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Canada Tour, Jul 2014 - Parry Sound North Star

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Unlikely encore took the house down

Festival of the Sound opens with enthusiasm


Many of us wake up in the morning with a tune endlessly cycling through our heads that won’t go away until we hear something else. The phenomenon is known by different names, but the popular choice seems to be “brain-worm.”  It is Saturday morning, July 19, as I write this, and my brain-worm du jour is The Teddy Bears’ Picnic, performed as an unlikely (and hugely enjoyable) encore by the Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge, which opened the 2014 edition of the Festival of the Sound last night.

A few general items before we talk (or write) about the concert. This year is a milestone in the history of the Festival, as it celebrates its 35th anniversary since its foundation by the distinguished pianist Anton Kuerti (whose name I would like to hear more often). For 30 of those years, the equally-renowned James Campbell has been at the helm, and the Festival, having migrated from the gym at Parry Sound High School, has had its headquarters at the Charles W. Stockey Centrenow for a decade.

And now … the concert itself. The Trinity College Choir has been described by Britain’s Gramophone magazine as one of the five best choirs in the world, a remarkable achievement for any choir, let alone one made up of students. Stephen Layton is the conductor, a musician of the highest caliber as well as being a friendly and informative host. The choir itself performs everything from memory, something I have very seldom in the past and, bearing in mind the complexity of some of their repertoire, one can only stand back and be amazed.

The stage was set, so to speak, right at the first note of the performance, a solo female voice rising out of thin air with no aid from a pitch-pipe or an instrument. The first four selections were performed as an unbroken series, all a reflection of the Choir’s primary function as the chapel choir at Cambridge’s Trinity College. Bogoróditse Djévo by the contemporary Estonian composer Arvo Pärt formed the first part of the series, followed with music by three British Renaissance composers: William Byrd (1540-1623), Thomas Tallis (1505-1585), and Robert Parsons (1535-1572). It is interesting to note that during William Byrd’s life-time, Christianity first reached the shores of Georgian Bay. Hearing this music was like being wrapped in a warm blanket, a welcome refuge from all the horrors of current world affairs.

Possibly no composer has had more influence or reached more people that Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), and so his motet Der Geist hilft unser Schwachleit auf (please do not ask for a translation!) was a welcome part of the program. As with everything else, the performance was absolutely immaculate, this time with a very subtle accompaniment by a small (tracker-action, maybe?) organ that merged beautifully with the sonorities of the choir. A most difficult piece it was and, as a former music educator, I couldn’t help wondering what the preparation process must have been like.

A great leap forward in the calendar, now, to a composer who is not only very much alive, but still a student.  Twenty-one-year-old Owain Park is an Organ Scholar at Cambridge, an enormous undertaking it itself, made even more so by his accomplishments as a composer. His contribution was Judas, mercator pessimus.  Poor old Judas is never a happy subject and on it, young Mr. Park has produced a work of startling originality. Several members of the 33-voice choir migrated to the balcony, giving a spatial effect to the music and knowing their material so well that there were no visible cues from Mr. Layton. The music itself was a rainbow of eerily shifting harmonies and a musical device called a glissando, a gliding change of pitch with no rhythmic definition. Having his fellows treat his music with such respect and artistry must have been quite a cosmic experience for the composer, who himself is a member of the choir.

There was no formal intermission; the choir stepped off stage for a water break while Mr. Layton introduced the Songs of farewell by Sir Hubert Parry, a Victorian/Edwardian composer best know today for his hymns I was glad and Jerusalem, which enjoyed new popularity through its inclusion in the movie Chariots of Fire. Parry is one of those composers who deserves much more “air time” and he wrote much else besides hymns, including five symphonies, some of which bear a striking resemblance to Brahms. There are those who would condemn Parry as being derivative, but good music is good music, so I rest my case.

As is typical of the very ancient, I am wandering a bit, so must get back on track.

Parry’s music (an interesting choice for Parry Sound!) for last night’s performance was (or were) the Songs of farewell, his final composition before his passing in 1918. Mr. Layton described this cycle of songs as a miniature requiem in six parts, concluding with Lord, let me know mine end. And it was here, I think, that the Trinity Choir had its finest moment. Bear in mind the young people are university students with their lives ahead of them, yet they sang with a profound understanding and compassion for the end of years. There was a wisdom to their performance that was most affecting to a senior citizen, yet leaving one with a sense of repose rather than the bleak pessimism of Mahler’s Song of the Earth.

The final (or so we thought) music of the evening was by Morten Lauridsen, born 1943, and a composer completely unfamiliar to me. He was not even mentioned in my admittedly-ancient Cyclopedia of Music and Musicians, so I cannot tell you anything about him, save that with a name like his he must have been either Danish or Norwegian.

Our friendly musical ambassadors from England, then, did themselves and Stephen Layton proud. The Festival was their second-last stop on a tour of southern Ontario that included Elora, itself a hot-house of choral music. The remaining concert is to be at Hamburg, Ontario (down near Kitchener) and then back home to England.

The near-capacity audience was unstinting it its applause – and now came the encore, The Teddy Bear’s Picnic, sung in the most impeccable British dialect that gave it something of the flavor of the writer Beatrix Potter, she of Peter Rabbit and other books so many of us grew up with. To use a well-worn saying, it took the house down and only the robust construction of the Stockey Centre prevented total demolition.

What an evening! And what a start to the 2014 Festival of the Sound! Now I need to boot up the stereo and play something that will displace The Teddy Bears’ Picnic from my head.


Steven Duff