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In the four years since reviewing concerts for Toronto Concert Reviews, we have always tried to find interesting holiday-themed programs at this time of year. When we saw the Exultate Chamber Singers’ concert notice entitled Holiday Concert with a Twist, the title alone intrigued us.
Last night’s program certainly had lots of 'twists'. Artistic Director Dr. Mark Ramsay put together a set of music that at first glance seemed very familiar. Every selection came from the myriad of carols and traditional songs and poems of the season. However, the 'twist' came in the interesting and unusual arrangements that Ramsay found. Instead of the usual arrangements by John Rutter, David Wilcox or Vaughan Williams, the rarely heard arrangements were infused with new textures and rhythms. The result was a joyous celebration of the season with mostly a cappella singing that kept the audience’s complete attention and fulfilled my musical craving.
The concert opened with an unlikely combination of spirituals that included the call and response “What will we call that pretty little baby” along with the upbeat “Go tell it on the mountain”. Together, they became Glory, Glory Glory to the Newborn King by Moses Hogan. The well-sung solos by choristers June Higgins and Mishaal Surti, the close harmonies and rhythmic energy set the tone for the evening. Next came Lo Ho a Rose E’er Blooming by Michael Praetorius and arranged by Jan Sandström with chord clusters hummed by the main choir while an octet in behind sang the hymn-tune at half-speed. The clusters formed a sort of musical blanket protecting the “Rose” in the “cold winter’s night”.
The concert continued with engaging arrangements of more holiday classics. The Holly and the Ivy and Coventry Carol, both arranged by Canadian Benjamin Bolden featured beautiful singing lines as well as complex rhythms to give them a new 'twist'. Funky Dreidl by Samuel E. Goldfarb and arranged by Robert Applebaum was a jazzy arrangement of the well-known Hannukah song.
With equally interesting arrangements of classic tunes such as Veni,Veni Emmanuel, Deck the Halls, and I wonder as I wander, the program became a mix of upbeat and meditative moments. Perhaps the biggest challenge of the night came with Howard Cable’s ‘Twas the Night before Christmas. With its chromatic harmonies, rhythmic complexities, and complicated piano part performed by Mira Jung, it is a challenge for the finest professional choirs. The concert concluded with The First Noël as arranged by Dan Forrest. One always expects the high descants and glorious ending to this carol, but it ended instead with a quiet lullaby-like moment of reflection, a final 'twist' leaving the audience perhaps a moment to meditate on the birth of Jesus.
It was last summer that I first heard the Exultate Chamber Singers on CBC’s Sunday morning radio show, Choral Concert. I was immediately drawn to their warm, blended sound; I decided then that I had to hear a live performance.
It is not that I didn’t previously know about the choir. I was familiar with its work (albeit by reputation) in its early days under the direction of its founder John Tuttle. However, I didn’t know that it is a three-time winner ofChoral Canada’s National Competition for Canadian Amateur Choirs. And I didn’t know its present conductor, Mark Ramsay. Last night’s program gave more than ample evidence of why it was the 2019 winner of the Mixed-Voice Adult Chamber Choir category in the national competition.
It is rare to find an amateur choir with a balance in both numbers and sound between the men’s and women’s voices. The thirty-voice choir has equal numbers in each section. The membership is made up of musicians of high calibre. Music professors, teachers, composers, jazz musicians and conductors are within its ranks of auditioned singers. Some sing professionally in other settings, but in this choir, no one gets paid. The singers come together for the love of making fine music together under an inspiring conductor.
Mark Ramsay is indeed an exceptional musician and conductor with imagination and an ability to engage both the singers and the audience. His commentary between selections was both insightful and entertaining. He has the choir singing with a beautiful tone, excellent diction, impeccable tuning, rhythmic precision and wonderful balance. he has indeed created a wonderfully expressive ensemble.
The Exultate Chamber Singers will next perform Brahms’s Requiem on Friday, March 27th in a chamber choir and piano four-hand version completed in 1868 by the composer himself. One can hear the winning performances of the choir on the Choral Canada website.
Exultate Chamber Singers: a Holiday Concert with a Twist
Exultate Chamber Singers in concert at St. Thomas’s Anglican Church, Toronto
Review by David Richards
Toronto ON December 7th 2019