Concert something to remember

Emotional sold-out classical collaboration marks 100 years since end of Great War


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One hundred years ago, a battered and bruised world held its breath as the Allies and Germany signed the armistice to end the “war of all wars,” First World War on Nov. 11th, 1918.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 12/11/2018 (1601 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

One hundred years ago, a battered and bruised world held its breath as the Allies and Germany signed the armistice to end the “war of all wars,” First World War on Nov. 11th, 1918.

That auspicious centenary has been commemorated all around the globe this past weekend, including military parades, religious and secular services, poignant tributes, speeches, poetry and poppy projects paying homage to the fallen, as well as all those still proudly serving their country.

The Winnipeg Philharmonic Choir added its own collective voice to the mix Sunday afternoon, launching its 96th season with Lest We Forget: 100 Years of Remembrance 1918-2018, a “journey of remembrance” featuring guest artists: Monica Huisman, soprano; Laurelle Jade Froese, mezzo-soprano; John Tessier, tenor; and Victor Engbrecht, bass with the Phil’s 90 choristers joined by the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra at the St. Boniface Cathedral.

The two-hour, sold-out concert led by maestro Yuri Klaz began with Samuel Barber’s sublime Adagio for Strings, that the American composer extracted from his String Quartet in B minor, Op. 11 and arranged string orchestra in 1936. It proved an ideal choice for an afternoon of contemplative gravitas, including its hushed opening where one molten phrase bleeds into the next, to its rise of shimmering close harmonies in the upper strings, before settling into a final quiet, albeit still-questioning close.

Mozart’s immortal Requiem in D minor, KV 626, based on the Roman Catholic funeral mass, and reputedly the final work the Wunderkind composed before his untimely death at age 35 in 1791 (ultimately completed by his pupil Sussmayr) takes listeners from the fiery gates of hell to everlasting, heavenly light.

It also demands that its four soloists and chorus members take their own leap of faith, called upon to navigate perilous fugal sections and bold choruses, as well as skillfully pacing, and shaping the 55-minute piece into an overall narrative arc that offers, ultimately, a musical affirmation and release from mortal bonds.

Mostly, the performers succeeded, with the singers clearly committed to the journey, and impeccably prepared by Klaz with crisp vocal entries and clear enunciation — despite the venue’s inherent acoustical challenges — particularly on display during the fire-and-brimstone Dies Irae, and later Domine Jesu, infused with buoyant lightness.

Other highlights include the more rhythmically driving Hostias, and lyrical Lacrimosa, while Confutatis shuddered with its evocation of “searing flames” as one of the most compellingly dramatic sections. Other choruses, including Rex tremendae might have benefitted from greater sweetness, and arguably, a relishing of the Latin text, such as during its final plea, “salva me” (save me).

Assembling a fine, well-balanced quartet of soloists is an art in itself, requiring certain alchemy to get it just right. The concert’s four guest artists are all wonderful singers in their own right, including Winnipeg-based powerhouse Huisman, and Engbrecht, a soloist we don’t hear nearly enough, who imbues every one of his all-too-rare performances with a sense of deep humanity and compassion.

Likewise, Froese, currently teaching at Providence University College, and the Juno Award-winning Tessier, also on faculty with the University of Alberta, in addition to each artist’s slate of solo engagements are also strong, compelling vocalists one would like to hear again — and often.

However, all too frequently, the ensemble suffered an overall lack of cohesion during their highlighted sections, including Recordare, although fared better during the final, exultant Benedictus.

Having said all this, highlights include Tuba mirum, with Engbrecht and Tessier’s voices first sailing over the audience, quickly joined by Froese and Huisman, as well as the latter’s warmly benevolent assurance of Lux aeterna — eternal light — during the Agnus Dei sung against the choir’s oceanic waves of cresting sound, earning a rousing standing ovation from the mostly older crowd.

Finally, the program also included 19th century Russian Romantic composer Sergei Taneyev’s cantata John of Damascus, No. 1, based on poetry by Aleksey Tolstoy and popularly known as the Russian Requiem.

The three-movement work sung in Russian begins with a languorous, lyrical orchestral introduction before each vocal section joins in with sweeping lines and overlapping entries. The Russian-born Klaz, who has this music in his blood and bones, kept a taut rein on his choristers and musicians, imbuing this intensely dramatic work with a sense of grandeur and Russian soul.

A particular highlight proved to be its second movement that begins with its a cappella sacred Russian chant including pungent harmonies, leading to the final fugue with the performers digging in hard with crisply enunciated runs and rhythmic attack. At times teetering close to the rails, including overzealous tenors, this piece nevertheless became an enthralling highlight of the afternoon, replete with resounding trumpets heralding the triumph of eternal life over death.

However, the most spine-tingling moment ironically arose not during the concert itself, but immediately afterwards.

As audience members exited the venue at sunset, they were greeted by the Cathedral’s own loudly tolling bell, ringing out 100 times as part of the countrywide “Bells of Peace” commemoration, just as bells pealed across Europe celebrating the end of the Great War on that first Remembrance Day in 1918.

This wholly visceral heralding of peace and freedom might ultimately be considered the sweetest sound of all, still welcomed and longed for now, and forever.

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