Edmonton professional choir Pro Coro ends season with the music of dreams

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Review by Mark Morris

Organization: Pro Coro Canada

Conductor:  Michael Zaugg

Where: All Saints Anglican Cathedral

When: Sunday, May 29, 2016

Edmonton’s professional choir, Pro Coro, under their conductor Michael Zaugg, ended their 2015-16 season Sunday afternoon in All Saints Anglican Cathedral with an ambitious program that showed why they are attracting international attention, both for their singing and for the works they are performing.

Apart from Richard Strauss, all the composers represented in this concert of modern a capella music, built around the idea of dreams, are under 60. Of especial interest were the two new works commissioned by Pro Coro, which they had premiered at Podium 2016 earlier in the month.

Calgary-born Robert Rival was the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra’s composer-in-residence from 2011 to 2014, and those works I have heard by him have often been appealing, but rarely adventurous. L’Aube (The Dawn), setting two poems by Victor Hugo, shows a different side of his art, much more harmonically daring, and exploring modern choral techniques while maintaining the sense of story-telling that seems to be at the heart of his esthetic.

The first poem, about a child sleeping, was especially arresting. It’s full of contrasts, sometimes almost approaching Gregorian chant, at others using more extreme vocal effects. There were some unexpected and thoughtful touches, such as the chorus going up in pitch on the final word of  “a child sleeps” when most composers would instinctively have gone down, and an effective sense of underlying movement, rather like those a child might make when asleep.

It was, I think, the most impressive music I have heard from Rival, and the second song, quieter in tone, nearly matched it, the sounds of dawn at the opening reminding me of the little echoes one gets first thing on a crisp winter morning. The change at the end, when the listener realizes that the poet is visiting a grave, was well-handled, too. So was the choral writing, providing just the combination of solo lines, small internal groups and the full choir that Pro Coro thrives on.

Setting only two poems did, though, seem a little unbalanced, as if the work was awaiting a third to complete the structure. Paul Mealor, the celebrated Welsh composer, had chosen such a balance in his new work, To Seek Where Shadows Are, using three poems by Christina Rossetti.

Mealor has been Pro Coro’s composer-in-residence for this season, and this new work had been much anticipated. His feel for the combination of words and music is considerable — here he is quite prepared to move Rossetti’s words around where appropriate — as is the underlying sense of melody that informs so much of his music: he is one of those composers whose music is both modern in idiom and at the same time instantly appealing.

So it proved in this new work. The first song has a very beautiful melodic opening, while the closing setting has an always recognizable melodic thread that runs right through in various forms and is given to various voices.

That final song needed to be melodically effective, as it is a setting of In the Bleak Midwinter, well-known as the Christmas carol set by Gustav Holst. Mealor’s setting may not have such an unforgettable melody as Holst’s, but being designed for a professional choir rather than a congregation, it doesn’t need to. It is, though, alluring in its flow, celebrating rather than doleful, and with a marvellous moment when the women take up the voices of cherubims and seraphims against that central melody.

The middle song creates an overall slow-fast-slow structure, with a strong rhythmic pulse, and an arresting effect when the majority of the chorus, wordless, creates the rustling forest sounds of the text. It’s a memorable work, and we can look forward to more, as Mealor has been reappointed Pro Coro’s composer-in-residence for the 2016-17 season.

The highlight of the rest of the varied and extensive concert was by that temporal interloper Richard Strauss. Der Abend, a setting of Schiller, is fiendishly difficult, written for a 16-part choir — so difficult, in fact, that this was only the second Canadian performance.

You would be hard-pushed, though, to know the date (1897) from the opening harmonies, as Strauss holds voices against melodic movement to create late 20th-century effects, before moving toward music reminiscent of the glorious ending to Rosenkavalier or the Four Last Songs.

It’s a gorgeous work, and this performance was a testament to Pro Coro’s wonderful skills. One could fittingly have said, as the Canadian poet Arthur Stringer did in a poem sung in this concert, “Silence and Dreaming and Music are One!”

© Michael Zaugg 2017