When you think of choral music, Leonard Cohen is not the first name that comes to mind. Chor Leoni, the celebrated Vancouver men's choir, is set to change that perception with its latest album, Wandering Heart, due out Nov. 1.
The album includes five world premiere recordings, including the title track, a work by Latvian composer Ēriks Ešenvalds based on texts by Cohen. It's the first composition to result from Chor Leoni's commissioning fund named in honour of its founding director, the late Diane Loomer.
"I knew I wanted to commission Ēriks Ešenvalds for the first commission from this fund but I did not go into this project with a clear sense of what text we would use," explained Chor Leoni's artistic director, Erick Lichte, via email. "I thought to myself, 'Who is the most beloved Canadian poet?' and my answer was Leonard Cohen. So I bought all of Mr. Cohen's books of poetry and read all of it twice — it was a wonderful assignment!"
Lichte selected a dozen Cohen poems that he felt would benefit from a setting for his men's choir, keeping Ešenvalds' compositional voice in his mind's ear. From these, Ešenvalds chose three, one for each of the work's movements. Next, they had to obtain Cohen's permission.
"I know of only one other commission using Cohen's texts, a piece by Philip Glass, so I didn't know if we would be sucessful," reflected Lichte. "I wrote to his agent and, after a number of emails, he agreed to allow the text to be used. It has been a huge honour, not just because Cohen is so famous, but also because the texts we get to sing are so emotionally rich and honest. There is a spirituality to his texts that, I think, has found a wonderful new voice in the music of Ešenvalds and the singing of Chor Leoni."
Lichte describes Ešenvalds as the "complete package" as a composer: "He can write in the most avant-garde methods, but at the core of his writing is a lyrical and melodic gift that few composers have. He also writes in a directly emotional way, which is never sentimental or cheap. There is always real compositional technique in his writing but also a unique depth of soul. I knew he would create a work which would challenge Chor Leoni, but also offer the choir a vehicle for the emotional expressivity we always strive to bring to our audiences."
After performing the music in concert, Lichte and Chor Leoni decided to record it. The sessions took place at Vancouver's Chan Centre in May 2015 and 2016.
"Recording is really, really hard work," he confided. "As I tell the choir, when you make a recording, you are turning the temporal art of music into a 'thing' that will then last forever. Performances that work well in concert do not often stand up to the scrutiny of the microphone and to repeated listening, so we have to work hard to make sure the technical aspects of our music-making get out of the way so that the emotional quality of the music shines through."
A highlight of the album is another work by Esenvalds, "Stars," a setting of a concise yet scopious poem by Sara Teasdale. Chor Leoni released a breathtaking new video for the track, produced by Phil Jack:
In addition to five pieces by Ešenvalds, the album also features music by Mendelssohn, Paul Mealor, Robert Moran, Kim André Arnesen and Morten Lauridsen.
"First, each piece is a virtuosic piece for male choir," said Lichte, explaining Wandering Heart's unifying elements. "There is nothing easy to sing on this album! Second, each work on the album is melodically based. All of these pieces share a directness in melody, and possibly a directness in emotion, which choral music sometimes loses in favour of pretty chords."
"But most importantly," he continued, "the album is united by the themes of distance and space. In some of the tracks on the album we sing about physical distances; sometimes we are singing about spiritual distances. These works speak about our separation from the divine and, perhaps, our distance from redemption. And lastly, we sing about the distances between the people we love. Moran's 'Yahrzeit' and Ešenvalds' 'Long Road' both speak to the space between two hearts when they are separated by the vast distance of death and how love can bridge this expanse."
"I am particularly proud of this Remembrance Day program," mused Lichte. "By focusing on war poets from Canada, the U.S. and England, as well as folk songs and even pop songs, I think we will have a very rich concert this year. The War/Poet program encompasses so many perspectives and musical styles, all while honouring our troops.
"I am also happy that this program very carefully acknowledges the brutality of war and the sacrifices of our service men and women without glorifying battle. For me, to sing about war is to pine for peace. I think we have achieved that in a special way this year."