The Elmer Iseler Singers and their conductor Lydia Adams returned to live performance at Eglinton St. George’s United Church yesterday with a programme that included the World Premiere of Timothy Corlis’ Om Saha Nāvavatu. The first half of the programme though consisted of four shorter works. First up was Three Motets to Our Lady by Healey Willan. The piece sets three texts; two invoking the Virgin Mary and one from The Song of Songs. They are conventional but effective polyphonic settings and were very skilfully performed. I’m not a huge Willan fan (heresy I know) but I really enjoyed these.
Next up was Sun on Water, for choir and Tibetan singing bowls, by Hussein Janmohamed which was inspired by the view of sunrise over Lake Ontario from the Scarborough Bluffs. This is rather a dramatic setting of Gujarati (I think) and Latin text. It uses a wide palette and dynamic range to evoke the way the light grows and shimmers across the lake. I’ve seen the sun rise on the lake quite a few times this summer and this music resonated.
Miroslav Skoryk’s Melodiya was written for film but it’s become a kind of anthem for peace in Ukraine. It’s a kind of choral tone poem with an important soprano solo part sung here by Gisele Kulak. Rounding out the first half was Latvian composer Eriks Eśenvalds’ The Long Road; basically a love song by Paulina Barda to her dead husband. This uses two soloists; here soprano Claire Renouf and mezzo Lynn Featherstone plus ocarina (Benjamin Keast). This is another skilful piece with a really effective suggestion of birdsong by the ocarina played from the back of the church.
And so to the main event’ Corlis’ Om Saha Nāvavatu. It’s not an easy piece to describe.. It’s a sort of meditation for choir, percussion and perambulating instrumentalists. The choir surrounds the audience on three sides with the percussion at the back and the instrumentalists (students from Agincourt Collegiate) moving through and around the audience. It sets four texts; the Vedic mantra of the title, Every Heart by Anandamayi Ma, a long poem, Hope, by Sri Chinmoy and Thich Nhāt Hanh’s Walk and Touch Peace. The composer describes the piece as “more of a sonic experience than a concert piece” and offers that it is designed to produce a therapeutic experience akin to meditation. As such it is gentle but beguiling. The percussion and instruments add subtle accents to the choral singing and it all becomes quite immersive. The singing and playing were equally excellent. I’ll stop there because I think this is something that one has to experience to “get it”. Fortunately, if you are so inclined, I’m told there will likely be other opportunities to catch it in Toronto in the fairly near future.
All in all not a bad way to spend an hour and a half on a turday afternoon.