Review: Christmas concert marathon provided some musical gems

The King's Singers joined with the Ottawa Choral Society to celebrate the holidays.

Earlier this week, I was following a Twitter discussion about the unseemly length of many classical programs. Musicians and patrons seemed to agree that more concerts of an hour to 90 minutes would be ideal, especially when the evening includes several shorter pieces. The reasons were practical (easier to plan an evening out, with enough time for dinner afterwards, or just a lighter babysitting bill) as well as artistic (with fewer pieces to focus on, the audience can appreciate them in a meaningful way, or at least walk out remembering what they heard).

Friday night’s marathon Chamberfest concert at Dominion-Chalmers — repeated Saturday and sold out both nights — would have benefited from this advice. The King’s Singers and the Ottawa Choral Society performed 25 compositions in a program that lasted well over two and a half hours, factoring in opening speeches and contest announcements (the music started almost 20 minutes late) as well as a long intermission. It was an onslaught of seasonal sentiment that left you feeling like you had been force-fed too many Christmas cookies.

If the program had shown any originality, any attempt to reach beyond traditional white, male and mostly dead composers for inspiration, its inflated size might have been justified. When it comes to programming more works by women, composers of colour and other underrepresented creators, Christmas choral music offers an orchard’s worth of low-hanging fruit. Last year, the Choeur classique de l’Outaouais presented a fresh, utterly charming program of Christmas music from South America. So it was disheartening to see the lack of diversity in this weekend’s program: only one work out of 25 was by a woman, Coreen Duffy’s lively, restless setting of the Jewish hymn Adon olam. (Half-marks for the theme song from the Bette Midler film The Rose, written by Amanda McBroom, which the Choral Society presented in a mashup with the Praetorius hymn Lo, how a rose)

These long, jukebox programs can turn into a forgettable blur, but a few gems stood out. The aforementioned Duffy, crisply sung by the Choral Society under their amply talented conductor Jean-Sébastien Vallée; the Kings’ delicately shaded, reverential performance of the motet Ave Virgo sponsa dei by the 16th-century Netherlandish composer Adrian Willaert. But the British sextet’s rendition of Arvo Pärt’s Bogoroditse Djevo was a little too jocular, while their French pronunciation was surprisingly careless (as any well-schooled francophone chorister will tell you, there’s no “w” in Noël).

The second half of the evening had a more pops flavour, with the the Kings switching to tight jazz harmonies for a crowd-pleasing medley of Christmas songs. Two rousing choral works by former King’s Singer Bob Chilcott, performed jointly by both groups, should have ended the concert. Instead, presenters couldn’t resist tacking on a carol singalong. (Matthew Larkin, who provided piano accompaniment, deserves praise as much for his stamina as for his excellent, relaxed playing).

The concert’s unwieldy length was compounded by the venue’s lack of basic physical comforts. After the two-hour mark, DC’s pews felt even harder than usual, while inadequate ventilation meant the audience had to endure sauna-like temperatures along with the pervasive smell of hundreds of damp coats. Let’s hope the church’s winter HVAC system is next on the renovations list.

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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.