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Breath of fresh air

Memorial's festival and chamber choirs reach new heights: review

Campus and Community

By David Chafe

For nearly two decades, I have been a proud member of several choirs in St. John’s.

My roles have been as singer, pianist and co-creator. It seems cliché to say, but it certainly is true that there is something incredibly powerful about a chorus of voices singing together.

Powerful experience

To be part of such an ensemble evokes a sense of community spirit, shared interests and striving towards common goals that transcend some of the harshness of the everyday.

To be in the audience is another powerful experience, for the audience can see what the choristers may not be fully aware of: commanding stage presence, singers’ response to artistic nuances communicated by the conductor’s every movement, while the conductor’s attention is shared between the choir, other musicians, and the audience.

It is a most successful choral concert that leaves an audience not only in awe but also feeling invited and welcome as participants in the event at hand, and leaving fully nourished by a tasteful, interesting program of just the right length.

“Edelweiss”: Music from Austria

On Saturday, April 1, Memorial University’s festival and chamber choirs, directed by Dr. Jakub Martinec, joined forces for “Edelweiss”: Music from Austria, warming the souls of their audience during an hours-long respite from nasty wintry weather.

Dr. Jakub Martinic is director of choral studies at Memorial.
Dr. Jakub Martinic is director of choral studies at Memorial.
Photo: Submitted

The choirs commanded attention instantly as the singers marched through the aisles efficiently and confidently into place on stage.

Centre stage was the school’s Casavant pipe organ played by Stephen Candow, who was also pianist for all of the concert’s accompanied pieces.

“The energy in the audience was palpable, as we all knew we were in for something special before the first note.”

Alongside were the MUNkapelli Singers, a quartet of current students of the School of Music, featuring soprano Alison Petten, alto Hannah O’Donnell, tenor Dion Flores, and bass Colin Mackey.

The energy in the audience was palpable, as we all knew we were in for something special before the first note. The musicians delivered.

MUNkapelli, the festival choir and Mr. Candow weaved a seamless, confident performance of Mozart’s Coronation Mass, under the sensitive, artistic leadership of Dr. Martinec. The musicians were not merely “following” Dr. Martinec’s conducting.

Rather, all appeared to be working as a team, a community, bringing the audience along for the celebratory ride. The programming and performances were developed and directed by Dr. Martinec, but his personal passion for the music was obvious, evidenced in the poise and confidence of the large ensemble.

Notable changes

As a former student of the school, I sang for several years in both choirs.

There were two features of this chorus, however, that were decidedly different from when I was a member. The first was the attire. Gone were the tuxedos, bow ties and gowns, replaced by streamlined, contemporary all-black apparel. Less formal, yet not casual. Relaxed, comfortable, and classy.

“The choirs performed the entire Mass and concert from memory.”

The second obvious change in performance style was the absence of music binders. The choirs performed the entire Mass and concert from memory. When a choir leader can inspire, motivate and achieve that kind of disciplined performance, the sound and appearance of the performance is at a far higher level.

The singers’ hands were by their sides and their gazes focused exclusively on Dr. Martinec, from the audience perspective making the performance all the more captivating.

Visually and aurally appealing

Following the Coronation Mass, Mr. Flores, in his final turn as a master’s student in choral conducting, (also tenor soloist in the Mass) took to the conductor’s podium, beautifully guiding the festival choir through Bruckner’s Locus Iste and chamber choir in Hrušovsky’s rapid, complex and thrilling Rytmus.

It bears repeating how much more captivating and confident-seeming a performance is when choirs perform from memory. As with Dr. Martinec, the choirs were able to give Mr. Flores their undivided attention, resulting in visually and aurally appealing performances.

“The audience was completely still and silent as 13-year-old Evan sang his stunning solo.”

As if this concert was not already sweet enough, a selection of three of the more famous songs from The Sound of Music were icing on the cake, with lovely solos by Newfoundland opera singer Robin Whiffen and rising star Evan Natsheh. The audience was completely still and silent as 13-year-old Evan sang his stunning solo in Edelweiss warmly supported by the choirs.

To complete the scene, Dr. Martinec turned to the audience to invite us to sing the final refrain, drawing everyone in to a gorgeous and well-rounded program. A fitting encore for Memorial University of Newfoundland’s storied choirs and School of Music was a fabulous new Paul Halley arrangement of Ode to Newfoundland commissioned by St. Michael’s Choir School of Toronto for its 2015 concert tour of the province.

This arrangement reads “for choir, organ and audience.” A perfect conclusion to Memorial’s choir season.

A friend seated with me commented during the standing ovation, “This place should be filled to capacity.” She was right. There were about 175 in attendance in the 300-seat hall, but I blame the weather. If you were not able to attend, do yourself a favour and keep a lookout for future performances next fall, Christmas and spring from these fine university choirs. You will be in for a treat.

New legacy

Dr. Martinec arrived in St. John’s from the Czech Republic in 2014 as a relative unknown in these parts, and with mighty shoes to fill, following the extraordinary legacies of Drs. Donald Cook and Douglas Dunsmore.

If this performance of the festival and chamber choirs is an indication, not to mention his other innovative work on the province’s choral scene, Dr. Martinec is blazing new paths, set to establish a new legacy.

Audiences will be richer for his work and contribution.

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