Sunday, June 12, 2011

A Ballad for Canada from a Canadian Treasure

Concert Review: NAC Orchestra, June 10, 2010, Southam Hall

Pinchas Zukerman, conductor
Ottawa Choral Society, Matthew Larkin, director
Cantata Singers of Ottawa, Michael Zaugg, director
Ottawa Festival Chorus, Laurence Ewashko, directors
Ottawa Regional Youth Choir, Kevin Reeves, director
Arianna Zukerman, soprano
Heather Johnson, mezzo-soprano
David Pomeroy, tenor
Christopher Temporelli, bass
Duain Wolfe, chorusmaster,
Laurence Ewashko, associate chorusmasters


by Peter Amsel

There are many reasons for a composer to write a new piece; some are inspired by love, some by the thought of a new season, others by a work of art, and then there is the commissioned work. When a work is commissioned it only means that the composer is getting paid upfront for the composition of the work and, even more importantly, especially to the composer, the work will be performed – usually before the death of the composer. That is the most important thing about the new work that was recently performed at the National Arts Centre of Canada for a number of reasons, not the least of which being that the composer in question, Malcolm Forsyth, who will be celebrating his 75th birthday on December 8 of this year, is in the final stage of an heroic battle with pancreatic cancer. He is dying, but his music, most definitely, is not; it is vibrantly alive and was enjoyed by two virtually sold out performances with the NAC Orchestra on Thursday and Friday, June 9 and 10, under the baton of Maestro Pinchas Zukerman, with four combined choirs of about 185 members under the direction of Grammy Award winning chorus master Duain Wolfe and associate chorus master Laurence Ewashko.

Malcolm Forsyth emigrated from his birth country of South Africa in 1968, relocating to his adopted home of Canada where he began a career teaching at the University of Edmonton. Last year, after spending decades as a fixture of Canadian music, the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra and the National Arts Centre Orchestra presented him with a joint commission with the challenge to compose an “iconically Canadian work” which, Forsyth recognized, was a strange request to make “from an immigrant”, but it was not, not really. Not when you consider the nature of Canadian music and the effects that outside influences have had on its development. There should be no cognitive dissonance at the thought of an immigrant to this nation composing an iconic Canadian work; after all, our national anthem was composed by a man who spent most of his professional life living in the United States. Calixa Lavallée, the composer of O Canada, died in Boston in 1891 where he had worked for several years. Malcolm Forsyth, Canada’s “Composer of the Year” in 1989, is more than qualified to compose a work representing Canada. The question is, is Canada willing to accept such a work?

While the central portion of A Ballad of Canada is entitled “Canada in Time of Trial”, when Forsyth got to the writing of the final movement it could well have been called “Composer in Time of Trial”. He was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer: this could well be the last piece he composed. The battle was on. Composing became a salve, a form of therapy, and a reason to fight to survive, and he did just that: he survived. It is not always obvious what a composer is feeling based on how their music sounds: a composer that is feeling depressed does not necessarily write maudlin, dark sounding or turgid music. A Ballad of Canada is not morbid music, nor is it music that sounds as though its creator is prepared to give up the ghost. This is music that reflects a vital spirit; a questing, curious mind that still has a great deal to explore and experience through the sounds that there are to lay down on the page. Malcolm Forsyth is not prepared to go quietly into the night, not with A Ballad of Canada.

It would seem, as evidenced by Forsyth’s work, that being Canadian is more than about birth; it is about pride of place, and about a genuine love of the land. These things were abundantly present in his new work for choir and orchestra, which features the poetry of four poets in its five sections, which are divided into three movements. The first movement of the piece and the final movement each contain one section, based on poems by Ralph Gustafson (1909-1995) and E.J. Pratt (1882-1964). These outer movements represent “The Land” of Canada, with the first representing the Yukon through Gustafson’s evocative text and the fifth representing Newfoundland in one of the most interesting texts of the piece.

The central portion of the composition is entitled “Canada in Time of Trial” and focuses on Canada during war. The first of the three sections takes on one of the truly iconic poems of Canadian history, “In Flanders Fields” by John McCrae (1872-1918). Every schoolchild grows up learning this poem, and learning that McCrae died shortly after having set it down on paper, so choosing to set such a well known text was truly a bold move, but it was a risk worth taking: the composition demanded a strong text. The first emotional climaxes, if the rousing setting of “In Flanders Fields” was not enough for the audience, truly comes in the third part of the piece, or the second section of the second movement: “The Toll of the Bells” by E.J. Pratt. While this is the shortest of the movements, it is stunningly beautiful and was truly one of the highlights of the night. One of the poems used in the composition was written especially for the work, by poet Carl Hare (b.1932 - ). His poem, “On the Waverly Road Bridge” portrays the emotional confrontation between two mothers during the funeral procession along higway 401.

