The VOX Baltic Journey sets sail for the Arctic
Lovers of choral music responded enthusiastically to VOX Cape Town‘s latest musical adventure. Their delightful programme of music from the Baltic region took on the theme of a musical journey. With this in mind, the pulpit area of the St Andrews Presbyterian Church was decorated with sails and barrels, and to add to the feeling of a cold weather sea voyage, warm Glühwein was served before the concert. Moody lighting and ocean sounds completed the pre-concert ambience before the VOX Baltic journey commenced.
The musical journey started in a familiar home port in England, with “My soul, there is a country far beyond the stars”, the first song of Sir Hubert Parry’s “Songs of Farewell”. Then it was off to the first port of call, Poland, for Henryk Górecki’s “Totus Tuus”. The choir displayed a good, transparent vocal blend, with individual voices only sticking out slightly in the fortissimo passages. They ended with a beautiful pianissimo verging on a whisper. Chorus master John Woodland had the choir standing not in their voice groups, but in a scattered random fashion to encourage a more diffuse blend of voices.
I gradually became convinced that the intrepid travellers embarking on this journey must be a group of devout Catholics, because the programme was dominated by religious music. The promise of boisterous nautical naughtiness hinted at by the scenery was hardly reflected by the choice of programme. This may have been due to cold, dark winters and communist oppression. Minimalism was also strongly represented by the contingent of living composers. The general sparseness of the musical idiom did, however, fit well as an accompaniment to laser projections of the Aurora Borealis, the Northern Lights of the title.
An exception to the religious devotion was the hilarious Pseudo-Yoik by Finland’s Jaakko Mäntyjärvi. This composition uses Finnish-sounding nonsense words to parody the stereotypes people have about Scandinavians.
Foreign ports ahead
Along the way the VOX Baltic voyage halted in ports of Poland, Estonia, Russia, Latvia, Iceland, Finland and Norway. With the exception of the aforementioned Parry and Igor Stravinsky, whose tonal Pater Noster was included, most of the composers were still alive or recently deceased.
It was striking how devoid of local flavour most of the programme was. If the Romantic period was characterised by nationalistic elements in the music from Russian, Czech, Hungarian and German composers, the second half of the 20th century onward is notable for a more cosmopolitan character.
The true heartland of the Baltic was represented by Estonia’s minimalist Arvo Pärt, and the much younger Ēriks Ešenvalds from neighbouring Latvia. The popular Estonian’s ubiquitous Spiegel im Spiegel offered a few minutes of quiet respite from the singing, with Ariella Caira on cello and Matthew Golesworthy on piano. The reverent silence was disturbed by unruly audience behaviour, with one person dropping something with a loud clunk, and another causing prolonged irritation by their sluggish unwrapping of a sweet.
Another of the three Pärt compositions on the programme was De Profundis for male choir, organ, and percussion. The tenors were struggling with the high tessitura of their unison parts, with most producing a strangled, wispy falsetto. With more voices per part it may have sounded better, since the problem dissolved as soon as the first and second tenors sang harmonies again. It’s unfortunately a sad truth that many great composers have written punishing vocal music (I’m looking at you, Ludwig Van!).
The women also had their opportunity to sing alone in the Ešenvalds composition O Salutaris Hostia. Here and in the preceding Only In Sleep, the sopranos Stephanie Pulker and Jennie van Doesburgh were the sweet-voiced soloists who sang over the choir’s soft, ethereal harmonies.
Ešenvalds also provided one of the few secular items on the programme with his Northern Lights. It followed from Ola Gjeilo’s religious Northern Lights, which was ironically introduced with a projected quote from atheist author Philip Pullman’s eponymous novel.
In Ešenvalds’ Northern Lights, which brought the VOX Baltic journey to a close, tenor Peter Borchers sang the solo part, a Latvian folk song. The chorus sang English journal entries from two arctic explorers, describing their wonder at witnessing the Aurora Borealis. They used water-filled wine glasses to play harmonics that further enhanced the arctic soundscape, eliciting much the same awestruck wonder those intrepid explorers must have felt all those years ago.
Northern Lights: Baltic Journey was presented on 1 and 2 September 2017. This review is for the second performance.
14 September 2017