I was curious to hear what the impact of Elizabeth MacIsaac's decision to install an assistant and remove herself to the University of Washington to pursue doctoral studies in conducting, would have on her singers. How would her half time presence affect them?
There was an anticipatory buzz from the sold-out audience, a noticeably younger and more creatively dressed crowd (colourful scarves, beautiful knitwear, ethnic jewelry, and quite a few children) than some other audiences I have been in lately, suggesting considerable faith in whatever artistic alchemy is going on here. And then from behind us, three tenth century hymns rang out, in first, a compelling beautiful soprano voice, answered from the other side in a tenderly dark alto, and an appreciative hush descended on the audience which was to hold us in its thrall for the duration of the concert. These opening hymns, moving as they did from solo through gorgeous two part harmony to the richness of the full chorus, created a stamp of authenticity, a perfect little nutshell foreshadowing the full flowering of the performance still to come. The singers then processed down the two side aisles, carrying tiny lit candles, singing a masterful arrangement of a traditional celtic air by Michael McGlynn, alternating haunting melodies sung over a drone with rich overlapping dissonances, sound weaving round the space like an ocean lapping the Irish shore. Recognizable timbres in the voices, yet no sense of distinct colours in an unimaginably hypnotizing sea of voices.
The next two pieces provided a couple of more upbeat and extravert songs from the twelfth and fifteenth centuries, nicely shaped and polished with delicious harmonies and dynamics, demonstrating the power of the alto voices - the sopranos like a field of light; the always popular Spanish Riu Riu Chiu benefitting from the immaculate and lively as champagne hand drum patterns from Doug Hensley.
Morten Lauridsen's O Magnum Mysterium is one of the most widely performed choral pieces in the world (by a contemporary composer) and I have heard it many times, yet never arranged for female voices. It is the simplest, yet potentially most evocative of statements - "O great mystery, that animals watched the the birth ... and that a young girl was worthy ... alleluia" Beginning with infinite delicacy, the colour change on the word "virgo" reminding me of bearing down in the labour which must precede the light of birth. The sopranos divinely tender, the beauty of the word "natus" resolving into waves of joy. The effect on the audience was a kind of stunned awe.
Testament to MacIsaac's skill as a creator of ritual experience, the brief shock at the total change of pace gave way to the lilting pleasures of the next piece in a French Canadian arrangement by Allison Girvan of a work song that would have been sung by "les voyageurs et coureurs de bois." I couldn't help but imagine a young man staring into the mysterious forest as he and his mates slipped past dark Canadian shores in their canoes at the beginning of our history here - and could feel, if not explain, the connection with the worshipping animals and the innocent girl of the previous scene. Irrepressible joy and breathless humour took us through another French Canadian folk song arranged by Stephen Hatfield, readying us for a 2nd immersion in the transcendent with Rheinberger's Kyrie and Gloria from the Missa in G, Opus 187.
Extremely fortunate to have the skills of Nicholas Fairbanks on the organ for this piece, quietly supporting the broadly flowing melodic lines of the Kyrie in a beautifully sustained and balanced cumulus cumuli of sound, gold tinged in its culminating eleison. The gloria was all forward driving energy, revealing great depth with powerful presence.
With a rousing virginal solo, the conclusion to the first half came in the strangely satisfying southern spiritual, "Keep your lamps trimmed and burning".
The second half was equally bold and varied in its program choices, setting out with the knife-edged clarity and haunting minor cadences of a recent composition by the Finnish composer, Jaako Måntyjårvi, in honour of the victims of the 2011 earthquake in Japan. The singers clustered as if around a grave, the earth itself in mourning. MacIsaac's own voice, soaring into the vaulted ceiling above created a bridge to the other corner of the space where another group sang a tone poem called Stars, by Sheldon Rose, rich, dark and luminous tones creating a plea of child-like innocence to simply stop, look up and wonder.
The fifteenth century anonymous "Adoramus Te Domine" is another, new to me, treasure of devotional chant, in which the opening words formed an exquisitely soft frame for the central plaint. The big surprise of the evening however, came with with a piece written by Kim Baryluk in response to the murder of a woman in Winnipeg. Dramatically structured to emphasize different stages in the response to violence, and culminating in the Warrior strength of the older woman, the choir impressively demonstrated its own flexibility and power, and received a standing ovation in response.
The one selection that left me slightly unconvinced, and that only because as an aboriginal anti war song, I felt "Pemulwuy", by composer Paul Jarman, called for a more male, more Australian, more aboriginal energy - in spite of that the choir did an admirable job with bright, hard edged tones and trumpet-like bursts of fervour.
The evening closed with a suite of songs called Snow Angel by the Canadian composer, Sarah Quartel. Opening with a sonorously elegiac cello introduction from Maria Wang and evoking all that is reassuring, sweet and hopeful in images of mothers and children - even the heavenly armies sounded harmonious rather than threatening. The cello provided a gorgeous foil to all this sweetness, the whole feeling like an offering of hope to the child in all of us.
I had answered the question for myself at the outset - Elizabeth MacIsaac's choir, Ensemble Laude, was more confident, more powerful, more engaging than ever. But how this had happened, with so much less exposure to their director, remained a mystery until I was able to have a conversation with MacIsaac a few days later. The kernel of what she had to say was, firstly, her gratitude to her young assistant director, Carolyn Howe, for her seamless undertaking of her preparatory role, and stepping up to address so many other tasks in addition, and secondly, her profound appreciation for the inspirational choral conducting professors she has encountered in her programme at the University of Washington, Drs. Geoffrey Boers and Giselle Wyers. A core method being developed there is based on the work of Rudolf van Laban which was originally focussed on movement and dance. Here it uses a vocabulary of gestures designed to communicate effective and very specific powerful states - (in Indian sacred ritual theatre they would be called rasas) to the choir, and thus to the audience. In addition to this, there is a great emphasis on the warm up process as a way of teaching singers how to access and maintain a beautifully supported sound without reverting to a weak default voice during performance. I suspect also that by having Carolyn Howe conduct part of the performance allowed MacIsaac to contribute as a singer herself, thus modelling what she is teaching. In former years, when she did this, her voice stood out as an exceptionally pure and brilliantly sustained tone. Now, though hers is still a distinguishable voice, the standard of the choir has risen to close the gap.
It takes a lot of courage and faith to take time out for further studies when you have passed the mid mark of your life, and MacIsaac had to defend herself against a few perplexed naysayers, but at only one sixth of the the way through her doctorate, I would suggest the future for Ensemble Laude is very bright indeed.
Posted: May 30, 2015 Originally Published: Dec 19, 2014