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Music review: Chor Leoni brings choral music to the here and now in Breathe in Hope

The annual Remembrance Day concert smashed stereotypes of the musical style

Gail Johnson of Stir Publishing

CHOR LEONI’S REMEMBRANCE DAY concert could on one hand be described as a solemn affair, as to be expected. But it was not what many might typically associate with a chamber-choir performance for the occasion. Leave it to maverick artistic director Erick Lichte to create a program with exciting new works and unconventional takes on existing songs to smash any stereotypes related to the genre and to bring choral singing into the here and now.

Breathe in Hope was the first concert to be held at St. Andrew’s-Wesley United since its years-long multimillion-dollar renovation, complete with a restored organ; the place was abuzz because of that very fact from the moment you walked in.

Over the course of 75 minutes, the 66-member tenor-bass male choir packed in no less than 12 songs, including six world premieres, covering vast sonic and emotional territory.

A knockout was the world premiere of composer Ken Cormier’s arrangement of Kate Bush’s “Army Dreamers”. The gutting lyrics (which were projected on screens on either side of the choir) speak to the absurdity of war and to the grief and guilt felt by a mother who lost her son in military exercises. With Peter Joosten on accordion, Keith Sinclair on guitar, Tina Chang on piano, and Michael Soderling on glockenspiel, the song maintained the original’s bounce, juxtaposed by the occasional distanced, disembodied command of “Fall in!” The choir’s rendition of the 1980 track recast Bush’s idiosyncratic stylings into a hauntingly harmonious soundscape.

Swedish composer Henrik Dahlgren’s “Son to Mother” held power in its pauses. At the heart of the moving piece is the phrase “I start no wars” from the titular poem by Maya Angelou. Dahlgren allows for space between the words, giving listeners the chance to really listen and to hear, to cling onto the sounds—and to the sound of silence.

Wave upon wave of heartache marked Melissa Dunphy’s “Waves of Gallipoli”. The U.S.-based composer travelled to cemeteries of the Gallipoli Peninsula as part of her creative process, drawing on epitaphs of Australian and New Zealand soldiers’ graves for her lyrics. The music swelled, the choir heaved as one, and it was as if we could hear waves washing ashore throughout the sorrowful piece.

“And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda” is a Chor Leoni tradition—and it’s one that never gets old. Featuring soloist Keith Sinclair—his vocals steady, tender, serene—composer-in-residence Don Macdonald’s spare but warm arrangement of Eric Bogle’s 1971 original might well have had more than a few audience members reaching for the tissue.

Also featuring works by Michael McGlynn, Dale Trumbore, Katerina Gimon, Marques L.A. Garrett, Shruthi Rajasekar, and Ēriks Ešenvalds, the concert concluded with Macdonald’s new “Boundless and Infinite”. Audiences were invited to join the choir in song in this contemporary hymn, accompanied by Tim Woodford on the church’s magnificent restored organ and trumpet player Katherine Evans (who performed with stunning clarity). The melodious piece ended the performance on a hopeful note, reflecting through its restrained joy the yearning for connection we’ve all felt over the last 18 months.

A word to sum up the level of artistry in Breathe in Hope? Breathtaking.

If you missed it, you can go to the choir’s website for Chor Leoni: Remembrance. It’s a free digital concert featuring many of songs from Breathe in Hope, available until November 17.

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