The Gesualdo Six at Music Niagara: Liturgy, Love, and Lots More
Review by Paul Merkley FRSC
Toronto ON July 25th 2018
The Gesualdo Six; Photo credit: Ash Mills
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The young a cappella group The Gesualdo Six from Trinity College, Cambridge, gave a praiseworthy performance tonight at Music Niagara. This festival is in its twentieth season and the events are well worth taking in. The quality of the music is very high and there is a good variety of events. A visit to these performances at Niagara on the Lake can easily be combined with a matinée at the Shaw Festival.
The Gesualdo Six have a number of strengths as performers. Their voices blend very well. They have been together for four and a half years, and this was their ninety-eighth concert.
Their tuning is excellent, and the experience of hearing harmonies in pure intervals by voices that are so well matched is a delight to the ear. Their diction is clear, whether they sing in Latin, Italian, French, or English.
They work very well with the acoustics of the space. As one audience member near me put it, they find the ‘sweet spots’ in the room. In particular counter-tenor Guy James found ways to make St. Mark’s Church resonate to his voice. The group made good use of the space by moving around in it, processing past the audience for some pieces, using the two balconies for a duet, singing mostly from the crossing, and once from the apse on the left.
About half of the works they performed were from the renaissance period. Tallis’ Te lucis ante terminum was sung with well blended voices and a tempo well suited to the work and the room. This was followed by a Miserere by Byrd, in which the rich, well tuned harmonies filled the space.
Nicolas Gombert’s Media vita, was well sung. In this period, accidentals are not to be interpreted at face value; there is the tradition of 'musica ficta'. I caught two prominent occurrences of cross relations in their performance, instances in which there is, for example, the note F sharp in one voice, and at the same time or just after, an F natural. This happens frequently in English music, much less often in music of the continental composers.
At intermission I asked bass and director Owain Park about these. He explained that he had consulted the critical edition, that the point could be argued either way, and that he used the cross relation at these two points that helped reveal the structure of the piece.
Satisfied concerning his musical diligence, I asked him how the group has managed to blend their voices so well, and have such a beautiful tone. He put it down to having done a great deal of work together. Park also composed two of the pieces featured on the program: a Latin work, and a medley of nursery rhymes set in a modern idiom written for a children’s choir.
The second half included madrigals by Marenzio and Palestrina. They sang a work by the Canadian composer Gerta Block-Wilson, O Little Rose, the text by the Canadian Charles Roberts.
A trio within the group performed three songs by Poulenc, written for a childrens’ choir. The whole group sang Park’s Fantasia on nursery rhymes, a pleasing combination of Park’s own musical voice, and a simpler style one could associate with nursery rhymes.
The concert concluded with three arrangements of famous British folk songs. Vaughan Williams’ arrangement of the well known song about Loch Lomond was moving. All in all it made for a very enjoyable evening.