The texts and music in Song of Songs are inspired by The Song of Solomon, arguably one of the shortest books in the Old Testament of the Bible and, incidentally, the Hebrew Tanakh. It boasts a mere eight chapters and a total of 117 verses. To quote countertenor Alex Potter who designed and led this concert around those chapters and verses, “Some of them are quite naughty.” He paused and added, “Very naughty in fact.”
During his enlightening and entertaining pre-concert talk, along with Early Music Vancouver’s executive and artistic director Matthew White, Potter outlined the reasons for his choice of composers who had put the verses to music. They ranged from budget considerations to a desire to include composers juxtaposed between the Renaissance and Baroque periods, as well as the two female composers suggested by featured soprano Suzie LeBlanc. Also included were passages in Hebrew, in recognition of the fact that the verses were originally Jewish love poems. Song of Songs, or Shir ha-Shirim in Hebrew, literally means the most beautiful of songs.
And beautiful they were, both in concept and execution.
Passages interspersed between the songs were read in the original Hebrew as well as English by Dana Camil Hewitt and Yotam Ronen, both academics with strong musical connections.
LeBlanc joined the team of four ‘regular’ singers who had opened the festival with Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos and performed again in his Cantatas. At times they sang a cappella in complex, delicious harmonies while at others they were accompanied by Michael Jarvis on organ and harpsichord and Lucas Harris on theorbo.
Singing combinations varied from solo and duet to trio and full ensemble. Jarvis shone in a harpsichord solo composed by Girolamo Frescobaldi, as did Harris playing Toccata XI by Piccinini on theorbo. The balance of the programme could not have been bettered, except once or twice one yearned for Potter to take the lead and share his exceptional solo voice and musical prowess one more time.
That said, it was obvious that Maestro Potter was in full command of every variation in the overall colour and mood and each seamless segue from piece to piece. His staging was simple but effective, most notably in the last song when Dorothee Mields’s soprano solo was hauntingly echoed by the more mature voice of LeBlanc who stood behind the high back of the priest’s chair, thus escaping most sight lines and adding an element of distance and mystery.
The triumphant ending, with the five seasoned ensemble artists singing together as one, left the audience clamouring for an encore. Before they all obliged with William Walton’s Set me as a seal, also inspired by Solomon’s Song, Potter told how he used to sing the song at weddings for beer money. “Fifty pounds bought me twenty-five pints,” he grinned. It was easy to imagine him taking the lead which in this instance he gave to tenor Samuel Boden whose performance had grown in stature since the early days of the festival.
The fifth soloist was the sonorous-voiced bass-baritone Matthew Brook whose pedigree extends to Windsor Castle’s St George’s Chapel where he was resident chorister to HM Queen Elizabeth II in his youth. He will join the other singers, along with Alexander Weimann and the Pacific Baroque Orchestra for the final concert of the festival, Henry Purcell’s Hail Bright Cecilia, on August 9.
It’s bound to be as nice as Song of Songs, but not quite as naughty.
Early Music Vancouver’s 2019 Vancouver Bach Festival continues through August 9. Visit earlymusic.bc.ca for tickets and information.