Classical Notes: Voices evoke savage beauty

Okanagan Symphony contrasts baroque and ultra-modern choral music with Vancouver's internationally acclaimed choir musica intima.

Rosemary Thomson, music director and conductor of the Okanagan Symphony, took a bold step this month by contrasting baroque and ultra-modern choral music, around the talents of internationally acclaimed choir musica intima from Vancouver.

On stage, instead of the conventional symphony setup (with around 60 musicians waiting for the conductor’s entrance), there were a few randomly placed music stands and almost no chairs – a clear indication that this was no ordinary concert.

Thomson brought in around 20 musicians (violins, violas and cellos), to perform the introductory piece Concerto Grosso in four movements, composed by Italy’s Arcangelo Corelli’s in 1713.

Most of the musicians played standing, as was apparently normal in the baroque era. Starting with a brisk opening, the second movement was gorgeously expressive – Thomson conducting just with her hands.

Additional musicians plus 12 singers entered for the programme’s titular piece:  Vivaldi’s Gloria. The familiar trumpet opening was indeed glorious, leading to the choir’s entry for “Gloria in excelsis Deo.”  The 12 movements cover a rich range of emotions ranging from joy to sadness.

After intermission, a stark arrangement on stage: a chair and music stand for OSO principal cellist Audrey King, and Thomson’s music stand. The choir entered to form a semicircle behind them.

Exaudi was composed by Jocelyn Morlock, currently composer-in-residence for the Vancouver Symphony. Sung in Latin, the opening phrase from Psalm 65:2 (“Hear my prayer, for unto you all flesh shall come”) was the inspiration for Morlock’s exploration of “a spectrum of emotional reactions.”

Against the choir’s chant, sometimes Gregorian, sometimes lyrical, the cello dominated. I saw this as experimental, but it succeeded: dramatic, thoughtful, fearful, but also peaceful.

Thomson described it as “improvisational in style, evocative of loss and morning.”  There was indeed a savage beauty about it – very dynamic – probably a sound engineer’s dream – and it ended as quietly as it started.

Coriolis was by Jordan Nobles, one of Canada’s finest new composers. He had previously worked with Thomson for the OSO concert with slam poet Shane Koyczan.

Described by Thomson as “circular” music, this had no obvious tunes, but was a beautiful tone poem.  I likened it to film music, which can stand on its own when the dialogue is removed.  It was  rich and almost painfully intensive – like chewing a lemon wedge!

With the return of the choir, Thomson confided that in her next life she wanted to sing with musica intima.

They sang two modern madrigals – Madrigali (Fire Songs) by Morten Lauridsen and Rodney Sharman’s Love (from Love, Beauty and Desire), which was sung a cappella.

There was a drama here –  singers started as randomly placed individuals avoiding eye contact, and one by one moved to hold hands, finishing in a semi-circle.

The final piece, Dona Nobis Pacem by Peteris Vasks, used all the performers plus two double basses, in a huge semicircle. The piece was truly out of this world – powerful, with passionate beauty.  At the finish everyone held their breath for maybe 20 seconds before breaking into applause.

Jim Elderton writes about the Okanagan Symphony Orchestra’s season in his column, Classical Notes, for The Vernon Morning Star.