In support of choral music from coast to coast

May 12, 2014 · by marklwilkinson

Some time ago, I confessed my bias as a reviewer when writing about groups I already know/love and/or concerts made up mostly of my direct colleagues. The concert I attended on Sunday afternoon, presented by Pro Coro Canada from Edmonton and the Cantata Singers of Ottawa at St. Joseph’s Church in Ottawa, added another layer of bias to my opinion of things: I had previously performed, on several occasions, with both groups. To add to that, I was watching representatives from my two favourite cities in Canada come together all at once. I was sure I would only have glowing things to say.

So, there I was in my church pew, sitting with friends, imagining I would have the most boring review of all time to contribute to S+N… and then it hit me… I was, in fact, nervous about what I would say since my expectations were so high. Having seen and/or sung with these two ensembles at their best, I was not sure what I would say if I had happened to see them at their worst (especially because I always know they will, most likely, see what I write).

Alas, I told myself that I knew what I was getting myself into when I became an occasional reviewer, so I just told myself to write what I thought. So, thank Jeebus when, by the end of the concert, both groups gave me [almost] nothing to complain about. It is pretty simple. Pro Coro Canada is the ideal professional choir. The Cantata Singers of Ottawa are the ideal community choir. Put them together in the same church and you have yourself the ideal concert. Edmonton and Ottawa are great choral towns that are ripe for more collaborations on that front. I truly hope that Sunday’s concert was but the first of many to come.

I do not need to go into too many details – the sound was beautiful, the repertoire was varied, the ensemble singing was impeccable, and conductor Michael Zaugg graciously dedicated the concert to the memory of the inimitable John Barron. There was nary a dry eye in the house when Zaugg mentioned that Mr. Barron was able to hear a recording of his 1975 Ontario Youth Choir (OYC) singing its signature piece, ‘Le temps de vivre,’ as he took his last breaths. The OYC continues to sing that piece at the end of every concert, and for those of us who are alumni of that choir, it hit home that much more.

Rather than tell you what everyone sang and how great it was, please allow me to do some gushing as to why it was so good. Heavy on the Pro Coro side of things, this concert was part of their current tour of Eastern Canada. What Pro Coro does, like few other choirs I have heard in North America, is blur the lines between solo and choral singing. The difference between these two supposed ways of singing has long been contentious amongst voice teachers, professional singers, community artists and, particularly, conductors. The reason that Pro Coro sounds so good is because Zaugg allows his singers to sing as they would if they were alone on stage. Does one use one’s full voice the entire time? Of course not – that would be boring and repetitive. Ensemble singing does not mean “blending” your voice or using only half of your sound; it means listening to your colleagues and finding a collaborative set-up whereby everyone feels free to use their true voices. Pro Coro seems to have this down to a T. Speaking of solos, however, I would be remiss not to mention the solo lines of the inexplicably talented Sarah Schaub. She continues to possess one of the most thrilling and technically/acoustically brilliant soprano voices I have heard in a long time. I also need to thank Pro Coro for such a beautiful rendition of Eric Whitacre’s “Water Night,” no matter how much moaning there may be from choral enthusiasts about Whitacre’s so-called selling out in recent years. It is a beautiful piece, and the choir sang it beautifully… enough said.

Something became easily forgettable during the concert: one of these ensembles was not a professional choir. The Cantata Singers of Ottawa (CSO), despite some paid ringers here and there, are not made up of paid singers. They, therefore, get put into the “community” choir column, but they are so much more than that. Although not featured as much as Pro Coro, the CSO certainly held their own, both in their own selections and in their collaborations with Pro Coro. Their interpretation of Mendelssohn’s “Jauchzet dem Herrn” was especially stunning. One of the next steps for the CSO, in my humble opinion, would be to encourage the male voices to trust that they have enough colour in their sound without adding any false sense of darkness to sound masculine. Doing so, usually achieved by letting the tongue fall back into the throat while singing, affects the tuning of the whole choir at times. All of this aside, however, the sound that the CSO have produced in recent years is a testament to their rare talent. I could not be more excited to see where the CSO will go from here, riding on the success of Zaugg’s tenure with the ensemble.

The entire afternoon was a wonderful Ottawa send-off to conductor Michael Zaugg, who was conducting his final concert with the CSO before moving to Edmonton permanently to work with Pro Coro. It was fitting to have both of his ensembles together for this concert, and the audience seemed captured by the whole experience. Zaugg is showing the country that good singing is good singing, be it solo or choral, and I think people are starting to listen.

It looks like Canadian choral music is in good hands, in more ways than one.

-Mark Wilkinson

© Michael Zaugg 2019