Q. Can you talk about about the soloists performing on Friday including the pianist Maxim Bernard. 

A. Two of our soloists, soprano Myriam Leblanc and mezzo-soprano Marjorie Maltais are the 2016 winners of the OCS New Discoveries competition. The competition takes place every two years and allows OCS to promote and support young lyric talents from across the country. The vocal quartet is completed by Montreal based tenor Jacques-Olivier Chartier, also a former special mention of the New Discoveries program, and Luxembourg-based baritone, David Pike, a regular soloist with OCS and a favorite of the Ottawa audience. The quartet can depict Beethoven’s music with passion and strength. Quebec based pianist, Maxim Bernard is an old friend from college. He completed his doctorate in piano performance at Indiana University and has since them performed all over North America and Europe. It’s a pleasure and honor to share the stage with Maxim for the first time.

Q. We are approaching the end of your first season with the OCS. Can you talk about the year and the way forward?

A. OCS has a long tradition of musical excellence and this year has been about working on choral technique and sound to truly bring the ensemble to the forefront of the Ottawa choral scene. Our repertoire has also been varied, featuring large masterworks, but also simple a cappella pieces where the clarity of the voices, text and counterpoint are very transparent, thus bringing the ensemble to the next level of music making. In terms of repertoire, this season showcased a mix of classics as well as new pieces, which makes concerts always exciting for singers and audience alike. This season we had (will have) some exciting partnerships; Ben Heppner and Chamberfest in December, and in May we’ll present Ballade To The Moon with CBC Radio’s Eleanor Wachtel where poetry and music will come together. Although I can’t reveal much details yet about the 2017-18 season, I promise even more musical discoveries and exciting  partnership and collaborations.

The Ottawa Choral Society presents Immortal Beloved on Friday, March 24, at 7:30 p.m. The concert is at St. Joseph’s church, corner of Wilbrod and Cumberland. For tickets and more information please see


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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.