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Artitstic Director Jon Washburn and Vancouver Chamber Choir

Artitstic Director Mark Vuorinen
​Photo credit: 

Artitstic Director Jon Washburn ; Photo credit:

​​Review by David Richards

Toronto ON July 16th 2018

What began decades ago continues to evolve with new singers and now new conductors.  Yesterday, we witnessed a sort of passing of the baton to a new generation. Both choirs are on the cusp of new adventures. Mark Vuorinen was recently named Artistic Director of the Elora Singers and the Elora Festival. Jon Washburn, conductor of the VCC has recently announced his retirement at the end of the coming season, his 48th as leader of his renowned group. With performances like today’s there is a bright future for both organizations.

The Elora Singers will perform next on Thursday, July 19th at 7:30pm at St. John’s Church in Elora. The program is entitled Healey Willan through Song, Words and Images.  Giles Bryant a former singer in Willan’s choir will give a pre-concert chat at 7:00pm.  

Artitstic Director Mark Vuorinen and The Elora Singers

Newly appointed Artistic Director Mark Vuorinen had little time to prepare the Elora Singers and orchestra for his first performance on the mainstage of the Festival. He had been on tour with another of his choirs in Latvia only to return with one day to rehearse. Nevertheless, he guided the choir and orchestra to a magnificent performance of an all-Bach program. It was clear he had taken charge. When asked about the new role, he said that he was just eager to get down to the business at hand which includes several programs to prepare in the coming weeks of the Festival. Vuorinen is not new to the Waterloo region. He is Artistic Director of the Grand Philharmonic Choirs and Assistant Professor of Music at Conrad Grebel University College, University of Waterloo. 

The Vancouver Chamber Choir’s performance was a completely a cappella program entitled Moods and Modes: Emotion in Music. For the program, Washburn chose an eclectic assortment of short choral pieces from Renaissance madrigals of John Bennet and Josquin des Prez to contemporary music of Ivo Antognini and spirtuals. There was an intriguing division of the program into pieces with such moods as cheerfulness, playfulness, piety, sorrow and humour. Washburn used his often-self-effacing humour to introduce each of the selections. With a mix of familiar, novel and less-often performed works, It was a program meant to entertain without demanding a great deal from its audience. Nevertheless, it was all splendidly performed. I particularly enjoyed the Alleluia section from the Bach Motet Lobet den Herrn. I hadn’t heard Benjamin Britten’s Ballad of Green Broom in almost forty years. I loved its playfulness. Other notable selections from the program for me were Harry Somers’ God the Master of this Scene and the concert finale, the hilarious rendering of Algimantas Bražinskas’ The Inn. The Vancouver group is on a whirlwind tour of Southern Ontario that winds up tonight with a performance in Stratford.

​The two choirs represent the finest in Canadian professional choral music. Professional choirs first appeared in Canada in the mid-fifties when Elmer Iseler founded the Festival Singers of Toronto (later to be renamed the Festival Singers of Canada and still later transformed into the Elmer Iseler Singers). 

Gambrel Barn at The Elora Festival, Elora ON

With the variety of music festivals dotting the Southern Ontario map, there is only one that has its roots in choral music. For the past 39 years, the Elora Festival has been bringing outstanding choral music to this picturesque village about 80 kilometres west of Toronto. Yesterday afternoon there was a double-header of choral music on the Festivals mainstage known affectionately as the Gambrel Barn. Two choirs, the Elora Singers and the Vancouver Chamber Choir performed back to back concerts. It might have been billed as a tale of two choirs. For all the similarities between the two, there were enough contrasts to make an engaging afternoon for choral music lovers.

I was especially looking forward to the pair of concerts: it would be my first time hearing the Elora Singers with its new Artistic Director, Mark Vuorinen, and it would likely be my last opportunity to hear the Vancouver Chamber Choir with its founder-conductor Jon Washburn entering his final year at the choir’s helm.

In the first of the two afternoon concerts, the Elora Singers along with an appropriately small orchestra performed a program of two seldom heard missae brevis (also called Lutheran masses) and a motet said to have been heard by Mozart when he visited Leipzig.

The program opened with J. S. Bach’s Mass in G Major, BWV 236. Each movement parodied an earlier cantata. The choir sang the opening meditative fugue with each of the voices entering independently and then interweaving amongst themselves with clear tone and beautiful lines. The orchestra wove in and out of the layered counterpoint to create a wonderfully complex polyphony. Three of the movements were fully choral-orchestral while the others featured soloists from the choir: soprano Jennifer Krabbe, mezzo-soprano Christina Steimacovich, tenor Andrew Walker and baritone Andrew Mahon. Throughout the work, there were dazzling displays of fast runs that were performed with ease by the choir, orchestra and soloists.

The motet Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied, BWV 225 followed the opening mass. Written for eight-part double choir, its antiphonal effects showed off the choir’s high standards. There is no hiding when there are just two or three to a part as was the case with the divided choir. This beautiful motet with text taken from the Psalms, also featured a quartet in the middle movement. This choir of twenty-two exceptionally fine singers is clearly worthy of all its accolades.

The final work, Mass in G Minor, BWV 235, opened with an orchestral introduction that might have been the introduction to an elegant dance. The oboe played a prominent role throughout. Despite it’s minor key, there was a jubilant spirit. I particularly enjoyed the tenor (Andrew Walker) and oboe (James Mason) duet.

Elora Festival: A tale of two choirs​