Review: Jugendsängerfest

A review of the Grand Philharmonic Youth Choir/ Jugendsangerfest concert on Saturday evening. In the printed version, the sub rather humerously translated “r’s” as “aaar’s”.

The Jugendsängerfest (Young Singer’s Festival for readers who don’t have a German dictionary to hand) is modelled on a local tradition from the late 19th century where choirs from all over would descend on Kitchener for three days of singing. The event was so popular, that the town’s population temporarily swelled from 10,000 to 20,000. Only in its second year, the Jugendsängerfest has not yet achieved that level of popularity, but managed to attract 180 choristers and their parents, friends and relatives for a day of music making.

Saturday evening’s roster included the Bach Chamber Youth Choir (Toronto); Amherst Bel Canto Choir (Amherst, NY); Menno Youth Singers (Waterloo); St Mary’s Festival Youth Singers (St Mary’s); Toronto Mendelssohn Youth Choir; Conspirato Chamber Singers (London) and the Grand Philharmonic Youth Choir.

Like the GPYC, the visiting choirs are all part of larger choral training programs in their respective cities and the quality of singing across the board indicates that the choral music tradition in Southwestern Ontario is in excellent health.

The concert began with a massed choir number and then each ensemble was given a chance to strut their stuff. Hearing each of the groups in quick succession highlighted the directors’ differing ideas of sound, an important part of the ensemble’s character. The Bach Choir, conducted by Linda Beaupré favoured the pure, vibratoless sound typical of Anglican Church choirs, while the fuller sound of the Amherst choir pointed to a gospel/jazz influence.

The GPYC sang Feller From Fortune, a Canadian folksong imaginatively arranged by Harry Somers. The complicated rhythm was expertly executed and the rough edges of the text projected with “r’s” hard enough to make any pirate proud.

Loch Lomond, sung by the Bach Chamber Youth Choir, was stunning thanks, in no small part, to the exquisite solo work by Andrew Beaudoin. His clear, bright tenor and sensitive phrasing was a perfect match for the nostalgic feel of the piece.

The Festival Youth Singers were the only choir that had equal numbers of male and female voices and the difference was immediately noticeable. Their warm, full, well-balanced sound and clear pronunciation really came through in Let Us Cheer The Weary Traveller, a spiritual cleverly arranged by Nathaniel Dett.

Laudate Domimum, sung by the Toronto Mendelssohn Youth Choir, was an interesting mix of traditional Latin liturgical text and Latin rhythms. Superb accompaniment by pianist James Bourne and percussionist Ken James infused the performance with infectious energy.

The atmosphere of the Jugendsängersfest is collegial rather than competitive but the performance of Dobbin’s Flowery Vale by Conspirato Chamber Singers was by far the most engaging of the evening. Conducted by Liska Jetchick, an alumna of the GPYC, the group sang with astounding maturity. Soloists Elizabeth Convery, Hayley Prezios, Mishaal Surti and Sarah Atkinson were simply enchanting, exactly capturing the idiosyncrasies of Irish folk music. Their flawless pitch emphasized the mysterious melancholy inherent in modal melody.

After a brief performance by Daniel Lichti, the choirs once again stood together en masse to perform Schubert’s Mass No.2 in G major D.167, supported by the strings and trumpets of the Kitchener Waterloo Symphony Youth Orchestra. Conductor Howard Dyck programmed the piece because Schubert wrote it when he was, like many of the choristers, just 18 years old. While this is interesting, it may not have been the best choice considering the difficulties of translating the composer’s most intimate mass setting to an enormous mixed voice group. Predictably, diction suffered and the inevitably soprano-heavy ensemble meant that the inside voices were generally drowned out.

Schubert was a practising Catholic his entire life and wrote his masses entirely under his own volition for his home parish of Lichtental, Vienna. The solo parts in this mass are almost entirely for soprano and there is some speculation that Schubert was using the composition to gain the attention of soprano Therese Grob, his first love, who also attended the church in Lichtental.

Saturday’s Therese was Melanie VanDerSluis, who sung her part with confidence and most importantly with enough volume to cut through the choir and orchestra. Schubert started the Sanctus with a series of fortissimo dominant seventh resolutions and this was one spot where the massed choir really shone, with the massive wall of sound forming the perfect complement to the harmonic tension.

Unlike Beethoven, Schubert intended his masses to be used as part of the liturgy, rather than the concert hall. Thankfully, that didn’t prevent him from employing his considerable melodic gifts. The Benedictus is the jewel of the Mass and its sweetly lyrical lines, ably handled by VanDerSluis, tenor Brandon Leis and baritone Eric Tanguay, are almost too beautiful for church.

An invite to next year’s Jugendsängerfest via Scottish folksong, Will Ye No Come Back Again?, brought the concert to a pleasant close. The GPYC are on to a good thing and, in future years, it would be lovely to see this event expand in scope to include more choirs, more concerts and perhaps even a competition.

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