Edmonton's Pro Coro welcomes new composer-in-residence

By Mark Morris

“I work with choirs all over the world, and they are one of the best. And I don’t think they know it.”

Welsh composer Paul Mealor was referring to Edmonton’s Pro Coro, and Mealor knows choirs. Voted the UK’s “favourite living composer,” his choral work for William and Kate’s royal wedding brought him international attention. He followed it up with the UK charts No. 1 hit, Wherever You Are.

This season Mealor is Pro Coro’s composer-in-residence, working with the choir on two extended visits. “It’s not just about the music,” he says, “It’s about getting to know the singers, the voices, socially as well as musically. That’s very important to composers.” The fruits of this collaboration will be heard in a new choral work Mealor is writing for Pro Coro, and the composer hopes eventually to bring the choir over to perform in the UK.

In the meantime, Pro Coro celebrated Alberta Culture Days with a major Mealor work in a packed Winspear on Sunday afternoon, with the composer in attendance. It was the centrepiece of a wonderful concert, beautifully put together: 80 seamless minutes of music, linked by musical bridges or by narration drawn from Coleridge’s The Ancient Mariner, and making full use of antiphonal, offstage, and lighting effects.

It was certainly a concert that showed off Pro Coro’s skills under their conductor Michael Zaugg, not least the way members of the choir step forward to take solo parts. But it also highlighted the qualities of those taking part with Pro Coro: the Chamber Choir of the children’s choral organization, Cantilon, excellently rehearsed and skilfully integrated into the overall music-making, and the very fine Pro Coro Brass Quintet.

Of the shorter works, Jaakko Mäntyjärvi’s marvellous a cappella Canticum Calamitatis Maritimae stood out. Written in 1997, it commemorates an Estonian ferry ship that sank in 1994 with heavy loss of life. The piece links this maritime disaster with all those who have lost their lives at sea, through the use of the Catholic Mass and Psalm 107. It opens with echoes of plainchant and solo incantation, and then gradually evolves into atmospheric modern Scandinavian choral writing, tone-painting the rocking of the sea and the abyss of the deep. A moving work, movingly performed.

Mealor’s The Farthest Shore is an ambitious 40-minute choral work for soloists, chorus, children chorus, brass quintet and organ (here played by Jeremy Spurgeon). It’s based on an Anglesey folk tale, reworked by the Dorset poet and librettist Ben Kaye, about a boy who was washed ashore in a storm.

He looks different and can’t speak the language, and only the intervention of the village matriarch prevents the villagers from casting him out. He then heals children who have contracted the plague, and disappears.

Anyone expecting the ethereal choral writing for which Mealor is best known will have been surprised, for this is an out-and-out dramatic piece, almost operatic were it not for the strongly symphonic construction of its five sections. Mealor seems to be harking back to the great dramatic choral tradition of Victorian England, through Elgar to Mendelssohn, and recasting it in modern guise.

His writing, too, has something of the enviable self-confidence of those composers, and this is partly what gives it such appeal. He is not afraid to tap unashamedly into the audience’s emotions, whether in the great big set moments (what a huge sound the relatively small numbers of Pro Coro can make), the dramatic pulse of the instrumental intermezzo that turns into the chorus accusing the boy of being the devil, or the ingenuous tune given to the children’s chorus.

It is, though, never sentimental, which it could easily be with a treble appearing as the boy (affectingly sung by Toby Robinson). In place of sentiment, Mealor gives atmosphere, and, combined with his very sure sense of structure and of choral colour, the result is a striking work that must have been as enjoyable to perform as it was to experience.

It also made one look forward to his new work for the choir, and indeed to Pro Coro’s forthcoming season. Besides their regular Christmas and Easter concerts, there’s a collaboration with the Edmonton Swiss Men’s Choir for a program of music on the theme of war and peace (Nov 22). An atmospheric concert on Jan 31 features Alfred Schnikkte’s Concerto for Choir and Rachmaninov’s choral masterpiece All Night Vigil.

The Canadian Connections concert on Feb 28 sees Pro Coro join forces with the celebrated Vancouver Chamber Choir, when Mealor’s new work will be performed.

Perhaps the last word should go to the Welsh composer. “Pro Coro really are a phenomenal group, of international significance.”

How significant? Well, to be at the Winspear, Mealor had to miss a performance of his Ubi caritas at a Mass in Philadelphia. The celebrant was Pope Francis himself.

Review

Sun & Moon & Stars

Organization: Pro Coro

Conductor: Michael Zaugg

Featuring: Cantilon Chamber Choir, The Pro Coro Brass Quintet, Jeremy Spurgeon

Where: Winspear Centre

When: Sunday, September 27

© Michael Zaugg 2017