My big failure here will be not capturing the inner conflict of some of my friends from Vancouver’s choral community who were too busy singing at the Zelda: Symphony Of The Goddess concert to catch a set of mammoth singing by Alberta’s Pro Coro that very night. My slightly smaller failure will be not having the divinity to have made more sympathetic noise leading up to what turned out to be a happenstance contemporary a cappella festival closing with Victoria’s Vox Humana.
I’ve only known Brian Wismath’s Vox Humana ensemble from a sliver of it’s sterling silver reputation. They came into town with a thick program of contemporary a cappella works (Including an immaculate little gem penned by Vancouver’s Rodney Sharman). Myself and a bunch of choral-friendlies sat in a cocky lump in the second row and were pretty much bowled over from the moment their sopranos showed off an immaculate blend at the opening of Karl Siegfried’s Shaker Songs.
It’s never unwelcome to be shaken by visiting ensembles who owns their art so effortlessly and it’s doubly exciting when that shake has the potential to loosen the foundation of your own art a little. Contemporary classical music is fortunate to have such a close ally in choral music. Choirs seem to suffer from little of the hand-wringing or girdle-cinching that our instrumental brothers and sisters are afflicted with. We, of course, err as all humans are; and we stumble when we forget that total ownership of the art is much sexier than presenting a concert program that meets a logical goal. From my own mumbledy-mum years of attending concerts that featured trace strains of music of the living, I would guess that the rulebook for presenting contemporary classical music is only about two pages thin and reads as follows:
- The concert shall consist of two or three “iconic” pieces and one “contemporary” one. The contemporary piece shall be presented after intermission so that the audience is day drunk dazed and are unlikely to remember that music occurred or storm out of the hall in a silver haired huff.
- If no alcohol is being served at intermission, the contemporary piece of music will be at the start of the concert. Hopefully, audience members will be noisily entering as it is being played and people will just think that the orchestra is either warming up or secreting patio furniture.
- We don’t play contemporary music.
Vocal ensembles seem to not care for such trifles and sometimes seem blissfully unaware they even exist. To demonstrate this carefree disregard for your grandmother’s sensibilities, Pro Coro at one point switched gears from the silly choreography of conductor Michael Zaugg’s own arrangement of All About The Bass to the Maori chanting in Mason Bates’s Observer In The Magellanic Cloud. It might look cock-eyed in a program but once you’re in the room with it you realize that in an age where people really do listen to everything there’s little reason to segregate music stylistically. Especially when it’s done so well. Pro Coro practically left us gasping at the sound they were able to conjure in the familiar setting of Ryerson and probably left an envious little lump in our throats as we only get to hear this fantastic ensemble once in a while.