Winnipeg's choral community witnessed the passing of an era as Canzona's founding artistic director/conductor Henry Engbrecht led his final concert after 25 years on the podium.
The 3 1/2-hour evening (including intermission) featured J.S. Bach's monumental St. Matthew Passion -- a magnum opus befitting the retirement of one of the province's most beloved musical pillars. The 25-voice baroque choir established in 1989 has celebrated its leader's legacy all season long; this particular concert featuring MusikBarock Ensemble (Eric Lussier, artistic director) and the Winnipeg Boys' Choir (Carolyn Boyes, music director) was also formally dedicated to Winnipeg Free Press music critic Gwenda Nemerofsky, who died last November.
The massive, four-act sacred oratorio composed in 1727 for solo voices, double choir, and double orchestra tells the passion of Jesus through 68 recitatives, arias, duets, and choruses sung in German. But the cumulative effect of Sunday night's concert also served as its own testament to the impact the former University of Manitoba music professor has had on this city's rich musical life.
Rising star Isaiah Bell, the Canadian-American tenor, enthralled as the evangelist who narrates the story. He maintained clear focus throughout, his effortless voice rising and falling as the dramatic events unfolded. He shaded all his recitatives with the subtle nuances of a fine Shakespearean actor, ultimately declaiming Jesus's death to harrowing effect.
Steinbach-based tenor James Fast imbued his role of Jesus with simple dignity, keeping pace with an orchestra that included continuo players: harpsichordist Lussier, cellists Desiree Abbey and Carolyn Nagelberg as well as viola da gambist Andrew Goodlett.
Bach's mighty work also showcased Canzona's own fine singers: sopranos Marni Enns, Sarah Kirsch; altos Victoria Marshall, Kirsten Schellenberg; tenor Jan van der Hooft; and basses Scott Braun, Victor Engbrecht and Kris Kornelsen ably performing their series of arias and duets. The dramatis personae also included Sam Plett, Paul Wiens, Joan Clark, Karla Ferguson, Geung Lee, Stephen Haiko and Zohreh Gervais with Wiens a particular standout as the fateful Peter and a mocking Pilate.
A special treat proved to be seeing the conductor lead his own son, Victor, through his two solo arias: Give me back my Jesus and Let my heart be pure as Thine that poetically spoke to the continuity of generations.
Engbrecht's artfully set tempos kept the narrative moving. The two divided choirs both displayed clear independence of lines as well as carefully blended sound during their 15 gloriously antiphonal choruses.
Another highlight were the five chorales where the audience joined in. Hearing 670 voices rising together in song even wowed the onstage musicians, the entire sanctuary bathed in Bach's soaring harmonies.
The children's choir sang as 38 heavenly cherubs from the choir loft, earning a two-thumbs up from Engbrecht after finishing their own sweet choruses. It's humbling to realize all these young singers -- plus even a few of Canzona's adult members -- were not yet born the year the choir was founded.
The highly poignant evening also saw nearly 20 of Canzona's alumni invited onstage to join in during final chorus Around Thy Tomb here sit we weeping. And lastly, long after the audience had been on its feet with a heartfelt standing ovation, Engbrecht graciously passed his baton to Elroy Friesen, the choir's incoming artistic director who begins his tenure next season.
In 1993, late Winnipeg Free Press music critic Neil Harris wrote "(Conductor Henry Engbrecht) has provided this city with yet one more extraordinary choral group." A quarter of a century after birthing his choir as a labour of love, Engbrecht's remarkable vision still continues to bear rich fruit, while inspiring new legions of baroque music lovers to come.