After its major success a year ago, Elise Letourneau is presenting her Requiem for 14 Roses again this Saturday, but in a more intimate and electric arrangement.
Combining both choral and jazz music, the requiem commemorates the 14 women killed in the Montreal Massacre in 1989. That tragedy has continued to resonate in Canada, with the National Arts Centre just recently presenting a play inspired by those events. This week, the requiem received an honourable mention in a major international competition in choral composition.
Its première, on December 6, 2014, recognized the 25th anniversary of the tragedy, and completely filled the 700-seat Knox Presbyterian Church in downtown Ottawa. The intent audience was quiet during the performance, but leaped to its feet in an immediate and extended ovation at the end. It was an sizable production, with 60 musicians on stage, including a 50-voice choir and two soloists.
On Saturday, Letourneau will present the same music, but rearranged into what she calls a “Chamber Electric” version: “Chamber” because it's being presented with only 8 musicians in a smaller church, and “Electric” because it's using instruments with a less traditionally-acoustic sound, and being performed with a more energetic groove.
“Some of it is traditional acoustic instruments that we associate with chamber music, such as the cello and the flute, or the bass. But we're using microphones and we are using a Rhodes piano type of sound – and we're getting a little bit more groovy with it.”
The Juliet Singers – a vocal harmony trio consisting of Letourneau, Rachel Beausoleil, and Kathy Eagan – will sing all the choral parts. Megan Jerome will perform the two long solo pieces sung last year by Sienna Dahlen. And they'll be supported by only four instrumentalists: Mark Ferguson on keyboards, Joan Harrison on cello, René Lavoie on flute, and Normand Glaude on double bass. Most of these musicians were also involved in last year's presentation.
Letourneau said she heard from listeners after last year's concert how moved they were by the music, and how they liked the way “the styles mashed up against each other, as well as the use of the multiple languages: French, English, Latin” in the requiem.
She's keeping that, but she said she's had to do some major rearrangements to have the choral sections sung by only three female voices, instead of a mixed choir of 50.
“So far it seems to be lending itself quite nicely to the trio format, given a lot of tweaking, of course. We ended up slipping the parts around to each other quite a bit, so that no one gets too exhausted in one particular range. In order to do four parts with three singers, sometimes we're just not doing the bass part at all, for example. It might be soprano, alto, tenor. Or sometimes depending on what the harmony is, we might be including some of the bass parts, but an octave higher – again depending on the voicing.”
“Sometimes it's almost like our scores look like Chutes and Ladders in that we've got circles and arrows drawn on all our scores because 'you're going to sing the soprano here and then hop down to the alto, and then when you do that, I'm hopping down to alto, too.' A lot of the time we're jumping around the parts quite a bit in order to get the best possible harmony with only three singers.”
On the other hand, “a trio can turn a lot easier than a 50-voice choir.” The trio have held weekly rehearsals of this music since mid-October, she said – singing it consistently a cappella “so that we can really hear that the harmony is coming through, and that we're singing the notes that make the harmony progress, and not duplicate unnecessarily.”
The only part of last year's presentation that is being dropped is the “Eishet chayil”, the Jewish prayer which pays tribute to “a woman of valour”. In 2014, it was sung by cantor Jeremy Burko, who is no longer in Ottawa.
Letourneau expected the concert would still have the same reverential feel as in 2014. “Probably with the trio, it won't sound as traditionally solemn as a full choir might. But definitely reverent and respectful.”
They'll be performing in the 140-seat Church of the Ascension, in Ottawa East: “a lovely, lovely place, with stained glass windows on four walls and lots of wood. It's done in the Craftsman style. It's a warm resonance, without being boomy.”
Letourneau said that she went for a smaller presentation this year because the 2014 concert was a major undertaking. “It's a lot of work to pull together the services of 60 vocalists and instrumentalists. As well, the budget for that was close to $18,000. It was crowd-sourced up to about $11,000 or $12,000. The rest was a personal risk. I just wasn't up for doing that two years in a row.”
The 2014 concert was recorded by Glaude, and will be released at Saturday's concert as a double CD. The first CD will contain the vocal sections, which Letourneau said “turned out rather nicely. You do get a good sense of the feeling of the live space.”
The second CD contains piano versions of the 14 miniatures which commemorated each of the women killed that day. At the concert, these miniatures were performed on trombone and flugelhorn, but “the circumstances of the evening didn't turn out to be favourable to the horns on the recording”, although the trombones and flugelhorns are still on one of the numbers on the vocal CD. A folio of piano sheet music for the miniatures is also being released on Saturday.
And where would this CD fit in a record store? Is its target market classical or jazz?
“I don't think it's possible to file it under one or the other,” Letourneau said. “I think that there's enough on it to interest people who listen in either category, but I don't think that you can say that this is all one or the other, because it's not! What they need to do is make a crossover category, and that's where it would go.”
Luckily, The American Prize doesn't have that type of genre division. On Monday, the 2015 results were announced in the prize's composition contest (professional choral music division), a major international musical competition with 82 semi-finalists, of which Letourneau was the only Canadian.
She told OttawaJazzScene.ca that she delighted to receive an honourable mention for the Requiem for 14 Roses. This was the third time in three years she had been short-listed in this competition, and her first honourable mention.
Before the results were announced, she had told OttawaJazzScene.ca that it was very gratifying being a semi-finalist “in that this is the biggest piece I've ever worked on, and it was the piece that required the most forethought, the most development, the most creative investment over time, and just keeping the energy through to completion.”
After Saturday's concert, Letourneau said she had lots of “loose ends to tie up of pieces that needed to be finished, or are sketched but they need to be orchestrated and those sorts of things, simply because the requiem has taken so much focus for so long. It's been about two years now.”
She said she was excited about working on something else, and had several possible projects to “pick and choose among as which one I want to start next.”
One continuing project is the Juliet Singers, who first started performing together last summer. They presented a sold-out concert at GigSpace in October, singing the music of Carole King’s “Tapestry” album. That concert was “really well received”, Letourneau said, and the trio will repeat it at GigSpace in February.
Later in the spring, they'll perform a program of Burt Bacharach, whose music she loves because of “the quality of the songwriting, the fact that his songs are so versatile and have been recorded by so many different types of artists. And great harmony.”
Bacharach's songs have been presented as both jazz and popular music. How does Letourneau categorize them?
“They're great songwriting. They defy categorization, I think, in that sense. There's something in them for people who appreciate either style, I feel.”
– Alayne McGregor
The Requiem for 14 Roses will be presented on Saturday, December 5, at 7:30 p.m., at The Church of the Ascension, 253 Echo Drive in Ottawa East. Tickets are $25 at the door or $20 in advance. