Angels and Shepherds

The Vivaldi Chamber Choir returned to the cut glass acoustic of St. Mark’s on Larch Street in Vancouver for the 2015 edition of their annual Christmas concert comprising various commentaries on the role Mary’s “Messengers” as presented by composers from the 16th to the 21st centuries. The concert was substantially repeated a week later at St. Anselm’s on the UBC Campus, in support of The Anglican Churches of West Point Grey’s Homeless Ministry 

The show, devised by the Choir’s new Artistic Director and conductor Edette Gagné, was divided into three sections – Angels, Mary and Shepherds. Proceedings began with John Rutter’s setting of the Robert Herrick words. These were written for “A Christmas Carol, Sung to the King in the Presence at White-Hall” composed by Master Henry Lawes. “What Sweeter Music” proved to be, in closing, an excellent setup to the whole affair –

To do him honour; who’s our King. And Lord of all this revelling.
What sweeter music can we bring,
Than a carol for to sing
The birth of this our heavenly King?

beginning with the Angels urging joy as well as homage in “Let praises resound” (Resonet in Laudibus) and “Sing your Psalms” (Psallite). These late 16th century works by Jacob Handl and Michael Praetorius were sung with both sensitivity and enthusiasm with exquisite attention the niceties of Germanic Latin pronunciation. Then by way of flashback in English Church Latin the choir gave a full account of Gabriel’s message to Mary embodied in the popular medieval carol “Angelus ad Virginem.” These words, brought to England via the Franciscan Friars in Ireland (the song is mentioned in Chaucer’s Miller’s Tale) were arranged by the late Sir David Willcocks. The “Angels” section continued with the No.7 of Dmitri Bortniansky’s Kheruvimskie pesni – pieces in Old Church Slavonic written while he was Director of the Imperial Chapel Choir in St. Petersburg. The long sustained lines of the Cherubic Hymn sounded well in the live surroundings of St. Mark’s; the authentically Russian experience was quite a hit with the audience. Thus energized all present joined the choir in Hark the Herald Angels Sing with the Vivaldi sopranos doing ample justice to the third verse descant. An octet drawn from the choir delighted us with Corlynn Hanney’s Christmas Angel whose opening and closing words (“Oh how I wish I could sing like an Angel”) rather begged the question – suitably angelic to this listener.

After a personal introduction to next section by conductor Edette, emphasizing that Mary is in many ways the central character in the Christmas story we heard Andrew Carter’s “A Maiden Most Gentle.” This carol uses a traditional French melody to words the composer adapted from the writings of the Venerable Bede. A central four part a capella verse is book ended by two unison statements that are accompanied by beautifully crafted sixteenth note runs from the piano subtly articulated by Barry Yamanouchi. This was followed by the Josquin “Ave Maria” sung with madrigal-like charm by the choir. The Aves continued with an example from Rachmaninov – his “Bogoroditse Dievo” from the All-Night Vigil, Op. 37, No. 6. This choir loves their Slavonic pieces!

The Magnificat, taken from Luke’s Gospel (1:46-55), is the Blessed Virgin Mary’s hymn of praise to the Lord, also known as the Canticle of Mary. This setting, though attributed to Dietrich Buxtehude is in the opinion of Emmanuel Music’s Ryan Turner more reminiscent of Carissimi or Lully. He cites “the lilting triple-time melodies, frequent hemiolas, clear sectional structure and simple diatonic harmony largely in thirds” in support of this contention. The alternating florid vocal soli and choral tutti passages that he refers to were all sung by the full choir sections, proving a gymnastic work out – especially for the basses. Barry provided the piano ritornelli that preceded each of the four devotional statements in the piece. Praise for Mary ended with a choir favourite “Swete was the Song the Virgin Sang” arranged in this case by Thomas Hammond from William Ballet’s “Lute Book Lullaby.” Gently sung and evocatively handled by Edette this piece is featured on the Vivaldi Chamber Choir’s CDin an adaptation by then Artistic Director, David Millard.

In her introduction to the final part of the programme Edette spoke of the occupation of shepherd:

“When our Christmas story was fresh and new .. shepherds were an integral part of society and the economy. They would have been well known in their communities, yet still viewed as “humble” and approachable – literally the “common man” of that time. Having shepherds be messengers, meeting angels and being among the first to see the new-born King… wow. What a powerful message… Fear not, leave your sheep [they will be safe], and follow that giant star, because there is never going to be another night like this!

Accordingly John Rutter’s exhortative “Rise Up and Follow” began the celebration of the pastoralist; Tenor Lead, Eric Schwarzhoff took the solo. In the same vein the choir rollicked through Guillaume Costeley’s Allon Gay Bergères, Edette’s brisk tempo proving no problem for the agile voices in the choir. The Assistant Conductor, a mentorship post with Vivaldi, Tenor Zac Goerlitz took over the podium to lead Hector Berlioz’ “The Shepherds Farewell” from L’Enfance du Christ. The pianissimo rendering of verse three spoke to the hushed awe the common folk felt as they bid their goodbyes to the “Prince of Peace” and “Holy Child.” The programme was then capped by a slightly out of sequence “Shepherds Pipe Carol” seeing that the boy piper is still on his way to Bethlehem! From John Rutter this really joyous, jazzy piece sang proceedings out with elan; most notable was the piano accompaniment of Barry Yamanouchi whose bravura playing brought the piece and the show to a perfectly timed ending. 

As this was Christmas, hot cider and snacks provided by choir members allowed the audience to mingle and linger crowning a very pleasant evening of celebratory music making.