Review: Vocal Alchemy welcomes spring in Edmonton with Songs & Sonnets

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Edmonton finally got its first taste of spring and Vocal Alchemy’s concert Songs & Sonnets provided a unique take on the season.

On Saturday, May 11, 100 choristers took to the stage at McDougall United Church, dawning bright colours to deliver a musical representation of spring.

Vocal Alchemy was founded in 2002 and is a non-auditioned choir, but after hearing the group’s sound on Saturday night you would be shocked to hear that.

Conductor Jordan van Biert has been with Vocal Alchemy for 12 seasons and his impact on the sound of the choir is evident.

The choristers are well-rehearsed, which allows them to look up from their music and follow van Bierts conducting cues, giving them the space to build on each piece through changes in dynamics and tempo.

What is most impressive though is the phrasing.

The choir ends each phrase with a purpose and consonant sounds don’t clash.

In the program van Biert described the concert as great—referencing the choir, the space, the music—and he was right.

The choristers sang with amazing tone and each section was featured prominently in multiple songs.


Vocal Alchemy was dressed like spring for their performance of Songs & Sonnets | Photo by Kiefer Sutherland

But what made the performance was the music selection, which featured wonderful texts from Shakespeare and his contemporaries.

Rebecca Parson, the company’s choral assistant, told the audience that some pieces were selected because of the composers’ interpretations and their ability to illuminate the text through “wildly different takes” on the madrigals.

This was true especially for “Sigh No More, Ladies, Sigh No More,” which was featured twice on the program, but as written by two different composers.

Madrigals were written to be sung for fun amongst friends and Vocal Alchemy was able to highlight this in its own performance.

Throughout the evening, choristers smiled and played off the music to create a vibrant energy for the audience.

This was especially true in pieces like Emma Lou Diemer’s “Sigh No More…” and “It Was a Lover and His Lass,” from George Shearing’s work Songs & Sonnets, which was performed in full.

The Songs & Sonnets set featured accompaniment from Josh McHan (double bass) and Charlie Austin (piano), both of whom played beautifully underneath the voices of the choir.

It was a unique experience as a listener because the flow of the set ranged from slow, simple melodies to march-like and even up-tempo bops.

The themes of spring were flowing from this set and painted the scene of a warm evening at Sir Winston Churchill Square.

One of the best parts of the evening came at the end of the first half when George and Nadine Murphy, who were retiring from Vocal Alchemy, were recognized.

The two singers were founding members and have been integral in the growth of the choir since 2002.

Vocal Alchemy announced that it had started a fund in their honour to support the commissioning of new pieces.

The show was entertaining throughout, but there were some shortcomings including the amount of talking between each piece.


McDougall United Church provides an excellent backdrop for choral music in downtown Edmonton | Photo by Kiefer Sutherland

Van Biert spoke between most numbers and while his detail helped provide context for the selection of each piece, he often rambled on for too long.

The flow between songs was smooth and less time between them would have helped the flow of the concert.

Overall, the performance was impressive and the choir sang the slow selections beautifully, which is difficult to do.

Often the weight of slow moving harmonies can affect the key, but the bass section held strong and allowed the higher voices to soar through the melodies.

The best song of the night was Quartel’s “I Know a Bank Where the Wild Thyme Blows,” a piece filled with beautiful harmonies that really showcased the talent within the choir.

Songs & Sonnets concluded the 2018-2019 season for Vocal Alchemy and rehearsals for the choir will begin again in the fall.

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