Review by: David Vernier
Artistic Quality: 9
Sound Quality: 9
The Elora Singers (previously known by its original name, The Elora Festival Singers) has been making beautiful music since the 1980s, and first-rate recordings for at least a couple of decades (see our reviews archive for a generous sample). Mark Vuorinen joined the ensemble as director in 2018, bringing a new vitality and vision to the choir’s programming and mission while continuing its collaborative efforts and support for new Canadian music, notably a recent project with Odawa First Nations composer Barbara Croall.
With a Christmas program, however, it’s usually a good idea to keep things centered on the more or less traditional (after all, that’s what Christmas is!) while offering, even introducing, some unfamiliar or newly written works or arrangements. Vuorinen and his singers have done a very nice job of that here: nothing could be more “traditional” than a David Willcocks carol or hymn arrangement, and there are three scattered among the 19 well-chosen selections, along with other pieces that easily could be called standards, from Patrick Hadley’s gorgeous I sing of a maiden, Derek Holman’s Make we joy now in this fest, Phillip Ledger’s Adam lay ybounden, Arvo Pärt’s Bogoróditse Djévo, and Canadian composer Mark Sirett’s lovely, affecting Thou Shalt Know Him.
The rest of the program consists mostly of works that are relatively new or otherwise may be less familiar to many listeners. An exception may be Serenity (O magnum mysterium) by today’s very “in” Ola Gjeilo, a piece that immediately draws you in to its perfectly crafted, captivating choral sound, with striking obbligato cello. Vancouver-based Gerda Blok-Wilson’s Lullay My Liking is a refreshingly new setting of the very old favorite, as is Elora Singers member Jeff Enns’ own take on O magnum mysterium. And beware: if you always loved the traditional tune for I wonder as I wander, you may just find yourself embracing the completely different, and very catchy (in a good way), version by Philip Stopford. But the “newer” work that struck me right away, and kept me coming back for another listen was Jim Clements’ imaginative and very engaging setting of Gabriel’s Message, a carol well-known in an old and oft-sung version. But this one, with its cool, captivating mystery, easily stands as a fine alternative that may become your favorite.
This past couple of years has presented extreme challenges to all performing musicians, but to singers and choirs more than any others. To maintain quality of sound, as well as ensemble technique and effective interpretation and expression under these vocally inhibiting conditions, requires a special kind of effort and determination, not to mention exceptional musical resources. Clearly the Elora Singers and its director have found a way to “make it work”, never faltering from their long-established high standard. This may not be the program they would have offered had they been free from severe pandemic restraints, but it’s a lovely, wonderful concert that will invite repeated listening year to year.
[In a departure from its earlier releases on Naxos, this recording is “self-produced”, which I presume will be the way of the future for the Elora Singers. If so, I have one suggestion: Please include CD track numbers next to the list of selections.]
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Recording Details:Album Title: Radiant Dawn--Music for Advent & Christmas
Original Works & Arrangements by Willcocks, Pärt, Gjeilo, Hadley, Ledger, MacMillan, Chilcott, Dove, Sirett, others