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A lot of extraordinary things have to come together to create a truly memorable musical event. Firstly, there has to be an outstanding artist; baritone Russell Braun has been singing on the world’s most famed operatic stages and concert halls for several years now. He is the Canadian operatic equivalent of an Olympic medalist. Secondly, there has to be a venue that suits the occasion. Saturday’s concert was held in the beautifully decorated St. John’s Church in Elora with its sublime acoustics. Finally, the programme has to be satisfying. More about that later in the review, but suffice it to say that it was structured to be musically and spiritually nourishing. Noel Edison, Founding Artistic Director of the Elora Festival, has perfected the recipe for programming what can only be described as ‘pure magic’!
My guess is that Edison’s planning went this way. He wanted to perform Vaughan Williams’ masterpiece Five Mystical Songs with his highly esteemed and award-winning Elora Festival Singers. After searching for the best baritone soloist he could find, he discovered that both Braun and his collaborative pianist and wife Carolyn Maule were available for a solo recital. They discussed repertoire and discovered that Braun could also do two other complimentary song-cycles, one by Vaughan Williams and another by Beethoven. They then added more magic with a concert etude for piano by Liszt to be performed by Maule and finally three spirituals to complete the programme. Edison’s creative approach to programming couldn’t have worked better for the sold-out audience.
Baritone Russell Braun and pianist Carolyn Maule, Photos courtesy of the Elora Festival
Braun was in fine form. He demonstrated warmth and exquisite melodic line singing from the first notes of the three Songs of Travel by Vaughan Williams to open the program. His pianissimos were breathtaking and when his voice soared, the sound filled the hall and uplifted our spirits. Braun’s expressive voice conveyed the longing of a traveller for his distant love through the poetry of Robert Louis Stephenson. Maule’s sensitive accompaniment brought to life the phrase ‘Every note has a living Soul’. The magic continued with Beethoven’s Sech Lieder (nach Gedichten von Gellert), Op. 48, a rarely performed Beethoven song-cycle with a deeply spiritual text.
Maule had a chance to shine in her own right in a performance of the insanely difficult Un Sospiro (Three Concert Etudes) S144, #3 by Liszt. The piano sang with lyrical grace as she flew through the virtuosic passages with seeming ease.
Vaughan Williams’ Five Mystical Songs was the centre-piece of the concert. Braun delivered a masterful performance, but no more so than did Edison’s Elora Festival Singers. This choir continues to deserve all the accolades it has been awarded over the years. As much as Braun sent shivers up my spine in his rendering of the Easter poetry, the choir complimented his singing with a warm tonal blend and its impressive dynamic range. The familiar Antiphon filled the church as the choir transformed the words ‘My God and King!’ into a symphony of glorious and transcendent celebration.
As joyfully as the Vaughan Williams work concluded, the power and beauty of Burleigh’s arrangement of Three Negro Spirituals touched our hearts and took our minds to the unfathomably horrific suffering of Blacks in the Deep South that continues today. The contrast with the joy of Easter was poignant. To feel the power of this music in such a profound way was a tribute to both the planning and delivery of this truly magnificent concert.
The Elora Festival continues through July 24th with more superb choral music and an impressive array of internationally renowned guest artists. The festival deserves to be a summer destination.
Carolyn Maule and Russell Braun following the performance
Photo by Jan Richards
RUSSELL BRAUN: Canadian superstar baritone captures hearts in magical concert!
Review by David Richards
Elora ON July 11, 2016