Review: Combined choirs marry well with Mozart

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

The Ottawa Choral Society and Montreal’s St. Lawrence Choir occupy similar niches: long-established, substantial, disciplined amateur choirs specializing in traditional large, sacred choral repertoire with orchestra.

Iwan Edwards, the beloved, longtime conductor of the St. Lawrence Choir, was also Brian Law’s successor as music director of the OCS. Edwards capitalized on the natural affinities (and geographic proximity) of both choirs, starting a tradition of collaboration and joint performances. On Friday, the two ensembles presented Mozart’s Davide Penitente and Requiem to a sold-out crowd at St. Joseph’s on Laurier, accompanied by the McGill Chamber Orchestra (the concert repeats in Montreal Saturday night).

Philippe Bourque, the Montreal choir’s current director, led the first half. Mozart’s Davide Penitente is a cantata of sorts, sung in Italian, and featuring music that Mozart pilfered from his own unfinished Mass in C Minor. Bourque delivered a polished, sober performance, but one that fell short when it came to the work’s almost operatic sense of drama.

Three of the program’s four soloists were past winners of the OCS’s New Discoveries auditions: tenor Charles Sy, mezzo-soprano Marjorie Maltais, and baritone Iain MacNeil (who didn’t appear until the second half). Sy continues to impress with his beguiling, sweet tone, beautifully shaped phrasing and sincerely communicated expression (I’ll get to hear more of him later this summer at the Merola opera apprentice program in San Francisco, where he’ll be appearing in Mozart’s Il re pastore).

Maltais showed off abundant colour and on-point coloratura. The young soprano Marianne Lambert has been making big waves in the Canadian vocal scene, but I found her slightly inconsistent on Friday. Yes, her voice is remarkably pretty, with effortless high notes and the attractive, silvery ping of an expensive wine glass. But her much-lauded athletic virtuosity did not always materialize — she could not keep up with the conductor’s lively tempo in her aria Tra l’oscure ombre funeste — and her pitch tended to stray sharp.

Tuning was an issue for the orchestra as well. With Friday’s muggy weather, the heat and humidity inside the packed church were oppressive (the concert was being recorded, so ceiling fans were shut off). The French horns in particular struggled. But such are the hazards of summer concerts in non-climate controlled venues.

OCS music director Jean-Sébastien Vallée took the podium for the Requiem after the break. Here, the conducting and choral singing were much more assertive and confident, with clearer intention. Both choirs perform this work frequently and clearly familiarity bred comfort. The fugue movements, which had been weak and limp in the first piece, came into sharper focus.

Vallée had the choirs sing with brighter vowels and in a German-inflected Latin — u pronounced as v and so on. It was a judicious choice for dealing with such a large group, turning the definition up without having to sacrifice power. The Dies irae had ferocious energy and fire, the Rex tremendae featured satisfying tension between legato and short, dotted rhythms, and the Agnus Dei was an affecting plea.

The audience finally got to hear Iain MacNeil’s ringing, bright baritone, but the Tuba mirum sits much too low for him — it needs a singer with an Old Testament-style bass register. Bruno Laurence-Joyal’s trombone solo had poetic shape.

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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.