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Soundstreams brings drama to Russian devotional work

Style: "Porcelain vivid" The Sealed Angel credit: Berlin Radio Choir and Berlin Staatsballett

Mathias Heyde, 2005

Lawrence Cherney, artistic director of Soundstreams Canada, has a knack for finding ways to sell obscure contemporary music to Toronto audiences.

Sometimes he does it by conjoining different art forms. And that's what he did on Thursday night at the Royal Conservatory's Koerner Hall, when he brought to the stage the combined voices of the Elmer Iseler Singers and the Amadeus Choir plus five dancers from ProArteDanza.

Evidently, this generated enough buzz in both the choral and dance communities to nearly fill the hall for a program of music by the Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho and the Russian Rodion Shchedrin.

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Neither are exactly household names in Toronto – although Saariaho has had a boost of late, with the Canadian Opera Company's production of her opera Love from Afar. (The opera also opened on Thursday night, at the Four Seasons Centre – see adjacent review.)

Saariaho's contribution to the Soundstreams program was a choral setting of Tag des Jahrs by the German poet Friedrich Holderlin. The four movements – one for each season – were performed by the Iseler Singers, under their artistic director, Lydia Adams, accompanied by an electronic soundtrack.

Like much of Saariaho's music, Tag des Jahrs had an ethereal quality – subtle, understated and tonally ambiguous. The electronics added to the otherworldliness of it all, as a laptop on stage generated sounds suggestive of cymbals or whispered voices. The trickiest movement was Autumn, which required some careful rhythmic synchronization between the electronics and the choir.

Fortunately, this is the sort of thing the Iseler Singers do well, and the result was a refined and polished performance.

The Saariaho was a nice prelude to the main feature: Shchedrin's The Sealed Angel, performed by the choirs and dancers, as well as flutist Leslie Newman and two boy sopranos.

Shchedrin wrote The Sealed Angel in 1988, just one year before the collapse of the Soviet Union. Although religious works were still frowned upon in the USSR, Shchedrin made no attempt to disguise the Russian Orthodox origins of the piece. It's a tradition-laden work, a marriage of the rich harmonies of Sergei Rachmaninoff and the sparse "holy minimalism" of Arvo Part.

Anyone in the audience who managed to read the program notes before the lights dimmed would have known the piece is an appeal for divine grace. But on another level, the provided translation was superfluous – The Sealed Angel is so obviously and powerfully full of devotional fervour that the text hardly mattered.

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However, it wasn't Shchedrin's intention to bring dancers into this concert work. This idea was the invention of the German choreographer Lars Scheibner, who choreographed the work in 2005. In 2008, Cherney saw Scheibner's staging of the piece in Copenhagen and decided to bring him to Toronto to do it here with local dancers and singers.

Scheibner's staging went straight to the heart of the matter, with athletic and tightly woven choreography for his five female dancers (Mami Hata, Andrea Gregorio, Erin Poole, Kelly Shaw and Paulina Witkowski). He also effectively incorporated the choirs into the action, moving them around the stage in various configurations.

Newman played her flute solos with an unaffected purity, in keeping with their folk-like simplicity. (The flute solos were originally written for a Russian folk instrument called the svirel.) And the two boy sopranos – Daniel Bedrossian and Nicholas Rita – were strong and secure in their solos.

Conducting from a podium in the centre of the stage was Adams – who not only held the performance together, but also milked the score for every drop of drama.

Soundstreams Canada

The Elmer Iseler Singers; Amadeus Choir; ProArteDanza dancers; Leslie Newman, flute

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At Koerner Hall

In Toronto on Thursday

Reviewed by Colin Eatock

Special to The Globe and Mail

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