Review: Some moonstruck magic with the Ottawa Choral Society

The Ottawa Choral Society ended its season Saturday night in a decidedly moonstruck mood. Ballad to the Moon presented a nocturnally themed program heavily weighted toward contemporary works, livened up by a constellation of guest artists.

Music Director Jean-Sebastien Vallée joined the choir just last year, replacing the prodigiously talented Jordan de Souza, who was snatched away from Ottawa by the Komische Oper Berlin. Vallée has an energetic, firm, crystal-clear conducting style, and OCS seems to have embraced him warmly. He should also be commended for letting his assistants shine: Simon Rivard, Deirdre Kellerman and William Duffy were all given their moment on the podium.

To complement the choral music, CBC host Eleanor Wachtel read from a selection of poems inspired by the moon, stars, and sky. Matthew Larkin provided exceptionally attentive and assured piano accompaniment throughout.

For such a large ensemble, the modest stage at Dominion-Chalmers made for rather cramped quarters. The choir was crammed into a tight U formation — not the happiest arrangement, as demonstrated by more noticeable than usual tuning problems and several flubbed entries. Because voices at the ends of the rows stuck out so prominently, it was also difficult to judge overall blend.

Three Nocturnes by American composer Daniel Elder made for high-sugar start to the evening. Timothy Corlis’ percussive arrangement of Frère Jacques needed more incisive attack, but I was impressed by Kellerman’s crisp conducting, and would like to see more of her.

Morten Lauridsen’s Sure on this Shining Night was quite lovely, hushed and inward-looking. But the excerpt from Rachmaninoff’s All-night Vigil, conducted by Duffy, needed a richer, more Slavic sound and a stronger sense of legato horizontality. The cinematic, ECM-style outpourings of Ola Gjeilo Evening Prayer was a crowd-pleaser that showed off the substantial talent of tenor saxophonist Mike Tremblay.

In the second half, highlights included Eric Whitacre’s arresting, mysterious Water Night, confidently conducted by Rivard; NACO cellist Timothy McCoy’s open-hearted playing in Imant Raminsh’s exquisite setting of the Neruda poem In The Night We Shall Go In; and Vallée’s artfully calculated crescendo in Randall Thompson’s Choose Something Like a Star.

Ottawa composer Laura Hawley’s poppy, chipper setting of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 43, All Days are Nights, followed by the traditional spiritual Unclouded Day, closed the evening, and the season, in an exuberant mood.

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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.