Festival Chorus delights with Good Friday tradition
In the public mind, Beethoven is not often thought of as a composer of significant choral music, with the exception of the Missa Solmnis, unquestionably one of great works in the classical canon.
The annual Good Friday performance by the Festival Chorus this year thus afforded a welcome opportunity to spend an evening listening to Beethoven as a choral composer in a variety of works, compositions involving an orchestra, a pianist and vocal soloists in differing combinations.
The program opened with the little-performed Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, a Goethe poem more usually encountered in music by Mendelssohn.
The Beethoven version actually sets the poem to music and, like the Mendelssohn, presents a short contrast between the calmness of the sea at the opening and the good spirits and optimism of the closing.
As a work for chorus, it is not exceptionally difficult to sing, and the Festival Chorus — a group with an established pedigree — had no difficulty in rendering the choral parts with aplomb and, at the end, with energy and a solid tone.
The opening was, perhaps, rather level in its effect, and a more cultivated choral sound in the softer passages would have captured the mood more tellingly.
This was followed by the Choral Fantasy, a work heard about more often than actually heard.
It certainly is a fantasy, in the sense that for much of the piece the pianist is the dominant participant, yielding to the chorus only at the end. Colleen Athparia, the regular accompanist for the Festival Chorus, was the soloist for the Fantasy, and given her well-established status as one of Calgary’s best and most active pianists, she had no difficulty whatsoever in drawing from the score the music it contains.
Fluent in the handling of the virtuoso elements, Athparia was equally successful with the more expressive dimension of the piano writing, her playing successful in every way.
The chorus and orchestra also contributed their portion to this generally successful performance, the memorable tune at the end well-etched and the chorus convincing in rhythm and sound.
The orchestra, consisting largely of CPO members and orchestral friends, had no trouble with this music and under the able leadership of conductor Mel Kirby played remarkably well.
The major work on the program was the C major Mass by Beethoven, a work in the Haydn/mozart tradition, at least seemingly, but generally a much louder and aggressive work than the religious choral music that came before it.
Here one could sense the best work by the chorus, but also some of the weaknesses.
The choral parts were generally well-prepared and sung, but as is often the case with amateur choral groups that perform only a few times per year, there was sometimes a sense that the choristers tended to sing for themselves, rather than an audience.
A more externalized way of singing would have made the performance more convincing.
Also, there is room for work in the blending of the individual sections, with individual voices coming through more than is desirable in the best choral ensembles.
With these minor reservations, the chorus acquitted itself well.
The four soloists, all drawn from Calgary Opera’s Emerging Artist Development Program, sang with conviction, if with more operatic than oratorio manners in terms of voice production and style.
For this work, this element was not really a problem, however, the style was not quite top-drawer oratorio work.
Amateur organizations have many challenges to deal with to put on concerts of this type and quality, and it is good to be able to reflect that the Festival Chorus continues to live up to its established reputation as an organization of quality, one that takes its work seriously and with conscious pride.