Friday, March 16, 2012

The Choral Fabric of the Stuttgart Chamber Choir

Greetings readers!

Posted below is a concert review I covered for Sound and Noise:
The Stuttgart Chamber Choir was so good that, frankly, it makes me sick. How can a choir be that good? Recognition must be given to the Richard Eaton Singers for bringing in the Stuttgart Chamber Choir; a stellar addition in celebration of their 60th anniversary season. Conducted by Frieder Bernius, the Stuttgart Chamber Choir was joined by TorQ Percussion Quartet from Toronto this past Wednesday evening.

The program began and ended with what I would expect a German choir to sing best, repertoire by German composers. In this case, it was Bach and Mendelssohn. As far as I’m concerned, the choir provided the model choral sound for these composers. Listening to Bach’s “Singet dem Herrn” was like hearing the aural construction of a luxury fabric. Only the finest vocal threads were chosen and interwoven into a sound textile that was uniform, seamless, and impenetrable. I would expect no less of German workmanship. The musical lines within the Bach were sung with such motile precision. If I wanted to acoustically parse each of the notes in the running lines, they would all have been equally balanced and resonant. As well, their German diction was so clean; I could have easily transcribed every phoneme that they were singing, further demonstrating how they have the prototype choral sound for Bach. The collective choral voice was clean, crisp and pliable. Mendelssohn’s “Te Deum” was sung with the same precision and the text stanza’s were interspersed with lyrical lines sung by a quartet of singers. They had an amazing bass singer in the quartet, who just so happened to be featured in every soloistic combination during the concert. I developed a choir girl crush on him. The “Te Deum” also featured the solo work of a full-bodied mezzo-soprano; a refreshing change from the crisp choral texture. My highlight moment within the “Te Deum” was the pleading echos of “Miserere nostri/have mercy on us” from individual voices within the choir. The overlapping and weaving laments produced collective sentiments that were hauntingly helpless.
The Stuttart Chamber Choir rearranged themselves in order to perform Ligeti’s “Lux Aeterna,” decreasing their choir size of 27 to 16 in order to have an individual voice on each part. I have sung Ligeti’s “Lux Aeterna” before. It is not easy. It made me want to clutch helplessly onto my tuning fork, but I knew, deep down, that it wasn't going to help me. The strings of sound dissonance were sung with an unwavering confidence. The chromatic tones emerged from the individual parts to compose an impermeable core sound. The chords would miraculously lock after all of the individual chromatic movements and eventual decrescendo to a low F drone in the alto voices. Their performance made Ligeti’s piece sound easy. At points, I was quietly laughing to myself, in disbelief, in response to how they were able to carry off that piece.

The words within Pärt’s “Nunc dimittis” are taken from the book of Luke and details Simeon words to the baby Jesus in Jerusalem. Simeon does not wish to die until he has seen, with his own eyes, his Saviour. As an audience member, I expected an epiphanal moment within the piece. However, during “Nunc dimittis,” I felt Stuttgart’s performance had a restrained energy. Though the performance of any piece is up to artistic interpretation, I just felt like the choir could have stretched their emotional limits in this one. Personally, I prefer choirs that take a risk. I like choirs that sound almost overwhelmed, brimming with passionate intensity in response to the text and music. At the climax of “Nunc dimittis,” when the choir sings of the revelatory light and calls out to the people of Israel, I just felt like they could have given more. I wanted more. Sure, that might mean that they could potentially sound sloppy from all that unbridled emotion (I don’t think that’s possible) but I just wanted to hear an eruption of sound. Instead, their sound just felt contained.

The showcase work, by Montreal composer, Paul Frehner, “Corpus,” incorporated the talents of the TorQ Percussion Quartet. According to Frehner’s program notes, he wished to create a piece that explored the “mystical, religious and metaphysical writings on the universal topics of the human body…. in its various states of life, death, oblivion, and afterlife.” That’s all very nice and well, but how does that translate to a performance? Overall, this work sounded like an epic play to me. The vocal components played individual characters, working together to tell the story in solo and chorus combinations, and the percussion created the sound environment. Frehner’s piece has such a dense network of concepts and lends itself well to continuous musical analysis. The piece began with a monotone solo with an eerie suspension in the soprano section paired with the ominous bass voices. There were also two superimposed chant lines within the piece. The power of the TorQ Percussion Quartet did have the tendency to overwhelm Stuttgart’s sound and it was apparent that TorQ had to restrain themselves in order to achieve balance. Which is a shame because they were brilliant. This was especially apparent when the canon of drums percolated throughout the church and cascaded into a vibrant cacophony. They also had such a diverse array of percussion instruments and techniques to create sounds from the resonant metallic echos to the tensile tones created when bowing a cymbal. TorQ created sound textures that evoked strong images and emotional reactions from the audience. I especially enjoyed the end of the piece where the atonal modern chant line in the choir was paired with the tribal groove of the percussion. The resulting effect was quite remarkable.

Being able to witness choral performances, such as this concert with the Stuttgart Chamber Choir, reminded me of the expansive range of choral talent in the world. It's easy to forget when you're tucked away in a wintery Canadian city. Though I am an avid chorister, it is rare for me to hear a professional ensemble. It is difficult to have opportunities to hear what the best sounds like, but when it is in your neighborhood, you would be doing yourself a disservice not to take a listen.

Until next time readers, take care!

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