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Singing their passion for Joan

Voices of Light – The Passion of Joan of Arc, June 22, 2011

The Georgia Straight

by Jessica Werb

On Wednesday (June 22), more than 100 singers will take the stage of the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts, after just one week of intensive rehearsals, to perform an epic work of contemporary music: Richard Einhorn’s Voices of Light: The Passion of Joan of Arc, which requires a full orchestra, a medieval a cappella quartet, and four soloists – as well as a simultaneous screening of the 1928 black-and-white silent film by Carl Dreyer, The Passion of Joan of Arc.

If that sounds like a tall order, conductor Tom Hall isn’t sweating. The music director of the Baltimore Choral Arts Society will be taking the helm of this massive project, which is being produced as part of the Berkshire Choral Festival – a roving event that, seven weeks each year, assembles 200 choristers for weeklong singing vacations. This year, one of those weeks is taking place in Vancouver.

“One of the great joys of the Berkshire Choral Festival is that people come together and they are instantly united by a deep-seated love and passion for choral singing,” enthuses Hall, from his Baltimore office. “Everybody wants to do a beautiful job. Everybody wants to make it as artistically excellent as possible. Everybody is intensely devoted to the work … It’s a lot of rehearsals, it’s a lot of hours of really strenuous working. But they understand that that’s what it’s going to be.”

In addition to conducting a massive choir of voices, Hall will be simultaneously leading the National Broadcast Orchestra, the New York-based medieval a cappella quartet Anonymous 4, and four soloists that include Vancouver-based soprano and composer Kathleen Allan in her first orchestral singing role.

“When you go to an orchestra concert or to see a major work, it’s very rare that it’s multimedia, and to be part of that is very exciting,” says Allan, from St. John’s, Newfoundland, where she is visiting family. “I think the audience will really enjoy it and get a totally different experience out of the evening.”

The work itself, says Hall, is an intensely emotional piece of music, written specifically to be performed in tandem with Dreyer’s haunting cinematic masterpiece. “The music, which was written just some 20 years ago, is actually quite ancient in its inspiration,” he observes. “So there’s a lot of medieval-sounding stuff, there’s a lot of chanting, there’s a lot of clear references to Gregorian music and medieval music.”

In contrast, he notes, the film – rediscovered in 1981, when a near-complete print was found in a janitor’s closet in a mental institution in Oslo – was far ahead of its time. “The movie is actually quite modern and quite precedent-breaking, and forward-thinking in its approach.” He cites, for example, the use of fast cuts, close-ups, and creative angles more familiar to modern audiences than to cinema-goers of the silent-film era.

Even though it was written to be performed with the film, Einhorn’s piece is not a soundtrack, stresses Hall, noting that much of its text comes from the writings of medieval female mystics rather than Joan of Arc’s own words. Even so, he says, “the oratorio needs to be synced up to the movie. When I conduct this, I have to make sure that I’m in the right place – I’ve got to get everybody moving along so that the movements that Richard has composed to correspond with the various scenes in the movie are happening at the right time.”

Having successfully conducted the work once before, in Baltimore, Hall is confident his large group of musicians and singers will give Vancouver audiences a thrill. “This is a really emotionally gripping experience, to witness this movie and to hear this music tied to it,” he says. “It’s a very emotional evening for everybody involved.”

Thu Jun 16, 2011