Thursday, January 19, 2012

Review - Smart Programming Makes a Concert

From Sound and Noise - University of Alberta Students on Music

I admit it. I have not yet written a uniformly negative review about the classical music scene in Edmonton. Am I biased because I am happily a part of this scene? Probably. Am I scared to death that I have worked or will end up working with most of the people I review? Oh yes. (I am also a frighteningly people-pleasing Canadian.) At the end of the day, would these factors really stop me from saying what I truly thought about a concert? Absolutely not. Might it be that Edmonton’s classical music is just really good? I have found this to be true so far, but there are more concerts to see.

All of the classical musicians in Edmonton have opinions about each other, though I would venture to say that few of them have to go writing all about their colleagues on the world wide web for all to see. Since I am one of those few, I am grateful that the quality of classical music in Alberta’s capital is generally so high. So, the challenge is truly found in coming up with something to say other than the fact that another concert was good. On Sunday afternoon, the Scona Chamber Singers reminded me what separates the good concerts from the great ones.

Repertoire. This is the component that can make a concert entirely interesting or entirely boring. I have previously mentioned the plight that is classical music’s survival in this technology-obsessed era. When an artist programs a concert, no matter the genre, the choices of repertoire that s/he makes can pre-determine a lot about the number of people that will show up and the number of people that will stay past intermission. This means that an artist who chooses repertoire based on an assumption that s/he is entitled to an audience is doomed to fail. Audiences will feel no love and give no love back if they feel that not a penny of their ticket dollars gave them a say in what they would hear that night.

How does one artist include so many people in selecting repertoire before they all enter the building? It is not about a particular song that you think everyone wants to hear; it is about recognizing that the repertoire you choose immediately tells your audience how smart you think it is. I am going to come right out and say it (even at the risk of dissent from my colleagues): some famous composer’s signature on a score does not make it a good piece of music. If you program a boring or, frankly, bad piece of music, you better have a really good story behind it or your audience will wonder why you have wasted its money. Random concert programming is the death knell for classical music; there is more than enough mediocre repertoire out there to inspire yawns from the audience if the music is not given justification. Thankfully, Sunday’s concert drew far more applause than it did yawns.

John Brough, Jolaine Kerley and their Scona Chamber Singers are all part of an increasingly strong early music movement throughout Edmonton and Alberta. Early music is probably the toughest repertoire to sell to fast-paced society, yet they have done admirably well. Their concert, “Music of the Sistine Chapel,” showed once again how they can manage to fill Holy Trinity Anglican Church on a regular basis. There is no point detailing the quality of the choir; they consistently produce one of the finest sounds for a 16-voice choir I have heard in all of my years in choral music. It is just that simple. What kept me hooked to their concert was the connective tissue that bound the music together from start to finish.

Beyond the fact that all of the composers were either directly attached to the Sistine Chapel or inspired by those who were, the major linking feature was the opening piece by Luca Marenzio, entitled “Che fa oggi il mio sole.” Gregorio Allegri wrote a mass with Marenzio’s piece as its theme, and the choir interspersed the various movements of this mass within the other pieces. Add in one part famous tune (Josquin des Prez’s “Ave Maria”) and one part definitive Renaissance composers (Thomas Louis da Vittoria and Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina), and you had yourself an accessible concert whose storyline could have easily enticed the most stalwart opponent of early music. John Brough’s pleasant explanation of the thoughtful programming was a welcome bonus.

When I began writing for Sound and Noise, I was not planning to write on a theme of classical music’s survival. After several months as a contributor, I have come to realize the importance of recognizing artists and ensembles whose performances will only have a positive impact on the future of a genre that is so important to me. Yes, my reviews have been consistently favourable, but this is because I find joy in acknowledging the work that my colleagues do to tell the world why classical music will be eternally important. It is an honour I do not take lightly, and it inspires me to remember that I have a responsibility in my own performing to do exactly the same thing. We all do.

-Mark Wilkinson

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