Pro Coro New Year’s Eve concert
Holy Trinity Anglican Church
December 31st, 2017
Ēriks Ešenvalds: Stars
Ivo Antognini: Canticum Novum
Mendelssohn: from Sechs Sprüche Op.79
J.S. Bach: Wohl mir, dass ich Jesum habe from Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben BWV 147
Joby Talbot: ‘Santiago’ from Path of Miracles
Ann-Sofi Söderqvist: What is Life?
Thomas LaVoy The Same Stream
Rossini: ‘Toast pour le nouvel an’ (Les peches de vieillesse Vol.2 No.1)
Trad. Arranged Desmond Early: The Parting Glass
Mendelssohn: ‘Denn hat seinen Englein befohlen’ MWV B53
There are plenty of us who don’t particularly want to venture out into a wind-chill of -40C to watch Edmonton’s New Year’s fireworks, and are equally adverse to a noisy New Year’s Eve party where too much is drunk and you have to wait interminably for a taxi to get you home.
For us party-shirkers, Edmonton’s best choir, Pro Coro, had the perfect answer: a New Year’s concert in the humble, atmospheric surroundings of Holy Trinity Anglican Church. They started at 7.30 on New Year’s Eve, and finished exactly when they promised they would, as 9.30, allowing us plenty of time to toddle home while the roads were still quiet. To make sure we hadn’t, Scrooge-like, entirely eschewed the spirit of the season, prosecco and treats were served in the intermission, and sometime after nine, conductor Michael Zaugg announced that it had to be New Year that moment somewhere in the world. He promptly distributed sparkly pointed hats to all the choir, donning one himself (it greatly suited him). A miniature reflecting mirror ball mysteriously appeared, and was ceremoniously lowered to the traditional countdown, and then the choir and the audience sang Auld Lang Syne.
Before that was a more rarefied indulgence, as the choir sang a wide range of music. Most of it was strongly Christian – appropriate, given that we were in an Anglican Church and New Year’s Eve fell on a Sunday – leavened with a couple of works with a strong philosophical bent, and two complete interlopers: Rossini musing on the sins of his old age in the delightful ‘Toast pour le nouvel an” to the poem by Émilien Pacini, and the 17th Century Scottish song The Parting Glass, lovingly sung by the choir and with a very good soloist in Caleb Nelson (the Scottish seem to have the genre of maudlin songs of parting after drinking sewn up, though some readers may know this song better in a version based on it by Bob Dylan, Restless Farewell).
The Christians had it over the philosophers, for the highlights were religious works by Mendelssohn and Joby Talbot. Mendelssohn wrote six short unaccompanied motets in Berlin between 1843 and 1846, to go with the Lutheran liturgy, to Biblical texts and each ending with the word ‘Hallelujah’. Zaugg had chosen three, reordering them to make chronological sense. The first was No.5 ‘Im Advent’ celebrating that the redeemer is coming, then No 1, ‘Christmas’, and finally No.2 ‘Am Neujahrstage’ (‘On New Year’s Day’). What beautiful works they are, too, the lively counterpoint harking back to Palestrina, a breath of renaissance translated into a Romantic choral sound, the motet for New Year’s Day unexpectedly slow, like overlapping chords from some ethereal celestial organ.
‘Santiago’, by the British composer Joby Talbot (born 1971, and probably best known for his film and television music), is the last section of an extensive 2005 choral work in four parts, Path of Miracles, that follows the famous pilgrims path to the cathedral of St. James in Santiago de Compostela, Spain. It’s a wonderful conception: each of the four parts represents one of the staging posts on the pilgrimage, and it combines texts from medieval sources, Catholic liturgy, and original words by the librettist Robert Dickinson. Languages used are Greek, Latin, Spanish, Basque, French, English and German – in the final section, ‘Santiago’, words from the famed medieval Carmina Burana celebrate the coming of spring, alongside a wide variety of other texts. The music of this 22-minute section is equally varied: it opens with the effects of faster undulations against a slow moving backdrop, like the effect of the different distances of a landscape moving at different speeds as one travels. Then comes an evocation of a vista from the mountains, a view as one comes over the ridge, in the more unison second section. In the joyful arrival as Santiago is seen there is more than a touch of Carl Orff in the rhythms, turning into a march as the pilgrims arrive to great shouts of the city’s name. It’s deeply involving and descriptive music (and texts), and clearly Pro Coro revel in it.
The shade of Orff also appeared in the lively Canticum Novum by Swiss composer Ivo Antognini (born 1963). It was written in 2016, sets the Roman Liturgy, and is well worth the hearing (there’s good performance by the Batavia Madrigal Singers at the 48th Tolosa Choral Contest 2016, Basque Country, Spain on YouTube). J.S Bach followed. English speakers would have recognized Wohl mir, dass ich Jesum habeas as ‘Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring’. In fact the words by Salomo Franck in the original German of the sixth and final section of the cantata Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben (BWV 147, 1723), are different from Robert Bridges’ English version, which was incorrectly printed in the program booklet as a translation for the German sung here. Pro Coro went Swingle Singers, as various sections of the chorus jazzed the orchestral parts – fun to do (and in particular a feat of endurance from some of the sopranos), but personally I prefer that particular Bach straight.
The philosophers opened the second half. Ann-Sofi Söderqvist (born 1956) is a Swedish composer (and trumpeter). Her What is Life? (2006) seemed to have identity problems, with hints of jazz and middle-eastern vocalization amongst more orthodox choral writing. Pro Coro equally seemed unclear how to tackle it – I wondered if it would have been more effective if they had let go a bit more. 27-year old American composer Thomas LaVoy studied at Aberdeen University with Paul Mealor, who was Pro Coro’s composer-in-residence last year. The Same Stream (2015) to a text by the great Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore was pleasant enough, voices indeed emulating a stream tumbling along, but was stronger on technique than memorability.
The whole concert had opened with a pleasing effect. The choir occupied the stage but also the side aisles as they came in, and for Stars by the Latvian composer Ēriks Ešenvalds (born 1977), some played water-filled tuned wine-glasses, like a spread-out glass harmonica. The concert closed with Mendelssohn’s eight-part motet ‘Denn hat seinen Englein befohlen’ MWV B53. It is probably best known from its placement by the composer into Elijah, but it was actually written earlier, as an independent piece, in 1844. Here we had the original version (hence it being given in German), in spite of what the program booklet suggested. It was beautifully sung, as was the entire concert, just the occasional very minor lapse (such as a lack of totally unison on harder sounding consonants) simply reminding one how good this choir is overall.
Zaugg has promised that this New Year’s Eve concert was the start of a new Pro Coro tradition. I do hope so, and judging by the enthusiasm of the packed Holy Trinity Anglican Church (I have never seen it so full), there are lots of others who also want an alternative way to spend New Year’s Eve.