As a composition there is much to laud in A Ballad of Canada, especially the evocative “Toll of the Bells” and Forsyth’s truly exceptional setting of the almost over-known “In Flanders Fields”. When a text is as well known as “Flanders” it is difficult to do something that does not sound contrived or cliché, but Forsyth’s handling of that section is anything but – it is the consummation of a career as a composer that shows a man who, though declining physically, retains the faculties that makes him one of Canada’s living treasures. Unfortunately the concert was not recorded by CBC Radio for broadcast to the nation so there will not be a chance for the public to hear a work that should become part of the Canadian repertoire. It is truly sad when the cost of a production is put ahead of the value of the preservation of our cultural treasures, particularly when one is as influential as Malcolm Forsyth. Hopefully the CBC will realize that A Ballad of Canada is something that Canada deserves to hear and they will record the Edmonton premiere in November.

One of the reasons that concerts have been declared obsolete by some is the fact that with recordings it is possible to create your own listening experience, whenever you desire, including the ability to listen to a composition over again if you want to hear something more than once. Unfortunately, when you take the live performance out of the equation you lose the opportunity to see certain things, things like over 180 choir members standing on risers at the back of the stage, or an expanded NAC orchestra assembled for the performance of the Forsyth, and the Beethoven in the second half of the concert. You would also miss the opportunity to see the composer receive acknowledgement for their work when the performance was concluded, as it was on Friday when the crowd rose to its feet for several minutes of a prolonged standing ovation for Malcolm Forsyth who waved repeatedly to the orchestra, choir and the audience from the Royal Box in which he had been seated.

If the measure of a piece of music is whether or not you want to hear it again then A Ballad of Canada is, indeed, a piece of music that may be great. At the intermission of the concert the first thing that went through my mind was that I wanted to hear certain parts of the piece again, especially the evocative “Toll of the Bells”, but, in truth, the entire piece is well worth exploring for the richness of Forsyth’s orchestral palette and his deft use of colour throughout the piece. Forsyth was definitely not out of his element in his use of the choir. Unfortunately, there were times when the choirs were slightly out of their element in the performance of the Forsyth.

The greatest issue of the evening, and the issue that struck at the performance of Beethoven’s iconic Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125, seemed to be an issue of size. There is a perverse assumption in music that “size matters”, and that “bigger is better”, but this is not necessarily the case, not when it comes to assembling large amounts of singers for large choral events. A Ballad of Canada is sung in English but, at times, you would hardly recognize this fact given the diction of the massed voices. This is not the fault of the setting of the text, something that I can say with assurance for having seen the score: the text is well set, with opportunities for it to be declared clearly. So, who is to blame? Since Forsyth used an expanded orchestration it was decided to expand the rest of the orchestra: the string sections were bolstered with extra members which gave them a much fuller, warmer sound. The choirs, however, were another story. Perhaps it was just that there were too many choristers, or that a few were off the mark, but there were too many places where the clarity of the enunciation was such that the text was simply obliterated. Were it not for the printed text in the programme, it would have been difficult to follow the progression of the piece.

This was especially evident in the choral finale to the Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. For most people all one need do is say, “Ode to Joy” and the famous melodic motif that Beethoven immortalized in his work will be heard, hummed and whistled by those who profess to “not know anything” about classical music. It is a piece of music that has entered the collective consciousness of our civilization. It has been performed by choruses of thousands, with diction that would put the Vienna Boys Choir to shame, so why so much trouble for 180-or-so odd singers? Why indeed. Quite simply, size does matter. Too many singers, when there are too many amateurs who are not fully up to the task of what Beethoven wrote, add up to a performance that sounds like a professional orchestra married to an amateur chorus. It does not sound like a concert at the National Arts Centre; it sounds like the National Arts Centre Orchestra that suddenly brings on a choir of enthusiastic people who, knowing how the music goes, volunteer to sing the finale because they happen to have the right outfits for the concert.

In actual fact the finale was not as bad as that may sound, though there were some truly dreadful moments in the choral singing, there were some very nice “toneful” moments as well, when the tone of the amassed singers was quite lovely, though it was virtually impossible to make out any text other than the word “Freude” and “Elysium”. Granted, singing in German is never an easy thing to do for English speakers, it is something that singers do on a regular basis; it is part of the craft of singing. Making excuses that “the language is difficult” is simply not acceptable when the piece on the program is in German. Singing in a choir often requires one to sing in foreign languages, it is part of the challenge of choral singing so that excuse is not at all acceptable.

