Thrilling concert bridges centuries

The Spiritus Chamber Choir delivered a devotional program for the ages Saturday night at the Red Deer College Arts Centre.

The Spiritus Chamber Choir delivered a devotional program for the ages Saturday night at the Red Deer College Arts Centre.

From the holy minimalism of contemporary Estonian composer Arvo Part, to the baroque ebullience of Antonio Vivaldi, a program spanning three centuries was performed by 39 singers to mark the 20th anniversary of their Calgary choir.

Led by Spiritus music director and conductor Timothy Shantz, the celebratory concert included a 11-musician chamber orchestra and was presented as part of the Red Deer Symphony Orchestra season.

Also on the program was the world premiere of Benedicte Dominum, a new 10-minute piece written by former Spiritus member Zachary Wadsworth.

Although the young composer now teaches music at Williams College in Massachusetts, he was back in Alberta this weekend to help the choir pull off his commissioned work in Red Deer.

“Being a composer’s great fun. You get to borrow and steal sounds,” said Wadsworth, who won an international competition to have his previous piece performed at Westminster Abbey in front of Queen Elizabeth II. ”But one of the challenges is going head-to-head with Vivaldi,” he admitted, to chuckles from the audience.

Vivaldi’s Gloria — a remarkable composition that’s never lapsed in popularity over the past 300 years — is undoubtedly a hard act to follow.

On Saturday, this 12-part sacred Italian baroque work was brought to life by the Spiritus Choir, featuring five talented soloists, and a mostly string orchestra that also included one trumpet and one oboe. Written for the hymn Gloria in excelsis Deo, whose words date likely from the 4th Century, Vivaldi’s choral piece from about 1715 swings from proclamations of joy to quieter passages that remain powerful, despite their peaceful timbre.

A lone trumpet heralded rejoicing, while the oboe helped create a sense of spiritual serenity. And soprano and alto soloists took turns performing between choral movements to add more shimmering colours to Vivaldi’s tuneful and brilliant work.

Gloria was a scene-stealer. But Wadsworth’s Benedicte Dominum was also embraced by the near full-house crowd.

Wadsworth’s modernist piece grabbed the audience’s attention from the start with bold strokes of violin bows. Rich choral voices were soon melding with calm, pastoral tones produced by the chamber orchestra (including some members of the RDSO).

Although Wadsworth kept the same D Major key as Vivaldi for his original composition, he chose not to use soloists. Instead the colourful verses were written for the whole choir to perform. But just as in Gloria, Wadsworth’s Benedicte Dominum alternated in mood, from serene to impassioned. And it ended in celebratory style.

The appreciative audience gave Wadsworth a standing ovation.

The evening started with Part’s Te Deum, a contemporary composition influenced by ringing bells. While the 30-minute work wasn’t as melodic as the other two compositions, its simple style, created with three-part choral arrangement, plinking piano and other and idiosyncratic instrumentals, was mesmerizing and hypnotic.

There was a meditative quality to the Gregorian-like chants and an ecstasy evoked by sweeping, piercing string parts. Unlike Vivaldi’s Gloria, which is purely devotional, Part’s Te Deum appears to juxtapose eternal divinity with a restless kind of humanity — which is more reflective of our time.

The Spiritus Chamber Choir and orchestra successfully bridged the centuries with this thrilling, contemplative concert.

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