Review: Despite some wobbles, Seventeen Voyces strides into Italian Baroque

Kevin Reeves and Seventeen Voyces. Photo: Shad Young

It’s hard to imagine an Ottawa concert landscape without Seventeen Voyces. Music director Kevin Reeves founded the group 23 years ago, carving out a niche by producing modest chamber operas by local composers as well as silent film screenings with live musical accompaniment, in addition to more standard choral rep. 

Like many of the city’s small amateur ensembles, the choir lives a sometimes precarious existence. Last year, a larger-than-expected financial shortfall almost put an end to things. But Reeves and the board successfully righted the ship, and Seventeen Voyces survived to see another season.

On Friday night at St. Matthew’s in the Glebe, Reeves presented an evening of Italian Baroque works, featuring professional soloists Bronwyn Thies-Thompson (soprano) and Dillon Parmer (tenor). It was a program that showcased Reeves’ considerable conducting gifts, but also exposed certain weaknesses that have dogged the choir for the past several seasons.

In many amateur choirs, the sopranos are usually the most numerous section and also the strongest. In Seventeen Voyces, only the first statement is true. Antonio Caldara’s complex and relentlessly high Crucifixus got off to a very shaky start. The timid, tentative and often under-pitch singing from the sopranos lead to an eventual collapse, with all sections in disarray, although Reeves managed to rally the troops for the finish. 

Montiverdi’s Magnificat and Carissimi’s groundbreaking oratorio Jephta fared better. I very much like Reeves’ conducting in this repertoire: clear, focused on shape and dramatic expression. His tempi I felt could have been quicker — the Fugite, fugite section of the Carissimi needed a punch of speed to better convey the urgency of the text. But he may have been sparing the choir a level of technical difficulty beyond its grasp. Even for an amateur group, I saw too many pairs of eyes glued to their scores, and Reeves’ gestures encouraging more volume or delayed attack often went unnoticed. 

Dillon Parmer is not an early music specialist per se, but I prefer his bel canto approach to this repertoire. Although his interpretation was never vulgar or over the top, Parmer put the Verdi in Monteverdi, singing with beautiful legato and judicious use of portamento for maximum expressive impact. This voice is warm and bright, not enormous but wonderfully projected, with real squillo on the high notes. 

Thies-Thompson is making a name for herself in the early music sphere. She is a sensitive and innately communicative musician, but vocally she can be inconsistent and Friday night was an example. The angelic, pure-white tone she can conjure up in her top register would thrill any Emma Kirkby fan. But in places the voice cracked, and the intonation and articulation in her scales and melismas wasn’t always precise. Both issues indicate that Thies-Thompson’s base of support isn’t as solid as it could be.

I would also like to start hearing a stronger, more projected, less breathy sound in her lower register. I don’t expect her to ever turn into a dramatic soprano, but she’s no longer a teenager and her instrument should be evolving and becoming more even and well-rounded. In her duet with Parmer in Monteverdi’s Zefiro Torna, she would simply disappear when the music dipped below a certain point on the staff — even though he was clearly soft-pedalling his own power to not overwhelm her. 

Several members of the choir were given smaller solos. The best of these were baritone Obi Ifediora and alto Barbara Okun, the two narrators in the Carrisimi. The continuo playing of cellist Olivier Henchiri and organist Marie Bouchard — playing a marvellous new positive organ by the Quebec builder Karl Wilhelm — also deserved the highest praise. 

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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.