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Saturday & Sunday: Stephanie Martin's Pax Christi Chorale won't stand still for Handel's Solomon

By John Terauds on April 19, 2013

A carving of King Solomon in the top left section of a cross on the Island of Athos.
A carving of King Solomon in the top left section of a cross depicting various narratives from the Old and New Testaments from the Island of Athos dates from around the same time as Handel wrote the music for Solomon (Courtauld Gallery photo).

It’s standard practice these days to ask children to do some choreography while singing in a choir while most gorwn-ups still operate as a stock-still mass of blended voices. But Toronto composer, teacher and choral conductor Stephanie Martin is trying an experiment to change that with her Pax Christi Chorale this weekend.

John Terauds

John Terauds

John Terauds, Editor-Emeritus of Ludwig van Toronto, is currently a Divinity student at the University of Toronto and a church music director. He joined the Toronto Star in 1988, was the classical music critic from 2005 to 2012, and continues as a freelance critic for the paper. He is the co-author of Roy Thomson Hall: A Portrait, a book written with Toronto Star Colleague, William Littler.
John Terauds

The large and excellent community choir closes its season with two performances of Solomon, the 265-year-old masterpiece oratorio by George Frideric Handel, in the beautiful acoustics of Grace Church-on-the-Hill in Forest Hill.

“It was a great excuse for Handel to write in all of the operatic styles,” says Martin. “It’s about the power of music — sad music and war music — and there is the play within a play,” she adds, referring to a masque in the final act.

Most people know Solomon best for the Sinfonia (orchestral overture) that opens that final act: “Arrival of the Queen of Sheba” (heard here led by Harry Christophers):

But the oratorio bristles with all sorts of other riches, including great arias and choruses — many of them written for double chorus, giving the music particular richness.

The orchestra is larger than a typical baroque ensemble, too. “There are more wind players,” says Martin of a group that “approaches Haydn’s orchestra in size.”

The oratorio also lends itself to a bit of dramatization — nothing elaborate, but more than just a stand-up-and-sing sort of concert. Martin enlisted the help of her York University colleague, theatre professor Gwen Dobie.

“She has been coaching the choir in theatrical gesture, so that the choristers can take on a character in the drama,” Martin explains.

In Act I, as we celebrate King Solomon’s wise judgments and faithful love, the choir adds to the blissful mood. The act’s closing chorus, “May no rash intruder,” is among the most delicately evocative Handel ever wrote (performed here by the Colombian ensemble Iuventus under Juan Carlos Mariño in Bogotá):

Things get much more dramatic in Act II, where King Solomon is called on to settle a dispute involving two women (called harlots in the libretto) over ownership of a baby. Here, the choir takes on the role of a Greek chorus. But instead of a unified response, each Pax Christi singer has been asked to provide an individually authentic reaction to the text.

“It’ll look like the choir is misbehaving,” quips Martin, who says that this particular choir will have “entered in to the drama,” rather than simply singing about it.

The final act, a big pomp-and-circumstance affair, starts with the arrival of the Queen of Sheba, who heralds a succession of gorgeous airs by the guest and Solomon — like “Thus rolling surges rise,” (sung here by Andreas Scholl and the Gabrielli Consort under Paul McCreesh):

As we chat, Martin finds a quick description: “Think opera chorus.”

“We want to play with their boundaries,” says Pax Christi’s artistic director of this Solomon. “It’s a trend in choral music. Engaging with the body in choral singing is more important now than it was 25 years ago. That’s because audiences are expecting more action.”

Martin stresses how the choral traditions from other cultures wouldn’t think of separating movement from the meaning of the text — “so we’re playing with that.”

This may be something new for a Toronto classical music audience, but it was also something unexpected for the choristers themselves. “This was outside most singers’ comfort zone,” Martin admits. But it didn’t take long for people to warm to the idea once rehearsals started.

I ask Martin, who will be standing on the podium, if she will be joining the action as well.

“I am this axis of a crazy wheel,” she replies. “I have to be still and hold it all together.”

There is a dramatic element to the way everyone will be dressed, though, with each soloist wearing a clearly identifiable clue or symbol about who they are.

“It has struck me as strange that you can have this huge dramatic scene with a guy in a tuxedo doing nothing much,” says Martin.

Pax Christi’s excellent soloists include soprano Teri Dunn, mezzo (and Classical 96 host) Jean Stilwell, tenor David Pomeroy and baritone Michael York.

Martin has also invited 50 students from Father John Redmond Catholic Secondary School to join in the singing in Act III. “We did a workshop at the school and they were amazing,” says the conductor.

So far it has been a positive experience for the choir.

“The feedback that I’ve had is that people are feeling liberated, that they can express what they are feeling in their hearts with their bodies, with the help of the director,” Martin explains. “I feel they sing better when they know the intent of the text. It’s something actors know all about but singers still need to figure out.”

It promises to translate into a special experience for the audience, as well.

For all the details on Saturday and Sunday’s concerts, click here.

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Anytime is a great time to savour the gorgeous, dramatically rich music of Solomon. In that spirit, here is a very fine traditional concert performance of the oratorio recorded by Netherlands Radio 4 in Utrecht in December, 2011. The conductor is Kenneth Montgomery:

John Terauds

John Terauds

John Terauds

John Terauds, Editor-Emeritus of Ludwig van Toronto, is currently a Divinity student at the University of Toronto and a church music director. He joined the Toronto Star in 1988, was the classical music critic from 2005 to 2012, and continues as a freelance critic for the paper. He is the co-author of Roy Thomson Hall: A Portrait, a book written with Toronto Star Colleague, William Littler.
John Terauds
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