Chor Leoni goes big for Remembrance concerts

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      Chor Leoni, the Vancouver men’s chorus that recently won the prestigious Margaret Hillis Award for Choral Excellence, is a genuine phenomenon—but that’s not why it’s shifting its annual Remembrance Day and Christmas concerts into the Orpheum.

      “To be perfectly honest, the real reason is that St. Andrew’s–Wesley [United Church], our normal venue, is under the knife,” explains the group’s conductor and artistic director, Erick Lichte, in a telephone interview from his East Vancouver home. “I don’t know if you’ve been past it recently, but they’re doing massive, massive renovations on it, so we’re going to be out of there for about two seasons, and this is the first season of that. We do intend to go back to St. Andrew’s—it definitely feels like home for us—but when we knew we weren’t going to be there, we had a major sit-down as an organization, going, ‘Well, where do we go?’ And because of the size of audiences that we get, the Orpheum was our best choice.”

      The move from a 1,200-seat venue to one more than twice as large has drawbacks—Lichte says Chor Leoni will miss the friendly acoustics of the West End church—but it offers opportunities as well. “We have a large space,” says Lichte, “so what’s going to create real impact? That was really what the thinking was: ‘Let’s bring in percussion.’ And having made that decision, ‘What are we going to do?’

      “The first two stops on my list,” he continues, “were Samuel Barber’s A Stopwatch and an Ordnance Map—which is not just one of the great pieces of male choral literature, but one of the great pieces of vocal music in general—and Veljo Tormis’s Varjele, Jumala, soasta, which is where we get the name for the concert. It sets an ancient Finnish prayer, and its title translates to ‘God Protect Us From War’.”

      The text for Barber’s piece is a Stephen Spender poem about the brutality of the Spanish Civil War. “He always, always, always had just such a fine ear for language and how to set that in extraordinary ways,” Lichte notes. The spellbinding Varjele, Jumala, soasta, in turn, will match Stopwatch for intensity, while allowing guest percussionist Katie Rife a chance to justify Chor Leoni’s move to a larger space.

      “It has a couple of moments where the tam-tam [a large gong] crescendoes to quadruple forte, and the instruction is ‘drown out the sound of the choir,’ ” Lichte explains. “So you don’t want to program it in a smaller place, ’cause you might hurt people!”

      He’s joking, but turns entirely serious when discussing our collective need to meditate on the horrors of war that Tormis’s score so viscerally illustrates.

      “That moment really obliterates the humanness of the choir,” he points out, “and no recording can do it justice. How could it without blowing everybody’s speakers up? You just have to hear it live.”

      Chor Leoni presents Protect Us From War at West Vancouver United Church at 3 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday (November 9 and 10), and at the Orpheum at 4 p.m. on Monday (November 11).