Review: Canadian Chamber Choir – Cathedral Church of All Saints


Can we simply say, “Canadian choral music is in good hands,” and leave it at that?

But I suppose that’s hardly fair to the Canadian Chamber Choir (CCC) artists whose noble mandate is to “bring new and existing Canadian choral music to every corner of Canada.” They do that with style and consummate artistry, under the leadership of their mentor, conductor Julia Davids, an educator now working in the States who hails from London, Ontario. The artistic team also includes Joel Tranquilla, Associate Conductor; Jeff Enns, Composer-in-Residence; PEI’s Mark Ramsay, Conducting Fellow; and Allison Eagles, their talented pianist. For this performance local music man Jeff Reilly joined on his soulful bass clarinet, and Ramsay and Tranquilla each conducted a number of pieces with Davids joining the choir’s alto ranks when off duty.

And then there are the singers – just eighteen of them, but eighteen of Canada’s finest – drawn from across the country, with great representation from Atlantic Canada in each of the SATB sections. With stops in Wolfville, Lunenburg, Halifax and PEI’s Indian River Festival, the CCC was presented also by our own Musique Royale.

The program’s title, Seasons of Life and Landscape, played on the twin concepts of the physical four seasons as well as the seasons of life. Conductor Davids noted that she hoped to create a pastiche of impressions, akin to travelling through an art gallery, reflecting on our country. The program of all Canadian music by emerging and established Canadian composers – let me repeat that: “all Canadian music” – was received with rapture by the Halifax audience of choral music lovers, who had clearly been anticipating this performance, some having just returned from NS Choral Federation Adult Choir Camp, where the CCC had been Choir in Residence. The musical journey did not disappoint, taking us through the seasons, nature, and reflections on the life cycle.

The concert opened with Cy Giacomin’s movingly restless There was a Time, recently recorded by our own Halifax Camerata Singers, and premiered in Halifax in 2014 at Podium, the national choral conference. It set the tone for what followed – breathtaking unified sound, excellent diction and the kind of singing that makes one settle back and sigh as beauty unfolds. Many of the works were performed from memory, such as Nancy Telfer’s Silence, which showed off the gorgeous blend of the choir in fine, effortless-sounding singing. They have a unified sound without sounding “precious.” Local choral director Claire Wall used to tell her choirs, “never louder than lovely,” and while this direction may seem old-fashioned these days, the CCC always had a lovely sound which was very welcoming to the ears.

The CCC presented some repertoire that we would not normally hear in Halifax, including Vision Chant by Winnipeg’s Andrew Balfour, which was based on an aboriginal chant style. Vancouver’s Jocelyn Morlock was represented by Exaudi, which featured Reilly, and moved the listener through the grieving process, with the loved one finally being sung into heaven by the chorus and three offstage sopranos – may we all have such a glorious send off! The acoustics of the Cathedral, which sometimes made the spoken introductions a little hard to hear for older folks (a speaking mic would have helped), really worked in this piece – Reilly’s sensitive and skillful playing was delicate and sonorous in the great Cathedral. Exaudi was originally written for cello which is probably also wonderful. The fact that no-one applauded at the end of this piece either meant they weren’t sure it had ended or they were just so gob smacked that they didn’t want to break the silence…probably the latter. For some reason, Picasso came to mind while listening, maybe echoing Davids’ earlier comment about an art gallery.

Another work that I was pleased to get to hear was Jeffrey Ryan’s Angeline on Ossabaw, with the bass clarinet representing the innocent child Angeline, dancing on the beach. Davids noted that many of the singers fortunately had had their children with them at the recent choir camp, and that this work reminded her of tenor Michael van der Gaag with his little daughter, Lily. Although lovely, it was unfortunately one of  only a few pieces in which the text was unclear (the other being In the Night We Shall Go in by Imant Raminsh).

Also nice to hear were some more popular Canadian songs, including a setting of Gordon Lightfoot’s Song for a Winter’s Night featuring a just right solo by tenor Justin Jalae– well received by the crowd, including the woman in front of me who hummed along to the well-known melody. Jeff Enns had made yet another (but a beautiful!) arrangement of Allister MacGillivray’s Song for the Mira that really evoked summer in this well-loved classic, in a fresh and contemporary arrangement that featured all sections taking a turn on the melody.

The opening of Tabula Rasa harkened back to Giocamin’s piece, with an absolutely gorgeous ending (someone in the audience was heard to audibly whisper, “wow…”). This was in the “Winter” section, and a new piece premiered in May by the National Youth Choir, There is a Sound, by Edmonton’s Alan Gilliland, featured sounds of Gortex jackets and other wintry things, that we really hope we don’t hear for a while yet.

The second half opened with the all-dressed-in-black men having added a touch of red to their costuming – suspenders, vests and ties – as we moved into the spring and summer sections of the program. A nice bridge by Jeff Reilly took us into Peter Togni’s Psaume 98, his reflection on “Sing to the Lord a new song,” which the men performed wonderfully. Not to be outdone, the women soloed on Kathleen Allan’s Early Spring, her take on a well-known Newfoundland folksong in a picture-painting arrangement with the women’s voices producing delicate background raindrops to this sad tale of a sailor lost at sea. Very evocative.

Tim Corlis’s Loveliest of Trees, with the famous A.E. Housman text, was a wonder and my favorite piece of the night. With the long sustained phrases and a veil of sound drenching us like falling blossoms, I really wondered if any of the singers were actually breathing at all. It was an astonishing moment of great beauty in a program that had many beautiful moments. Ah…

Reilly joined again for Togni’s Antiphon, his delicate overtones adding to the mystery of this contemplative work. You could tell that the choir loved performing it. His bass clarinet moved us into summer before a very glorious Gloria! by Victoria’s Tobin Stokes, the piece ending with a major chord Amen that rang out to the rafters.

The evening ended with a wonderful encore piece by Mark Sirett, showcasing the very lovely tenors in Sirett’s take on the Irish traditional song, The Parting Glass. The choir has previously recorded this on their In Good Company CD, their most recent recording having been nominated this year for a JUNO Award.

Choral music fans are in good company with the CCC and this wonderful repertoire, all written by Canadians, who surely must rank in the top echelons of the world’s choral music composers.   As we start to see signs of fall approaching, including the various audition notices for our local choirs, I’m sure that many in the audience were inspired to sing again or to keep singing.

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