Arts Academy Concert a Triumph



On April 16 and 17, the Wildrose Chamber Choir and Academy Chamber Orchestra gave two superb performances of choral masterworks, under the capable direction of their founder and leader James Janzen. The first half of the concert featured a cappella choral works spanning more than 300 years of musical history. The second half brought together choir and orchestra for the major work, Felix Mendelssohn's dramatic setting of Psalm 42, the first performance of this magnificent work in our community.
Many of the works chosen for the concert displayed themes of lament and questioning from the Psalms and the book of Job: struggle and perplexity, distresses and tensions of life, questions and answers, doubt and faith, worry and worship. In his engaging commentary, director James Janzen reminded us that "the Psalms have been a great source of strength to people throughout the centuries;" they "are not afraid to ask the difficult questions in life, but never leave you hopeless." Hope in the midst of confusion was summarized in the brilliant finale of Mendelssohn's Psalm 42: "Why are you downcast, O my soul, and why are you restless in me? Hope thou in God, for I once again shall praise him, for he is the help of my countenance and my God" (Ps. 42:5).
As I listened to each of these wonderful pieces, I was reminded of how privileged we are in a community of this size to have had such disciplined and committed artists in our midst, all of whom are excellent musicians, who read and learn the musical scores before coming to rehearsal each week, and who sing without remuneration—purely for the love of singing together.
It is tempting to dwell at length on all seven a cappella works from the first half, because each was a gem of profound beauty by itself, and each showed the maturity and technical power of this fine choir, as well as its musical passion. Particularly moving were Pavel Chesnokov's "Spaseniye Sodelhal" (Salvation is Created) and Johannes Brahms' "Warum is das Licht Gegeben" (Why is the light given to those in misery?), both featuring antiphonal textures in a display of rich vocal colour across the full spectrum of voices. Choir member Ben Ewert took the podium for two well-known motets by Anton Bruckner, "Locus Iste" and "Christus Factus Est." The choir's rendering of the latter work was particularly effective, with its dark chromatic textures and downward moving lines on the words "Christ became obedient for us unto death." I was particularly impressed with the choir's rendition of the heart-wrenching motet "O Vos Omnes," composed in 1932 by Spanish super-cellist Pablo Casals. The haunting chromaticism of this work epitomizes the anguished text: "All you that pass by, behold and see if there be any sorrow like my sorrow" (Lamentations 1:12).
Felix Mendelssohn's remarkable setting of Psalm 42 has long been overshadowed by the popular oratorios Elijah and St. Paul. Robert Schumann, writing in 1837, declared Psalm 42 "the highest pinnacle ever reached by Mendelssohn the church composer or, indeed, by more recent church music altogether." Conceived in seven movements, the work shows Mendelssohn's deep admiration for J.S. Bach, of whose music Mendelssohn was a tireless champion. Here was a work that displayed many facets of this choir's musical personality to great effect, especially with the subtle word painting which the composer drew from this evocative text. Particularly noteworthy in this performance were the contributions by soprano Jessica Stanton, whose recitatives and arias provided a magnificent complement to the substantial choral movements. Special recognition also belongs to the Academy Chamber Orchestra, who with fifteen capable musicians managed a musical score intended for an orchestra more than twice that size. Their playing was precise and warm and beautifully supported the choir throughout this challenging work. The triumphant final movement, with its stirring brass fanfares and choral flourishes brought the program to a fitting conclusion.
The event was tinged with sadness, as it was also the farewell performance for the director James Janzen, who has announced his retirement and plans to move to Kelowna, B. C. James has been a major figure for sixteen years in the Three Hills artistic scene. He distinguished himself as a professor of music, and chairman of the Fine Arts Department at Prairie Bible College between 1995 and 2007. During these years, he directed the Ambassador Choir, as well as annual performances of the Masterworks Choir, featuring some of the greatest works in the choral repertory. James's musical influence has been profound and far-reaching for both students and members of the community. He will be greatly missed!