THE FIRST CANADIAN TOUR OF ‘THE GESUALDO SIX’ YIELDS AMPLE DELIGHTS
The Gesualdo Six: Music from Tallis and Byrd through Poulenc and the Moderns, St. James Anglican Church, Vancouver, July 21, 2018.
England has produced such a rich and varied collection of choirs over the years that any new entrant into the mix must have pretty strong credentials. Where better to look than the venerable Oxbridge choral tradition and the up-and-coming Gesualdo Six, formed just over four years ago for a performance of Don Carlo Gesualdo’s Tenebrae Responsories for Maundy Thursday at Trinity College Cambridge. It features a handpicked collection of a half-dozen of England’s finest young consort singers under the direction of 25-year-old Owain Park. All have had some experience with more well-established ensembles: The Choirs of Trinity and St. John’s College Cambridge, The Sixteen, the BBC and Amici Voices, to name but a few.
The Gesualdo Six’s first Canadian tour of 7 concerts moves from Ottawa and Quebec City to the West Coast, then back to Toronto and the Elora Festival. It also celebrates the release of the group’s first CD for Hyperion, entitled English Motets. One could hardly be disappointed with the vocal splendour on display in this Vancouver concert. The consort summons a particularly firm and cohesive sound, impeccably balanced from top to bottom, mixing enviable precision with an (often) sensual glow. I did not think there was a weak link within the singers, and each of their solo efforts were estimable. Nonetheless, this was not a concert designed to leave one in a state of quiet spiritual reflection. It had so many things going on: the group singing from different locations in the church, Owain Park’s varied commentary, all placed within a programme that extended from Tallis and Byrd to Poulenc and more contemporary pieces, ending with English folk songs. This was a very enjoyable journey but, in reality, it ended up as more of a survey of the ensemble’s enviable talents than an outing with special concentration and dramatic arc. I was delighted that both this concert and the previous night’s in Victoria secured full houses.
The concert was also special for me because it was the first musical event I have ever reviewed in the landmark St. James' Anglican Church, now located in the city’s poor and battered Downtown East Side. The church was first built in 1881, five years before the City of Vancouver was incorporated, but it burned down in the Great Fire of 1886. This concert took place in the church’s third incarnation, an imposing concrete and slate, Art Deco structure built in 1935-37 and designed by Adrian Gilbert Scott, who also designed the Church of St. Mary and St. Joseph, Poplar, London. It is an intriguing, highly reverberant space with a stage ceiling as high as one finds in Prague’s Rudolfinum, with the organ on the side rather than at the back. This institution is also noteworthy for housing the Saint James Music Academy, an El Sistema-inspired program that provides food and classical music instruction to very low-income youth from the neighbourhood. I am pleased to say that I have been able to contribute a sizeable sum to provide musical instruments for this initiative.
The concert began with the choir singing in a small room at the entrance to the church, eventually moving up the aisle to the alter. Here we proceeded seamlessly through short pieces by Tallis, Byrd, and Gombert, featuring singing of strength and luminosity, the blend anchored strongly in the lower ranges by Michael Craddock and Samuel Mitchell and balanced by a nicely suspended top from Josh Cooter and Guy James. Continuing with music of this period, the ensemble caught perfectly the beguiling syncopation at the beginning of Robert White’s ‘Christe, qui lux es et Dies’, finding a robust, almost symphonic projection later on. The evocative beauty of Striggio’s ‘Misero ohime’ was nicely mined while, in Byrd’s ‘Vigilate’, splendid virtuosity and attack held hands with vocal warmth.
I liked the expressive human face in all this singing, its tonal certainty and beauty, and the great care given to articulating long polyphonic lines. Nonetheless, the fulsome enthusiasm of some of the projection and pacing might not be for every mood: at times, it may have cost the music some of its sense of austere, wondrous space and natural unfolding. Some passages seemed to call out for slightly greater distillation in feeling, with softer and more varied dynamics within the voices and marginally more deliberate tempos overall. Perhaps this type of ‘public’ concert was not the place for such a treatment – or perhaps one was just witnessing the joys of youthful exuberance! I do note that the church’s reverberation may have thickened textures somewhat and made the choir’s sound image larger than it might otherwise be.
Still, most of the singing was glorious, and the supple lines and poise demonstrated in Marenzio’s ‘Porro viver io piu se senza luca’ – a personal favourite of the group, sung from the organ loft – seemed to capture the ensemble’s singing in its most refined and beautiful form. The subsequent Giovanni Palestrina ‘Io son ferito, ahi lasso’ may have pushed forward a little too insistently at the outset yet always revealed the ensemble’s eye for drama and strong dynamic contrasts.
The Gesualdo Six has also demonstrated an interest in contemporary pieces (I note their participation in Kepler’s Trial in London last November), and they seem to negotiate them with great style, accuracy and refinement. ‘I beheld her, beautiful as a dove’, by the iconic Canadian composer Healey Willan, featured the most lyrically sensitive singing, with telling lighter shadings. And one could hardly fail to be taken by the rich sustained textures and emotional commitment in the rendering of Gerda Blok-Wilson’s ‘O Little Rose, O Dark Rose’. The composer is a graduate of the University of British Columbia, and the piece won third prize in the 2018 Canadian Choral Competition. Director Owain Park contributed his own ‘Pho Hilaron’, a suspending narrative piece in praise of Christ, both meditative and exploratory.
The three Poulenc songs were a genuine change of pace and featured three singers each. These were quite enticing and gave a different slant on the ensembles very fine balance and solo resources. The French was articulated in style, aware of the composer’s innate playfulness. Owain Park’s ‘Fantasia on English Children’s Songs’ showed imagination in combining the most well-known children’s pieces (with all the girls, boys and blackbirds) with minor key modulations portending an underworld of greater uncertainty. The English folk songs (including ‘Loch Lomond’) ended the concert on an easeful, pleasant note.
So, a very full-ranging concert all told. I might have preferred a piece of greater majesty to the retreat to informality at the end – maybe, next time. Undoubtedly, on their first international tour, the group wished to ensure engagement with their audience. This concert was an excellent showcasing of a group of young consort singers of exceptional talent and promise. It is quite remarkable that The Gesualdo Six have achieved this much in only 4 years – and they can only get better from here.
© Geoffrey Newman 2018