Legacy of Healey Willan, a special Bach Elgar concert Reply

Review by Judith Caldwell

The Bach Elgar Choir presented a program entitled ‘The Legacy of Healey Willan’. Next year will mark the 50th anniversary of his death so Healey Willan concerts will abound, but Bach Elgar got in first. Although he was born and grew up in England, Willan has been claimed as a great Canadian composer because he moved to Toronto in 1913 to take up a position as Head of Theory at the Conservatory of Music. He then became organist at St. Paul’s on Bloor Street where he composed, taught and performed leaving a very large legacy of musical achievement.

 stamps honoring Emma Albani & Healey Willan

Under the direction of Alexander Cann and accompanied by organist Michael Bloss the Choir sang many of Willan’s anthems and hymns arranged in groups according to the liturgical calendar. They opened with the Hymn-Anthem on the tune ‘O quanta qualia’ and apparently there is a recording somewhere of Willan berating a practising choir for not keeping the tempo of this piece. Bach Elgar had no such problems and the lovely vocal blending nicely showed off the acoustics at Christ Church Cathedral.
Then came the grand Anglican anthem ‘O Praise the Lord’, followed by a rather martial ‘In the Name of God we Set up Our Banners’ with a tenor solo by Simon Felice who looked as though he was really enjoying singing possessor of a lovely voice. Several short and rather familiar hymns brought the program up to the Advent section. The first of these was ‘Lo, in the Time Appointed’ a very well known work by the composer which was followed by an organ solo ‘Interlude for a Festival’ which was commissioned for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. This was big, noisy, lively and quite modern while also sounding regal and assertive. Advent wrapped up with ‘A Soft Light from a Stable Door’ a short, gentle soprano solo sung beautifully by Allana Stevenson.
Just before intermission came the big, difficult piece of the evening ‘Apostrophe to the Heavenly Hosts’ – and eleven minute a cappella choral work which was mystic and large scale and involved two choirs singing sometimes together and other times separately. It was a complicated piece which really challenged the choir. At intermission some choristers were heard to remark that the BIG ONE was over and they were happy with how it sounded.
After intermission the choir moved on to Easter in the liturgical year. The quiet, contemplative “Responsaries for the Offices of Tenebrae’ led into another organ solo apparently written while Willan travelled to and from the family cottage. This was a gorgeous fugue with a very strong, emphatic ending. Three hopeful Easter pieces showed Willan’s range from enormous anthems to gentle, ethereal hymns. The penultimate music was composed by Stephanie Martin, the only non-Willan music on the whole program, and was included to show that his legacy lives on. It was an interesting piece with a very busy organ playing under a very calm choir. The evening wrapped with the familiar ‘Lord of All Hopefulness’. The music ranged from 1917 to 1967 and took us from a Willan who was very traditionally Imperial Anglican to one who, while still main stream religious, became quite mystical. It was an interesting journey.
The next Bach Elgar Choir concert is Handel’s Messiah on December 16th, 2017 at Melrose United

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