What the finale may have lacked in diction, it made up for with its enthusiasm, from the orchestra and vocal soloists, to a fairly entertaining performance by Maestro Zukerman who seemed to have lost all inhibition in the epic battle between Beethoven’s sonic world and the temporal, in which he stood, waving his arms about like an off-kilter windmill being assaulted by a demented Don riding a burro. It was, in effect, with apologies to Dickens, the best of movements and the worst of movements. The first movement, with its ethereal opening over the sustained pedal, was a bit harried and unfocused in its direction. There was such a long pause between the first and second movement that the opening of the rousing scherzo, which begins with a driving dotted-quarter note, eighth note, quarter note motif, lost all of the dramatic impact that the beginning of the movement can have, if it begins immediately after the end of the first. As a result, it fell flat, seeming to be totally without context to what had just come before. Truly however, one of the highlights of the performance was the orchestra’s rendering of the theme and variations in the third movement, which Pinchas Zukerman conducted with as little interference as possible, allowing the orchestra to play as they had been rehearsed, with confidence and clarity of vision. Throughout this movement the individual voices of the orchestra could be heard at their finest, making the listener long for opportunities to hear these performers in similar situations. The principal players were each brilliantly represented as Beethoven wove his web of variations and the strings of the orchestra, with the extra players, provided a lush sound that one could easily get used to hearing from the stage at the NAC.

Unfortunately, that was the end of most of the cohesiveness for the evening. It was a sign of musical laziness that brought things to a crashing halt at this point. When Beethoven’s 9th Symphony is performed there is often the question as to what to do with the soloists and the choir. It is obviously too much of a distraction to have over one hundred voices march onto the stage after about 50 minutes of music, to join the final 20 minutes of the piece, right? But what about the quartet of vocal soloists who sit at the front of the stage? Should they be made to sit there through the entire orchestral work, waiting for their short time in the spotlight? After hearing the long break that takes place when the four singers in Friday’s performance came onto the stage it is without reservation that this reviewer’s opinion is that yes, the quartet should be onstage for the entire performance. They are performers; it is part of their job. To take such a break between the sublime slow movement and the beginning of the finale is, in a word, idiotic. Unless there is a compelling reason that would prevent one of the singers from sitting still for 50 minutes, it seem incongruous that the soloists should not be able to tolerate such an ordeal. In consideration to the fact that 50 minutes may be too long for some people to sit on the stage, it would have been much less disruptive to the performance for the soloists to come out onto the stage after the scherzo movement. Sitting through the third movement, which is not overly long, would have greatly aided the flow of the performance.

The soloists of the evening made for an interesting group; led by Christopher Temporelli, who presented the opening bass recitative with confidence and panache, his voice filling Southam Hall at the NAC with an ease that one rarely hears with the lower voices. The same, unfortunately, could not be said for tenor David Pomeroy, who suffered from an insensitive accompanist in the form of Maestro Zukerman who ran over him with the orchestra and choruses. Pomeroy’s sweet voice, heard at the opening of his “Froh, wie seine Sonnen ...” (Happy as the sun flying ...), was quickly drowned out by the crescendo of the orchestra and choir, which is really unfortunate. Some singers love to sing Beethoven, while others hate him, and the reason for this is simple: Beethoven composed for the voice as though he was composing for any other orchestral instrument, which means the voice is not necessarily treated in a very characteristic manner. Beethoven’s vocal music does not fall into the category of what is commonly called the “Bel Canto” style that was so beloved among lovers of the opera of the day. The “beautiful singing” for which the “Bel Canto” is not something that Beethoven was concerned with when he composed for the voice; when Beethoven wrote he was only interested in having the voices perform just as if they were any other instrument in the orchestral force at his disposal. As a result, Beethoven’s vocal music is not always very easy to sing, especially when it comes to the community choirs that are invariably called upon for performances of the Choral Symphony. Performing this music takes a great deal of technical accomplishment and dedication from the singers; it is both challenging technically and musically.

Soprano Arianna Zukerman and mezzo-soprano Heather Johnson made the best of a difficult situation by rising above the assembled forces without sounding overly harassed. Heather Johnson’s tone was especially fine in the quartet portions of the finale. The final choral sections of finale was especially rousing, with the orchestral forces and the choirs coming together in time to find their way to a rousing finish that did not fail to satisfy any of those in attendance at the concert. Was this a performance that would withstand the fine scrutiny of multiple listenings? That is a question for the individual audience member, but it is not one which I would choose to replace any of the recordings that presently inhabit my Mp3 player. The audience at the NAC was, however, more than appreciative and for the second time that evening offered a standing ovation to the orchestra, chorus, and their leaders.

All music lovers should have an opportunity to hear a performance of Beethoven’s infamous and historic Choral Symphony at least once in their lives. It is the type of piece that fights the boundaries of a recording device, it defies the limits of a disc, whatever its dimensions. Seeing hundreds of musicians gathered together with a single purpose, particularly in the spectacular finale, you cannot help but be moved, and this performance, even with its imperfections, did just that. It may not have been the ideal performance, it may not have been a gem that will be cherished forever, but it will be the one that is dreamt about for it is the only one that is real.


The Edmonton premiere of A Ballad of Canada will take place under the baton of William Eddins on November 12, 2011, with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra.
Peter Amsel is an Ottawa based composer and writer.

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