Review: Capital Chamber Choir delivers beauty but little relevance

The Capital Chamber Choir.

If art music is supposed to reflect its times, you’d expect a program featuring new choral works by young local composers to be full of contradictions and tension, with maybe some references to today’s climate of social upheaval and political anxiety.

Instead, Saturday’s concert with Jamie Loback and the Capital Chamber Choir had beauty by the bushel, but very little in the way of soul-searching, commentary or contemporary relevance.

In the first half, the choir performed music by four Ottawa composers, including two who are still in their teens. Nicholas Piper’s setting of the Magnificat is not as complex or successful as some of his more recent creations (I believe he wrote it in 2012–the program notes were heavy on translations and light on practical details about the actual works or composers). In his explanation to the audience, Piper said he tried to capture the Virgin Mary’s frightened and awestruck reaction to the Angel Gabriel. But the music is so generic and blandly pretty that the text could have been almost anything.

Rebecca Gray’s I cannot, I would, I wait offered far more interest. Gray says she is not religious, so her setting of fragments of fatalistic, gloomy Christian poetry by 16th-century German women bears the cool-headed, quizzical stamp of the observer. Gray deftly contrasts hissing, creepy whispers with densely layered harmonies, building to the central dirge-like climax. It’s a wonderfully strange, effective, economical little piece.

Loback conducted the premieres of works by two members of the Ottawa Regional Youth Choir. Madox Terrell, 18, has composed an ambitious setting of the psalm Quoniam Iniquitates, complete with sustained solos for mezzo-soprano and cello (the composer played the piano accompaniment himself). The writing sometimes strays into a slightly pop style, but there are some well-crafted effects, such as the opening bass drone, reminiscent of Buddhist chanting, and the ambiguous concluding chord, which ends the piece in a question mark.

Emily Green is even younger at 17. It was not explained why, with almost infinite options, this young woman would chose the ultra-conventional, ceremonial In Flanders Fields as her text. Her setting was attractive and correct, if nostalgic; Green clearly has loads of talent and would benefit from training and guidance to expose her to more contemporary techniques and styles.

British-American composer Tarik O’Regan’s intoxicatingly lovely 2006 work Threshold of Night, with poetry by Kathleen Raine, closed the first half.

After intermission came the main work on the program: the a cappella Mass for Double Choir by Swiss composer Frank Martin. A contemporary of Olivier Messiaen, Martin wrote the mass between 1922 and 1926, but did not allow it to be performed until 1963.

Loback’s conducting was crystalline, bringing details such as Martin’s subtle, fleeting nods to Renaissance rhythms and Baroque melismatic singing into sharp focus. The hushed opening of the Gloria was heady with anticipation; the rise and fall of pentatonic scales in the Et resurrexit section of the Credo had the exuberance of wingbeats.

The concert, the last of the Capital Chamber Choir’s Season, took place at St. Joseph’s on Laurier. A tall screen is usually placed behind musicians performing at this venue, projecting the sound and mitigating the huge reverb. The choir was videotaping the concert and decided to remove the screen because it cast a shadow. As a result, there were issues with the choral blend, with many individual voices standing out; intonation tended toward flat; overall sound was not of the quality I have come to expect from this group. Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I think audio should take precedence — even in the age of Instagrammable everything.

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Natasha Gauthier has been covering classical music in Canada and the US for more than 20 years. She was the classical critic at the Ottawa Citizen, and was one of the founding critics of Montreal's HOUR Magazine. She has served on the classical music and dance juries for the Governor General's Performing Arts Awards. You can also read her at her blog, Natasha has a BA in Journalism from Concordia University.