Voices of Light; Photo Credit: www.elorafestival.com
by Paul Merkley F.R.S.C.
Toronto ON July 27th 2019
The Elora Festival Singers and Orchestra: Voices of Light and The Passion of Joan of Arc
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The Elora Festival is celebrating its 40th year, an anniversary well worth marking. Every July a working barn is turned into a concert venue. Friday night it hosted the 1928 silent film The Passion of Joan of Arc based on her trial, directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer, accompanied by the modern score of Richard Einhorn (Voices of Light), performed by the Elora Singers and the Elora Festival Orchestra. The film itself has been greatly admired for its cinematography and its closeups of the characters, especially of Renée Falconetti, who played the title character.
It is a special experience to see and hear a silent film; the experience of this performance of Voices of Light was profoundly moving.
The film was controversial in its day, and was edited severely against the wishes of the director; finally, the reels were destroyed in a fire. In 1981, however, a copy was found in a closet in an asylum in Norway. Beginning in 1988, many composers tried their hand at writing music for this restored version of the silent masterpiece.
Einhorn, an American composer, was born in 1952 and studied composition with Davidovsky. From that composer, Einhorn feels he took “the importance of a clear inner musical vision, how to listen very critically, and more specifically, a fascination with ‘closed consort’ sonorities that are slightly broken and warped. I was to use that approach both in some chamber pieces that were intended for recording only and in a lot of my work for film.” In fact, one can hear the ‘consorts’ in this work, groupings of woodwinds or strings. The orchestra has no percussion, because those instruments generally do not blend well with film. Einhorn recorded the church bells of Joan’s birthplace (Domrémy) and used them effectively at multiple points in the score.
Voices of Light is Einhorn’s best known work, and he has also written for opera and ballet. The composer supplied generous program notes for his work. He wrote the texts for the vocal music, all of them in Latin, middle French, or Italian. His approach to the music, especially declamatory sections, seemed a bit like that of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana (1936). I asked him how he felt about that composer: “I like Carmina a lot, its directness and vitality.”
The Elora Singers is an outstanding ensemble, and their performance as a group and as individual soloists was very strong and expressive. The tone qualities were certainly suited to the ethos and plaintive passages. Concert master Joe Lanza played beautifully, especially the fluid passages he shared with flutes. Conductor Mark Vuorinen led the orchestra to good purpose, also observing the tempi very well, making the exquisite music match the poignant scenes.
The audience gave this performance a well-deserved, standing ovation. The annual summer Elora Festival is well worth taking in and the achievement of keeping this series running and healthy for forty years is commendable.