Bach choir breaks bold new ground
Under Kathleen Allan’s baton, it takes on Mandarin, medieval chant, and much more
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.”