Nordic Voices, Ottawa, Canada, February 5, 2008
First Baptist Church
February 5, 2008
In an era of concert performances when amplification is the norm, the opportunity to encounter a group of singers performing in a church, with not a microphone to be found, provides a respitenot just from amplified live music, but from an increasingly loud and sonically chaotic world. A capella group Nordic Voices delivered a performance to a small but appreciative Ottawa audience that demonstrated just how much could be done with nothing more than six voices and the natural sound of a church.
Categorizing Nordic Voices as "nothing more" than six voices, however, would be a serious misrepresentation. A little more than a decade old, this group has distinguished itself by a repertoire that ranges from early polyphonic music to 20th Century microtonal music by György Ligeti. The group's Sense & nonSense (JDR, 2002) demonstrated just how well material ranging from Claudio Monteverdi and Francois Poulenc to Giovanni Gabrieli and Henrik Hellstenius could coexist on a program that wound its way back-and-forth across four centuries.
The majority of the sextet's Ottawa program was culled from its most recent release, Reges Terrae (Chandos, 2007), and focused on 16th Century music from the time of Carlos V, the last Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire who, at his peak, ruled over a significant portion of mainland Europe in addition to parts of North Africa and South America. It was the time of the Spanish Inquisition, and if the period itself was tumultuous, the music most certainly was not. This largely spiritual music, based on religious texts, was and remains angelically beautiful, and with a vocal range from soprano to bass, Nordic Voices' delivery was nothing short of remarkable.
While music of this nature is often delivered in a staid and conservative fashion, Nordic Voices were as entertaining to watch as they were to hear. Eye contact abounded across the group, and while their physical delivery was hardly melodramatic, there was a clear sense of engagement that made watching them as captivating as closing your eyes and letting their harmoniously rich sound wash over you.
l:r Tone E. Braaten (s), Frank Havrøy (bar), Ingrid Hanken (s), Trond Olav Reinholdtsen (b), Per Kristian Amundrød (t), Ebba Rydh (mez)
Even without a sound system to provide a balanced mix, Nordic Voices' dynamics are so accurate that they create seamless shifts in emphasis on their own. On a couple of occasions they changed physical positions- -the three women collecting on stage right, with the men on stage leftand that, in itself, adjusted the blend of the voices. But for the rest of the two sets, with the men and woman spread across the stage, the manner in which a single voice would rise above the rest, or segments of a melody be passed among them as though they were a tag team, brought a whole different, revelatory perspective to listening to their music on record.
While the first set also included contemporary Norwegian composer Trond Kverno's "Ave Maris Stella," the material was all of a kindrich, harmonically consonant and deeply beautiful. It was only in the second set, when the group performed a modern interpretation of the words to "O Magnum Mysterium" by another Norwegian composer, Henrik Ødegaard, that the group moved into more contemporary areas of approach. Baritone Frank Havrøy, who did most of the speaking for the group, recounted how this piece came about as part of a 2006 project that asked the question: "Can we teach classical singers to sing something else?"
Clearly you can. While microtonality is not necessarily new (despite its being remarkably challenging for the human voice) in contemporary vocal music, throat singing and the guttural delivery of portions of Ødegaard's piece most certainly are. And yet, surprisingly, despite the dissonances heard when two singers are a mere quarter tone apart, the music was no less beautiful, albeit more dramatic in delivery.
Dissonances aside, this was glorious music that could make a believer out of an atheist. Responding to an audience unwilling to let the group go without an encore, they came back to finish the evening with a Norwegian lullaby. The group spread themselves out even further across the stage and onto the church floor, perhaps to induce calm, but again the spatial configuration highlighted their unorthodox vocal approaches, bringing arresting closure to a gorgeous midwinter performance that those in attendance won't soon forget.
Top Photo: Jo Michael
Performance Photo: John Kelman