The Iseler Singers were there, as the musical foundation of the evening, led by Lydia Adams, the EIS’s music director since 1998. And also present were several composers who wrote choral music for the choir, David Jaeger (formerly of CBC Radio) who acted as emcee, and members of the Iseler family. As well, there was a slide-show up on a big screen throughout the evening, showing photos of Iseler (young, with lots of hair; older, with not so much) leading choirs large and small.
The big piece on the concert was a newly commissioned work, receiving its world premiere performance, by Imant Raminsh. Within Canada’s amateur choral scene, Raminsh is well known as a composer of “accessible” music. Yet, on this occasion he had an excellent professional choir at his disposal – and it would have been a fine tribute to Iseler if Raminsh had risen to the occasion accordingly. Yet, to my ears, he fell short of the mark.
The Beauty of Dissonance, The Beauty of Strength is an eight-movement setting of poems about Canada. (The poems Raminsh selected present a quaintly naturalistic view of this country, all about lakes, mountains, forests and snow.) Yet in painting scenes of natural wonders, Raminsh’s predominantly homophonic choral textures didn’t help much, and the results were prosaic and commonplace.
Raminsh did inject some colour into the piece by augmenting his choral forces with four orchestral instruments: flute (Robert Aitken), clarinet (James Campbell), violin (Laurel Mascarenhas) and cello (Amahl Arulanandam). And the composer’s writing for these instruments – featured sometimes as soloists, sometimes as obbligato accompaniment – was not unpleasant. However, Raminsh’s writing for another instrument – the piano – was disappointing. While a thick, relentless piano texture, heavily doubling the singers, is customary in works intended for amateurs, professional choirs don’t need this kind of crutch. What we got from Raminsh was a piano part that was clotted, cloying and unimaginative. (Here I do not fault pianist Shawn Grenke, who, I’m sure, did his best to make the piano part interesting, or Adams, on the podium, who tried to overcome the clunkiness of the score by emphasizing large-scale phrasing.)
Happily, the rest of the program was better. Srul Glick’s neo-romantic The Hour Has Come – the final movement of a six-movement choral symphony – received a glorious performance from the Iselers. Elmer Iseler’s skill as an arranger was nicely displayed in King of Glory, a plainsong chant. And J.S. Bach made a cameo appearance on the program, with an elegant performance of his Lobet den Herrn, alle Heiden.
Finally, several Canadian a-cappella works gave the Iselers the opportunity to show off their skills with more challenging repertoire. Ruth Watson Henderson’s Missa Brevis was effective: economical of means yet harmonically taut in its tension between dissonance and consonance. And John Reeves’ Evensong Canticle was a bold little piece of writing. Finally, nothing on the program was more impressive or satisfying than Healey Willan’s well known Gloria Deo. Here, the Iselers’ managed to sound both fluid and crystal clear.
Elmer Iseler’s legacy is not just the choir that bears his name, but a growing number of professional or virtually professional choirs from coast to coast: in Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Winnipeg, Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver, and a few other places. Even the small town of Elora, Ontario, has a top-notch professional choir. The musical culture of Canada has a lot to thank Elmer Iseler for, and it’s good to see him remembered.
© Colin Eatock 2018