Review: Caelis Academy Ensemble shines in performance of Handel’s Israel in Egypt

Matthew Larkin led the Caelis Academy Ensemble and the Ottawa Baroque Consort in a performance of Handel's Israel in Egypt Friday night.

About 18 months ago, Matthew Larkin left his post at Christ Church Cathedral. At that time he told ARTSFILE of his intention to start pursuing his performing career as a pianist, organist and conductor more actively.

He also talked about his dream of forming a new choir that would eventually lead to an academy of where young people could gain an education that has music at its centre, much like the cathedral schools in England where literally there are centuries of tradition.

That was then. Clearly much has been accomplished since.

Larkin certainly is performing regularly around the city and beyond, but he has also managed to assemble an ensemble in that cathedral tradition that has blended young and older voices into a pretty darn fine choir, certainly able to hold its own with any in the city.

The Caelis Academy Ensemble was on full view Friday evening in a performance of an oratorio by G.F. Handel at Southminster United Church. It wasn’t Messiah, however. This concert tackled the earlier Israel in Egypt which was written a few years before the famous work. It has a libretto thought to be by Charles Jennens, who prepared the text for Messiah.

It tells the story of the exodus of the Jews, led by Moses, out of Egypt.

Israel In Egypt is not performed all that much, but it is a worthy piece of music, full of the kinds of flourishes that Handel would improve upon in Messiah. There are few of the signature solos that make Messiah so memorable but for a chorus Israel in Egypt is a real workout.

The 46-voice choir was clearly well-prepared and in the kind of singing shape to be able hold form throughout. Their attention to detail and the high quality of their singing was consistent throughout and did not seem to flag in any way. This talented group benefited greatly from a sweet clear sound especially coming from the trebles and sopranos that definitely added much to the mix.

The Ottawa Baroque Consort was on hand to offer a warm period presence ably abetted by Southminster’s music director Roland Graham on the harpsichord.

The soloists all performed well especially in the duets in the second half that paired sopranos Ellen McAteer and Linda Tsatsanis, baritones Jorell Williams and Clarence Frazer and countertenor Andrew Robar and tenor Asitha Tennekoon who seems to be everywhere in Ottawa this season.

Having come this far the dream of Caelis is to keep expanding, with stated plans to add a training choir for very young singers and then to establish that school with music at its beating heart.

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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.