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Toronto’s Elmer Iseler Singers took the show on the road this past Sunday to the sonorous sanctuary of Port Hope United Church, about an hour’s drive east of Toronto on the Lake Ontario shore. With all of the snow that has lately fallen, there is nothing quite so charming as downtown Port Hope, which looks like a scene from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. It was fitting then that this concert should be entitled A Christmas Spectacular for Chorus, Brass and Organ. The concert was presented by the Friends of Music, an impresario-like local volunteer arts organization dedicated to bringing high quality live Canadian classical and jazz music to the residents of Port Hope and the surrounding communities of Northumberland County. On this occasion, Conductor Lydia Adams and the twenty-voice Elmer Iseler Singers were joined by Toronto’s Trillium Brass Quintet and organist/accompanist Shawn Grenke.
Audience members were treated to Christmas carols performed by string players from the La Jeunesse Youth Orchestra of Port Hope, led by String Director Laurie Mitchell as they arrived. These young players, who a week earlier in this same space had brought the house down as part of LJYO’s Home for the Holidays annual concert, did a great job of setting the tone for the concert to follow. For more information about the LJYO, check out their website at www.ljyo.ca.
The Elmer Iseler Singers and Trillium Brass Quintet opened the concert with a majestic and exuberant performance of Jauchzet, frohlocket, a chorus from Bach’s first set of contatas known as the Christmas Cantata. The quintet set up behind the choir on a raised platform and faced the audience. The next selection, entitled Carol to the King, was written by American Mack Wilberg, who is currently Music Director of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Bass Michael Thomas on snare drum began the march-like carol, which also featured organist Shawn Grenke. This listener, hearing the piece for the first time, found it is a nice addition to the Christmas choral repertoire; it finished with some very pleasing and original chordal modulations.
The choir took centre stage on their own with the next two numbers, the English carol The Holly and the Ivy and that oldest of Canadian carols, The Huron Carol, arranged respectively by Canadians Victor Davies and Robert Anderson. In 'Holly', Lydia Adams conducted from the piano and the rich textures of the choir shone through. The performance of 'Huron' was beautifully haunting.
The Trillium Brass Quintet was then featured on its own in a performance of three dances from Peter Warlock’s Capriol Suite. As trumpeter Scott Harrison noted, while there is nothing that connects the work directly to the Christmas season, the Pieds-en-l’Air movement is set to words that depict Mary singing to the baby Jesus. Warlock’s attempt to combine the flavour of Renaissance dance forms with 20th-century harmonies does indeed have a 'Christmasy' air about it and was a pleasant showcase for the individual members and the quintet’s strength as a group.
The concert was dedicated to the late, great Howard Cable, who passed away this year at the age of 96. As a member of the Clarington Concert Band, I had the pleasure and honour of playing for Mr. Cable in his last public appearance as a conductor, and the next two pieces on the program were classic arrangements by Cable. Up on the Rooftop, noted by Adams as being the second oldest secular Christmas piece ever written, contains many spectacular cadenzas that Cable loved to intersperse in his music, which were performed by the brass. Lo, How a Rose featured lush harmonies with a gorgeous horn solo played by Courtney Prizrenac, complemented at one point by the equally lovely tones of trombonist Cathy Stone. The first half ended with a popular audience sing-along of a Willcocks arrangement of Hark The Herald Angels Sing. The soprano descant was stirring as always, soaring above the audience’s voices in the stunning soundspace of the church sanctuary.
The second half opened with another sing-along, this time to O Come, All Ye Faithful; the audience participated most enthusiastically. It is so nice to know that in these times of slick and packaged entertainment, people still embrace and enjoy a good old-fashioned sing-along. This was followed by another Cable arrangement of Noël Canadien. Following a brilliant brass intro, the choir delivered an exceptionally nuanced performance in French, and in typical Cable fashion there were many playful moments, dynamic contrasts, and marvelous brass interludes. The choir then performed a relatively new song by English composer John Rutter, called All Bells in Paradise (2012). The rich harmonies and moving melody of the work were quintessentially Rutter and beautifully sung by the choir, with Adams holding the final chord just long enough to suspend the magical moment when sound and silence meet. This was followed by a partial sing-along in which the audience sang the chorus to Il Est Né, le Divine Enfant with a brass arrangement by Scott Harrison. There followed three pieces by the choir alone, all of which were lovely and sensitive performances. Rejoice and Sing, by Canadian Eleanor Daley, was beautiful in its lilting simplicity, and each voice in the four-part harmony was a clear and distinctive part of the overall sound fabric. A now traditional Iseler arrangement of Away in a Manger highlighted the wonderfully tender sound of the choir with the sopranos singing the melody in groups of three to the quiet humming of the other voices in the background. Once again, Adams deftly coaxed the quietest of endings from the choristers allowing the ending to hang beautifully. The concert ended with a bright and joyful arrangement of In Dulci Jubilo by Toronto composer Andrew Ager which led into the final sing-along to Handel’s famous Hallelujah Chorus.
The performance was as billed -A Spectacular Christmas Concert - and Friends of Music, led by President Eitan Cornfield, are to be commended for making it happen, as are their sponsors, Classical 103FM, CBC Music, the Ontario Arts Council and All-Canadian Jazz Port Hope. The Elmer Iseler Singers will next perform on March 25, 2017 at St. Anne’s Anglican Church in Toronto in a program entitled The Journey to Canada from Armenia. Friends of Music will present the Cecilia String Quartet on February 12, 2017 at the Capitol Theatre in Port Hope. For ticket information to both concerts, check their respective websites at www.elmeriselersingers.com. and www.friendsofmusicontario.ca.
La Jeunesse youth Orchestra
Conductor Lydia Adams and The Elmer Iseler Singers
Review by Jeff Mitchell
Toronto ON December 19th 2016
The Elmer Iseler Singers Visit Port Hope