Bach choir breaks bold new ground

Un­der Kath­leen Allan’s ba­ton, it takes on Man­darin, me­dieval chant, and much more

The Georgia Straight - - Arts -

If there were a civic award for courage in mu­sic—and per­haps there should be—the Van­cou­ver Bach Choir would no doubt be on the 2018 short­list. As the 87-year-old en­sem­ble’s name in­di­cates, it spe­cial­izes in the mu­sic of long-dead Euro­pean com­posers, par­tic­u­larly the grand mas­ter of baroque coun­ter­point, Jo­hann Se­bas­tian Bach. But in its up­com­ing con­cert, the VBC singers will not hew to the fa­mil­iar strains of fugues and chorales. In­stead, they will delve into me­dieval chant, flirt with im­pro­vi­sa­tion, ex­plore the sub­tle in­flec­tions of Man­darin, and draw on a num­ber of liv­ing com­posers, both lo­cal and oth­er­wise.

It’s a big step for the group, even with the eclec­tic mu­si­cians of the Orchid En­sem­ble help­ing out—as VBC as­so­ciate con­duc­tor Kath­leen Allan ex­plains, on the line from her Rail­town home.

“The choir was look­ing for some­thing a lit­tle bit out­side of our com­fort zone, a lit­tle bit off the beaten track for a large sym­phonic cho­rus, and the Orchid En­sem­ble was a nat­u­ral choice,” she says. “This is very much what they do: they build bridges. From the tra­di­tional Chi­nese sound and in­stru­ments, they reach out and do a lot of new mu­sic, so I think it’s to­tally in their purview to be cross­ing bound­aries like this con­cert is try­ing to do.”

The re­hearsal process has not been with­out its chal­lenges—which, per­haps coun­ter­in­tu­itively, is ex­actly what Allan hoped for.

“One of them,” she notes, “is lan­guage. We’re singing in He­brew and Tai­wanese di­alect and Chi­nese. So Lan Tung, the erhu player and artis­tic di­rec­tor of the Orchid En­sem­ble, has come to sev­eral re­hearsals and has been very help­ful in just coach­ing the choir on the sound of the lan­guages that we’re work­ing on. And then another el­e­ment is sim­ply the style of singing. We’re do­ing a set of Tai­wanese folk songs that Lan ar­ranged, and they have or­na­ments that are writ­ten as lit­tle grace notes in the score. But they’re very quick and not ex­actly on pitch, so she’s been able to demon­strate that for us—and even demon­strate them on her in­stru­ment, as a lot of the colours we’re try­ing to achieve are ac­tu­ally im­i­tat­ing the erhu. So it’s been a lot of fun, and I think we’ve grown a lot as a choir in ex­per­i­ment­ing with th­ese things and ex­pand­ing our singing pal­ette.”

As di­verse as the pro­gram is, though, it’s not with­out a uni­fy­ing theme. Or themes, per­haps: Zen no­tions of im­per­ma­nence and in­ter­con­nect­ed­ness run through many of the works, most no­tably John Sharp­ley’s “A Dream Within a Dream” and Rod­ney Shar­man’s newly com­mis­sioned “Ev­ery­thing”. Both set poetic texts: Sharp­ley is work­ing with one of Edgar Allan Poe’s more meta­phys­i­cal state­ments, while Shar­man has cho­sen a mantra­like piece from the late Scot­tish poet Alexan­der Hutchi­son.

“It all comes un­der the um­brella of love,” Allan ob­serves. “The first piece on the pro­gram where we’re singing is by Moshe Den­burg; its text is from the Song of Songs, and then we do a Re­nais­sance set­ting of the very same text.…and al­though I don’t think Rod­ney knew about the John Sharp­ley piece and its Poe text be­fore he wrote this com­mis­sion, it was kind of a beau­ti­ful co­in­ci­dence: ‘Ev­ery­thing is van­ish­ing, ev­ery­thing is van­ish­ing,’ you know, ‘like grains of the golden sand.’ It re­ally ties the pro­gram quite beau­ti­fully to­gether. And then be­tween those two works we’re do­ing a Wil­liam Byrd motet that is the same back­wards and for­wards—it’s a com­plete palin­drome—and its text is ‘Love thy neigh­bour as thy­self.’

“So that’s my uni­fy­ing idea: while ev­ery­thing is van­ish­ing, love gives us a lit­tle bit of pur­pose.”

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