Last night, 10 December 2016, I had the opportunity to attend a unique musical experience, “The Virgin Mary to the Child Jesus Cantata” which took place at Almonte Presbyterian Church.
It’s not every day you are fortunate enough to attend a debut of such an evocative and intricate musical story but there we were, my wife and I, eagerly anticipating the event. And we were not disappointed.
The cantata, composed by Elise Letourneau, put music to the words of the Elizabeth Barrett Browning poem. The evening was structured as a concert, with the first part being the cantata and the second half of the show reserved for some interesting instrumental and vocal with instruments pieces which reflected the Christmas season.
Was the music for everyone? No. Was the performance perfect? No.
Speaking to the first question, in my experience there are two types of Christmas concerts. They are either: populist sing-alongs with lots of jingle bells, holly leaves, fa-la-la and let’s be jolly; or they are serious works which tell a story firmly rooted on the traditions and religion which inform the season. Clearly this concert was of the latter type.
It was poignant, deep, and perhaps a little flawed, mainly because the arrangements, orchestration and dynamics required to perfectly execute the pieces were extremely challenging. Sometimes flaws can charm, rather than thwart the enjoyment of the attender. And maybe that’s too strong a word anyway: enjoyment. This implies that the premise of the performance was to entertain the listener but I believe that was not the intent of the performers.
The intent was to inform the audience and instill in them something of the sombre occasion and gravity of the author’s poetry…poetry which was written against the backdrop of the long-ago 19th century. In this sense, then, the night possessed a certain unapologetic gravitas. Anyone who came for a Christmas sing-along and yuletide carols would certainly have been disappointed!
The telling of the poem’s story was entrusted to the 3-piece instrumental ensemble and the 3- or 4-person vocal group. I mentioned earlier that there were a few flaws and while in balance none of them affected their ability to effectively tell the story, they should be mentioned here.
First, there was an issue of sound quality. While the acoustics of the church were very even and warm, the piano’s sound level was set so high that it left the other instruments and the vocalists little room to compete for acoustic space. Also, the vocal ensemble’s microphones were of the ambient choir type, which are more suited to large vocal ensembles.
A single directional microphone per vocalist (or even shared between pairs of vocalists) would have made it easier to balance the vocalists’ voices with those of the instruments. The soloist who sang the part of Jesus’ mother, Mary, in the cantata possessed an impressive range and excellent diction but seemed a bit over-extended on some of the notes in her high register. The soloist was counter-balanced with a trio for the cantata.
The harmonies, while beautiful (and very challenging, as I said previously) resulted in some momentary dissonances on occasion. The instruments were beautifully played. The pianist was wonderful musically and a consummate accompanist. The flutist/saxophonist was pitch perfect and the cellist possessed a certain warmth and vibrancy in her playing.
Imperfect? Yes. Flawed? Yes. Worth the effort? Yes! I felt that I had witnessed something important and special. I believe more rehearsal time would have smoothed over the very few rough spots in the performance but on net, they in no way came between the listener and the message which was being portrayed. Playing and singing in small musical and vocal ensembles takes a certain amount of courage as every note is laid bare for everyone to see. Mistakes are obvious and there are no “do-overs”. It’s honest, direct and scary for the performers.
The effort put into writing, orchestrating, and performing these works of art (because that’s what they are) should be commended and cherished. An interested and engaged audience member will be drawn in and become a participant in the effort. This implies a certain responsibility. If the performance is truly excellent or simply “really good” they will gathered into the story in proportion to the effort they put into the endeavour. I was left with a warm feeling as I left with my wife that night.
I felt that it was a good night and that the artists had worked hard to achieve a connection with me. It was “really good” vs. excellent. But when you consider that these are not professional world-class artists but rather a local reflection of the deep well of talent we have in Ottawa and the Valley, it was a noble effort.
I expect that next time I see this work it will be excellent but I certainly got my money’s worth, not to mention value returned for the long drive out from Osgoode.