Review: Choeur classique de l’Outaouais presents a daring seasonal program out of Bolivia

With all the fine music available in Ottawa, it’s too easy to forget and neglect the fine music being made across the bridge on the Quebec side. On Saturday night I made the snowy drive to Saint-François-de-Sales church to hear the Choeur classique de l’Outaouais with the Ensemble Prisme chamber group.  I was rewarded with an adventurous seasonal program that strayed far from the well-worn path of Messiahs, Christmas Oratorios, and familiar carols.

In 2013, two members of the choir travelled to Bolivia, hunting down music of the colonial Americas. They returned with about 100 original manuscripts from the 17th and 18th centuries, carefully preserved by local communities after the collapse of the Spanish empire and the Jesuit missions. The choristers did so with the blessing of Bolivia’s Association for Arts and Culture. Most of these scores had never left the country.

On Saturday, the musicians presented a sampling of what they discovered. The program featured a mass, a secular instrumental sonata, and religious songs by continental and colonial Spanish composers and anonymous Indigenous composers (according to the program notes, the Jesuits expected native musicians to toil “for the sole glory of God”, a standard of humility and piety that was never imposed on their European counterparts.)

Tomas de Torrejon y Velasco left Spain in 1667 for Lima, where he remained in until his death in 1728. His six-part Misa Octavo Tono is composed in a more primitive style than his florid Baroque counterparts were using back in the home country; whether this was due to the modesty of Velasco’s talent or the difficulty of keeping up with European trends in Lima was not explained.

The anonymous Caîma, Iyaî Jesus (Today, Lord Jesus) was prettily sung. It’s impossible for me to gauge the singers’ pronunciation of the Chiquitano language, but good on them for the effort. The charming, lively Vamos a Belén (Let’s go to Bethlehem, also written by an Indigenous composer) was the most idiomatic song on the program, with an irresistible Latin swing in its step. An anonymous, well-crafted trio sonata played by members of Ensemble Prisme might have been written in Venice; Frédéric Lacroix’s richly ornamented continuo on positive organ showed another facet of this exceptional collaborative musician’s wide-ranging gifts.

Mozart’s Vesperae Solennes de Confessore took up the first half of the concert. Choir conductor Tiphaine Legrand emphasized lovely, soft phrasing, bright sound and energetic tempi, so the performance didn’t lack for Rococo grace. Solos, including the famous Laudate Dominum, were very nicely executed by small sectional ensembles.

However, I would have liked to hear more dramatic, dynamic contrasts within and between the movements. The counterpoint in the big fugue sections needed clearer definition and more assertive attack — the choir appears to be severely under-bassed, so that essential feeling of weight and solidity just wasn’t there. And with such thin instrumental forces (one valiant, lone trumpet and tympani to supplement six violins and two cellos), the opening of the Magnificat — that grand, golden edifice Mozart built out of triplets and stately dotted notes — sounded timid and mousey.

The program repeats Sunday afternoon at 3 p.m.

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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.