The Far West

The+Far+WestThis review first appeared in the print edition of Opera Canada.

Zachary Wadsworth’s The Far West is a setting for tenor, chorus and strings of texts by poet/priest Tim Duglos, who died of AIDS in 1990. These are very personal and curiously optimistic texts. In G-9 for example death is described as “a great adventure” that will end “in just the right place”. Only in Parachuteis there much in the way of anger. Here AIDs is “an insatiable and prowling beast with razor teeth and a persistent stink”

The settings make good use of the forces deployed. Most of the time either the chorus, Calgary’s excellent Luminous Voices, or the tenor soloist, Lawrence Wiliford, are deployed separately and with some contrast. Wiliford, for example uses much darker colours in the central movement, The Far West, where the poet directly confronts his own impending death, than he does the more contemplative sections Et in Arcadia Ego and G-9, where his tone is characteristically brighter. The clarity of the solo pieces contrasts well with the richer, more “churchy” sound of the interwoven choral movements. Curiously, the basically elegiac mood is sustained musically even for the much harsher text of Parachute. The piece ends cleverly with a final movement setting metaphysical poet George Herbert’s Heaven. In this the chorus sings a series of questions about eternity that are given single word answers by the tenor that answer the question in a deep but indirect way. The strings accompany in a direct homage to Bach that ends with ambiguous but hopeful harmonies.

Throughout, there is great clarity from both the small orchestra and the chorus under the direction of Timothy Shantz. Wiliford’s impeccable diction adds to the sense of giving full value to the texts. It’s a fine performance.

Before the main event there are two a cappella pieces based on the idea of a meditation about a journey. The first Come to the Road, sets text adapted from Paul Lawrence Dunbar and is sung by the chorus. For Up-Hill, to a text by Christina Rossetti they are joined by soprano Katie Partridge in a call and response format. Both pieces are tonal and meditative and fill out the disc in a satisfying way.

The recording was made in Calgary’s St. Stephen’s Anglican Church. It’s a bit resonant and I could have used slightly more clarity though it’s not at all an inappropriate sound for this music.

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