****1/2 OUT OF FIVE
Medieval Inuit, Saturday, March 13, 2010, Église Précieux-Sang
Review by Gwenda Nemerofsky, Winnipeg Free Press
Andrew Balfour, artistic director of Camerata Nova is a wise man. At the acapella vocal ensemble’s concert Saturday night, he said, “It is impossible to describe music in mere words. You need to experience it.”
And an experience is exactly what Camerata Nova gave their audience.
It started with the venue. Etienne Gaboury’s magnificent creation, Église Precieux-Sang is enough to take your breath away. The all-wood interior and circular seating of the spiralling teepee structure is warm and welcoming.
The program included traditional Inuit songs, Icelandic, Estonian and Finnish works, sung, throat sung and accompanied by didgeridoo, percussion and viola. We sat enthralled, never knowing what would happen next.
We knew we were in for something different when Inuit performer Madeleine Allakariallak translated board chair Sandi Mielitz’s introductory comments into Inuktitut.
Icelandic chant Almáttugur guo, allra stétta, was mournful and full of difficult dissonant intervals handled with ease by sopranos and altos. The men’s long resonant drones rumbled through the church, but while conductor Mel Braun directed the proceedings, the difficult text kept singers’ eyes focused firmly on their music stands.
Braun’s expansive movements reaped rewards in Iceland, Land of Happiness, as ensemble members sang with smiling voices, making this optimistic folk song especially lovely.
Allakariallak stepped forward with fellow Inuk singer Sylvia Cloutier and facing each other at close range, microphones in hand, performed rhythmic throat singing. Allakariallak sang much of the time, while Cloutier did metered breathing. This visceral performance was totally arresting. We even found ourselves breathing along with them.
Arnalukakuluk featured Allakariallak and Cloutier using a variety of throat singing techniques. Some sounded like hyperventilating, while others were a little spooky. Allakariallak sang with fierce determination, gesticulating strongly.
With Joy We Go Dancing, a more traditional work by Finnish composer Rautavaara, was restful, offering an opportunity to hear the sopranos’ finely crafted notes. There are fine voices here. The men chimed in with rich phrasing, Braun maintaining flow and balance.
Throughout the evening, Frederick Ford projected historical photographs taken by his explorer grandfather on a huge screen. These Arctic images added context and authenticity.
The second half of the program was devoted entirely to Balfour’s suite of eight songs, Medieval Inuit.
Full of sounds of the North, it was a stark and atmospheric portrait of a harsh land populated by a strong people and their first encounters with early explorers.
Huge black flags were waved vigorously, sounding like sails whipping in the wind. Singers made bird-like calls and Alain Guilmette drummed thunderously.
Violist Anne-Élise Lavallée’s vibrant, rich tone was the perfect choice for the grieving, introspective interludes and, when accompanied by wind talking, was truly mesmerizing.
Allakariak sang with glowing strength and spirit in Singing the Story, her arms moving like wings. Cloutier’s drum seemed to float in her hand.
And while programming this as the opener, when many of the novel elements were as yet unheard might have created more of a stir, the crowd loved it and gave Medieval Inuit an enthusiastic standing ovation.