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SCRUTINY | Orpheus Choir of Toronto Shines Northern Light On Ēriks Ešenvalds

By Brian Chang on February 28, 2018

Orpheus Choir (Photo: Brian Chang)
Orpheus Choir (Photo: Brian Chang)

The Orpheus Choir of Toronto presented Nordic Light, with special guests Ēriks Ešenvalds, That Choir, and the Orpheus Concert Orchestra. February 24, 7:30 pm, Metropolitan United Church.

The Latvian community of Toronto was out in force to support the visit of their compatriot Ēriks Ešenvalds and his works being presented by the Orpheus Choir of Toronto. Part of Latvia’s official centenary celebrations, the concert featured the Canadian premiere of Nordic Light Symphony. The Latvian ambassador to Canada, H.E. Kārlis Eihenbaums, greeted the sold-out concert at Toronto’s Metropolitan United Church. “The right place for the aurora borealis is right here in Toronto with Ēriks Ešenvalds,” he said. This visit was three years in the making and an effort of many arts organizations spearheaded by the Orpheus Choir and Artistic Director Robert Cooper.

Cooper, Artistic Director of Orpheus, was joined by That Choir and conductor Craig Pike as well as the Orpheus Concert Orchestra. The first half of the concert was a presentation of Ešenvalds’ smaller works including the final two movements of his Passion and Resurrection oratorio. Orpheus performed the premiere of this work in Canada as part of its 2011 season and performed it again in 2013 with Ešenvalds in attendance. The work includes readings from the Bible spoken by the Reverend Ilze Kuplens-Ewart and small ensemble, duets, and a feature soprano solo evoking Mary Magdalene.

Following the Passion and Resurrection, audiences were given a chance to see Ešenvalds in action as a conductor. “My mom told me: you better choose one profession, not two or three,” he said before taking the stand, “when I found composing music, it was not my calling to conduct,  but sometimes — I’m happy to conduct.” Ešenvalds chose to conduct Long Road, the English version of a Latvian song he set to the poetry of Paulĭne Bārda.

Ešenvalds uses pitched water glasses to create a unique aural effect in several of his works. It would feature prominently over the evening. The highest pitches in any sound are usually the ones that we hear most prominently. When played, the tones of the pitched water glasses are very easily heard. Yet, the effect is rather different from a piccolo playing, or a violin at the top of its register. The glowing sparkle of the cluster tones of the water glasses is ethereal, thin, glassy, and unsettled. The overtones of the water glasses make them perfectly suited to the effect Ešenvalds wants, subtly atmospheric and other-worldly.

For their portion of the concert, That Choir delivered balanced excellence. The soloists throughout the evening from both choirs were lost in the cavernous space, yet sounded pleasant from far away. Pike’s rendition of Only in Sleep with Susan Bennett on solo was a particular highlight that displayed artistry and attention to detail. Maeve Palmer in Passion and Resurrection was also a distinct standout.

The signature work of the evening was Ešenvalds’ Nordic Light Symphony. This large work incorporated a film made up of the stories and songs from 23 people from across the north of the planet about the northern lights. The major sections of the work began with distinct sounds. The first and final sounds of the symphony are of the wind, recorded in the Arctic. Other sections begin with the rushing of the water and another with the sound of whales breathing as they breach the surface.

Parts of the orchestrations lined up directly with songs and instruments played by the on-screen storytellers. Other parts were independent of the screen. Because it was unclear whether the music or the stories took precedence, the overall narrative effect was a bit confusing.  There was also a few moments where there was a misalignment of text on the screen to the singers. The musicians continued through and seemed unfazed. Disconnection is an inherent danger in live film performances.

Nordic Light Symphony tells stories in a way that shares the diversity of humanity’s experience with the phenomena. Many of these stories are violent, with omens of war, fears of heads being chopped off, the threat of paralysis, and of voices being stolen. But also, many of the stories are of nicer things like beautiful angels in the sky or women bathing in the sauna. With so many stories, Ēriks Ešenvalds has created a work that displays the diversity and the sacredness of the cultural heritage of the northern lights.


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