Johannes Debus, Richard Van Camp, Elmer Iseler Singers and Canadian Opera Company Orchestra; Photo Credit: Lisa Sakulensky

Mezzo-soprano Emily D'Angelo, Conductor Johannes Debus, and the Canadian Opera Company Orchestra; Photo credit: Lisa Sakulensky

The Tłı̨chǫ language was central to composer Brian Current’s  Naka (Northern Lights). With librettist/narrator Richard Van Camp, the Elmer Iseler Singers and the 21C Ensemble, conductor Debus found the energy, colour and majesty of the Northern Lights in Current’s music. The COC Orchestra responded brilliantly. The work is one of seven movements of a yet to be completed large scale piece for orchestra, choir and soloists entitled River of Light in which Current plans to demonstrate musically the universal human search for an exalted state of being as found in all of the world’s major cultures. The words “Our Light is the Creator’s love letter to you all” and “We are a river of light dancing for you” sheds insight into the spiritual journey that the work articulates. Credit must be given to Rosa Mantla, a member of the Tłı̨chǫ Nation who translated and served as diction coach for the singers.

Bookending the concert was a second movement from Current’s River of Light. This time Current went to the Jewish tradition and Zohar (The Book of Enlightenment) to find his thematic source. With choir, orchestra and tenor Andrew Haji, the work entitled The Seven Heavenly Halls takes one on a musical and mystical journey through halls of enlightenment. Once again, the COC Orchestra magnificently found all the colours and textures of Current’s music. Tenor Andrew Haji told the story brilliantly with his dramatically beautiful voice. The Elmer Iseler Singers and 21C Ensemble filled the hall with their glorious sounds and mysterious whispers in their role adding colour and texture to the words.

The COC’s Mezzo Soprano Emily D’Angelo was called on for two of the three additional works on the program. In The Orphic Moment by American Composer Matthew Aucoin, she dramatically portrayed the mythical Orpheus who in guiding his is wife out of the underworld looks back toward her and causes her death. The tragedy is played out with a chamber ensemble of winds, strings and percussion. The solo violin performed beautifully by Concertmaster Marie Bérard is the voice of Eurydice calling out desperately to Orpheus. D’Angelo’s stunning performance of this atonal music was breathtaking. 

Tłı̨chǫ Drummers pre-concert performance in the lobby

Throughout the history of western music, contemporary music has been at the forefront of musical performance. Bach’s cantatas were always fresh when he performed them in Leipzig. Beethoven’s new sonatas, string quartets and symphonies were eagerly awaited by the musical public of Vienna. In today’s popular music, there is a continual search for new sounds. The latest Justin Bieber tune becomes the next sensation. Although in the 20th century, classical music tastes generally espoused the music of the previous centuries, new music is again coming to the fore. Increasingly, the classical music loving public is becoming more and more familiar with contemporary composers and is demanding to hear their music.

The Royal Conservatory’s 21C Festival is a celebration of all that is new in the world of music. For the next week, nine concerts in the Conservatory’s three venues will feature music of this century including many world premiere performances. Last night at Koerner Hall, the 21C Festival opened with a stunning array of new music.

The programme, curated by conductor and Music Director of the Canadian Opera Company Johannes Debus, featured the Canadian Opera Company Orchestra, the Elmer Iseler Singers, the 21C Ensemble, librettist/narrator Richard Van Camp, and two rising operatic stars from the COC, mezzo soprano Emily D’Angelo and tenor Andrew Haji.

The music began before the concert with four Tłı̨chǫ drummers performing in the lobby. The same group performed a ceremonial prayer to begin the Festival. They were joined by three Tłı̨chǫ women who sang O Canada in the Tłı̨chǫ language. It was a fitting beginning to a program that demonstrated the universality of music. 

In the whimsically contrasting snagS and Snarls by Korean born composer Unsuk Chin, D’Angelo once again took the complex music and poetry of Lewis Carroll and sparkled with her comedic portrayals. She brought each of the poems to life with dramatic flare and musical gusto. D’Angelo is undoubtedly on the verge of greatness. Having graduated from UofT’s Faculty of Music just a year ago, she has already won the Metropolitan Opera National Council Audition Finals, and the COC’s 2015 Ensemble Studio Competition. She has all the tools to be a major star on the opera stage for years to come.

The COC Orchestra was on full display in the only other work on the program, Kammerkonzert by Samy Moussa, a Canadian composer from Montreal whose music has achieved recognition on both sides of the Atlantic. The work began with the powerful thud of two bass drums struck simultaneously. The subsequent ear-piercing screeches, rumble of drums and biting staccatos presented an emotionally gripping work of gloom that climaxed with the downward sliding solo viola. Once again, Debus led an inspired performance of this dramatic music.t

The 21C Festival continues tonight as the Cecilia String Quartet celebrates Canadian women composers in Mazzoleni Concert Hall at 7:30 pm and the Canadian Art Song Project presents several singers including Emily D’Angelo once again in the Temerty Theatre at 7:30 pm. 21C Festival should be in every music lovers' list of musts.


COC Orchestra headlines the opening concert of Royal Conservatory’s 21C Festival!

Review by David Richards
Toronto ON May 25th 2017


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