I have written that my favourite composers are Bach, Beethoven and Brahms when I describe myself on the acceptance of some blogging awards . Understandably, how could I resist a concert that presents the choral music of these three composers performed in the fitting setting of a church?
Voices, under the artistic direction of Ron Ka Ming Cheung, had chosen the Anglican Church of St.-Martin’s-in-the-Field in Toronto to be the venue of their year-end concert. The Church celebrated many beautiful architectural features such as stain glass windows, a hand-carved oak sanctuary imported from Belgium and wooden sculptures. I was particularly interested in the organ, described to be “a two-manual with twenty-one stops by Casavant Freres”. This Church is renowned for its acoustics, and it is written that Glen Gould and Ofra Harnoy have made recording there.
About ten minutes before the beginning of the concert, Ron Cheung came out to speak to the audience. He gave an introduction to the music which the choir would be performing, and he did it with interesting details and anecdotes that I seldom found in many programme notes. For example, when describing the Mass in C Op. 86 by Beethoven, he mentioned that it was a creative departure from Haydn and he dedicated it to the Prince Nicholaus Esterhazy. At the end of the performance, the Prince came up to Beethoven and exclaimed, “What have you done!” Beethoven took it as an insult and left Vienna immediately. He dedicated the Mass to someone else. (Wikipedia noted that this was Beethoven’s public disgrace.) However, Ron Cheung opined that it was probably Beethoven’s misunderstanding, because given the beauty of this piece, the Prince’s remark was likely one of amazement and praise. The choir presented Kyrie and Angus Dei, true to the spirit in Beethoven’s words, “gentle, with an overall serenity”.
The other work by Beethoven sung by the choir was the Hallelujah chorus from Christ on the the Mount of Olives Op.85. It was a less popular piece compared ot Handel’s chorus from the Messiah. Thanks to the conductor’s for pointing it out, one could catch the reference to Handel’s work in the accompaniment.
Brahms’s works were sung next. The Missa Canonica was the only Mass written by Brahms, based on a canon-like (“round’) form and worked on the melodic 7th interval, and conductor Cheung mused that it was like an exercise for counterpoint. This piece was not discovered until the last century. The choir sang the Kyrie, Sanctus & Benedictus, and Agnus Dei. Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen from Ein deutsches Requiem Op. 45 completed the first half of the concert. It was a moving performance which mesmerized the audience.
It was all Bach after the intermission. The choir began with three chorales: Allein zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ; Dein Will gescheh, Herr Gott, sugleich; and Verleih uns Frieden gnadiglich. They sang Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied BWV 225, Excerpts were chosen from Bach’s huge works Mass in B minor BWV 232, and St. Matthew’s Passion BWV 244. The choir rearranged the members to present the two-choir pieces. Meticulous care in programme planning was reflected by having the Kyrie I and Dona Nobis Pacem to echo Beethoven’s beginning pieces, like “book-ends”, according to Ron Cheung.
Interspersing the choral music was either a cello solo or an organ solo by pieces of the three composers. Organist John Stephenson provided an excellent solo performance and a brilliant accompaniment the entire evening.
Voices had chosen very challenging pieces to perform this evening. They took full advantage of the acoustic of the Church and sounded powerful for a choir with twenty members. I noticed that they had to work hard with the two-choir pieces after a long evening singing in a warm evening without air conditioning. I left the concert feeling that Voices had affirmed their reputation as one of the finest community chamber choirs in Toronto. By showcasing the 4th movement of Brahms’s Requiem, they have given a sneak preview of their calibre as it is their plant to sing the entire work at Easter next season. I hope I’ll be among their audience.
Church of St, Martin-in-the-Fields, 151 Glenlake Ave., Toronto, Ontario