Toronto and its surroundings have no shortage of fine large amateur choirs and smaller, largely-professional choirs, from the venerable Elmer Iseler Singers in town to the Elora Festival Singers to the west. But various enterprising singers have had trouble establishing small vocal ensembles. Perhaps that will change now that we have Opus 8, a Toronto-based a capella vocal octet, made up of familiar, younger professional choirsters and soloists.
With their penultimate concert of this first full season coming up on Friday, March 31, it’s worth noting that their recently-released debut album, Melancholy & Mirth, is a very impressive effort worthy to be held up in comparison to any other professional effort.
Recordings are tricky things; acoustics, recording techniques and the skills of the engineering team can help anyone sound great. Captured in the mellow, spacious acoustic of the Church of St Mary Magdalene last fall, with a crisp, clear sound and impeccable balance, Opus 8 sounds fabulous on this disc. But even taking into account all types of digital trickery, there is no getting around the ensemble’s precision, expert phrasing and panoply of colours and textures.
Much credit must go to Opus 8 music director Robert Busiakiewicz, who earned his sang as a choral scholar at Kings College and is now the music director at St James Cathedral in Toronto. He teases out a surgically shaped sound that, despite all the control it displays, is wonderfully open and full. This is the sort of sound one expects from choristers who have honed their skills together over many years.
Another of the many treats to be found here is the quality of the soloists. All of the eight singers here (two sopranos, an alto, a countertenor, a baritone and a bass-baritone) are worthy performers on their own, so there is never a reason to discount any passage where one voice is featured (including Busiakiewicz’s own fine tenor).
The album itself is a crazy patchwork quilt of eras, moods and styles. It’s a sort of ‘let’s show ‘em what we can do’ effort that pits the boisterousness of a modern madrigal by Bohuslav Martinu against an early-Renaissance lament by Josquin des Prez, or a 16th-century anthem by Robert Ramsay against a song arranged by Karlheinz Stockhausen. Although the album notes suggest the album is best listened to “from start to finish in one sitting,” it lends itself well to being sorted into playlists suited to particular moods.
I am particularly fond of the English works on the album, some of it not often heard. The early 19th-century, not a golden period for English choral music, is nicely represented by a madrigal by Robert Lucas de Pearsall. The end of that century is signaled by Charles Hubert Parry’s lovely Music, When Soft Voices Die, sung with a refreshing, earnest sound.
Opus 8’s March 31 concert is all about madrigals. Admission is free for the hour-long date at 7:30 pm, at St Clement’s Anglican Church in north Toronto. The final concert of the season features water-themed music at Trinity College Chapel at University of Toronto, also free, on May 17. Check them out. I suspect that either evening will be a huge treat for anyone who loves good choral music.
If you want to listen to some samples of Opus 8’s work, you’ll find them here.
Correction, March 31. A previous version incorrectly stated Robert Busiakiewicz completed his Master’s degree at Kings College, Cambridge. Busiakiewicz completed his Masters in composition at St Catherine’s College, Cambridge, but sang as a choral scholar at Kings College, Cambridge at the same time.
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