Vancouver Cantata Singers escape the concert hall

With their show at UBC’s Life Sciences Institute, the Vancouver Cantata Singers again bring choral music to an unexpected locale
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Art is often a matter of life and death, but the connection is rarely as fortuitous as it will be in this weekend’s performance by the Vancouver Cantata Singers. On the program is Johannes Brahms’s A German Requiem, the 19th-century composer’s seven-movement exploration of texts from the Lutheran Bible, many of which touch on mourning and memory. The venue? UBC’s Life Sciences Institute, where teams of researchers investigate new ways of understanding and prolonging human existence.

A more fitting combination of song and setting would be hard to imagine, but according to the Cantata Singers’ general manager, David Carlin, the conjunction is more serendipitous than intentional.

“You know, I wish I could say that there’s a grand scheme—and in a sense there is, because we’ve had a lot of success pairing the arts and sciences,” says Carlin, reached at his ensemble’s Fairview Slopes office. “That has been a very clear and successful path of exploration for us. But in this case, planning a performance in that space was motivated first by the space. I actually went through the building, walked through it, and thought, ‘I want to hear some big music in this place. This is, acoustically, going to be fabulous. I want to put on a show here.’ And the Brahms requiem came after that.”

Saturday’s concert will mark the first time the Cantata Singers have appeared in the environmentally and acoustically friendly building, which has been recognized internationally for its energy-efficient design. But it’s far from the only time the choir has appeared in an unconventional locale. Under Carlin’s direction, it has been widely acclaimed for its ability to take choral music out of the church and the concert hall.

“When I took over Cantata Singers five years ago, all of the concerts were in churches—100 percent of them,” Carlin notes. “And it was a struggle. It was hard for us to differentiate ourselves, it was hard for us to find repertoire that was flexible, and there’s a certain slice of the audience that doesn’t want to go sit in a pew and listen to music. It also became a very not-creative kind of process. All the choirs in town go to the same venues and do the same kinds of shows. It became a little bit less fun, less challenging, and less creative for us. So we started with individual shows in unusual spaces with interesting themes, and the best one I can draw your attention to was a few seasons ago, which we did at the Blusson Spinal Cord Centre, which is close to VGH.

“We called it Cathedral of Science, and the idea for that show was, ‘What happens if you perform straight-ahead Renaissance choral music, or liturgical music, in a nonsacred space? Will audiences go with you? Can you have the right kind of experience? What is the right kind of experience?’ And it was a tremendous success. The show sold out, the CBC recorded it, and it was acoustically spectacular.…The whole experience was so cathartic and so interesting for everybody that we kind of haven’t looked back.”

The payoff, so far, has included new audiences and new patrons—often scientists and health-care professionals who, Carlin says, “explore life intellectually in ways that are very compatible and very similar” to those found in the arts.

In advance of Saturday’s concert, the Cantata Singers’ manager plans to make a second trip to the Life Sciences Institute, to better scope out its possibilities and pitfalls. Conductor Paula Kremer, a long-time Cantata Singers member and Vancouver Community College music prof, is also doing some research, but her meditations on Brahms have led her to a different, though no less unusual, location.

“What I did the other day was I listened to the work for two hours while walking around a cemetery,” Kremer explains in a separate telephone interview. “I had some time, and I walked around and I listened to it. Now, the cemetery is a place I might find, in my life, not a comfortable place to be in. I’m not going there for any kind of peace, and I certainly don’t want to spend any time there when it’s cold. But listening to the entire piece, and reading the inscriptions on tombstones, it actually became a very positive place. There’s so much love there: ‘In loving memory’ and ‘You’ll always be in our hearts’ and ‘Remembered forever’.

“And of course the very nature of a requiem,” she adds, “is to provide comfort.”

Both Kremer and Carlin stress that A German Requiem is as much a masterpiece of humanism as it is a reflection of the composer’s religious impulses.

“I didn’t know Brahms personally, I haven’t channelled him, and I don’t know this to be a fact, but I’ve read that he struggled a little bit with his faith,” says the conductor. “But comfort is a word that comes up over and over again in the German, and it provides comfort for those who are mourning. I don’t think I’m doing the work anything near justice by saying this, but it has an overall theme of turning sorrow to joy, through the struggle of dealing with grief.

“There’s also this other much, much bigger idea of ‘Then what?’ ” Kremer adds. “There’s the idea of judgment, and that happens in the piece—and then life wins in the struggle against death.”

Is it a coincidence that the Life Sciences Institute’s usual occupants are striving for much the same result? Maybe—and maybe not. -

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