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August 10, 2007

REVIEW: Philomela not your typical choral group

The Vancouver Sun (Canada):

Philomela is a Finnish women's choir, 24 of its 40 members visiting Vancouver for this summer's festival. Philomela is Greek for "nightingale" and there is something Grecian in their attic approach to singing. They're far from the typical stand-and-deliver choral group, posed in stiff distant ranks. They're mobile and the dynamic is urgent with expressivity. They're a reminder of the choral function of Greek drama in which the chorus was the voice of the public, commenting on the actions of the protagonists.
Hectic and charged with meaning, their eyes flashing as they connect with the eyes of the audience, they sometimes mill through the house.

Cynically you might think this would soon wear pretty thin but you might have changed your mind had you been at Christ Church on Thursday. They don't overuse what they do and they choose their moments.

This is nothing new, at least in theatre, where intermingling with the crowd is called promenade theatre. Sensitively done, it can be thrilling. I've forgotten the name of the agrarian-themed play that was done in this style and which I once saw at Studio 58 but I'll never forget the effect (or the name of the director, Catherine Caines) of being so close to those voices and faces as they broke through the traditional barriers, the fourth wall lying in pieces. Philomela's conductor, Marjukka Riihimki, has an evident genius for connecting with people in important ways and what she does is far from a gimmick.

The choir's hour-plus program was hypnotic with pure, radiant singing which involved much close harmony. You knew instantly that you were hearing a foreign choir from the material, which could only have been Northern European. It was all contemporary, which is the specialty of Philomela, and by female composers, who really conveyed the melos, or musical character, of the country. It had a folkish feel and suggested rarefied light and great distances. It also felt popular in the best sense. Bjrk is Icelandic but she would have understood this Finnish music and related to it.

Everything the women sang was appealing, fine and evocative of strange feelings . There were no translation sheets available and none were really needed beyond the English translations of the song titles: With and Against the Wind, Longing for Homeland, Who Is Sleeping in Your Cradle, The Wind Passing Through the Woods ...). Both opening numbers were by Sanna Kurki-Suonio (Tuulen nostatus and Sadelaulu - Raising of the Wind and Rain Song). They were lovely and each involved the altos holding a pedal point - a very low note in a constant, unvarying drone. Very demanding and seamlessly done.It was all what is called accessible and felt very true. No piece moreso than the rapturous Samsara by Anna-Mari Khr: a wordless vocalise representing the eternal flow of music.

Posted by acapnews at August 10, 2007 10:41 PM

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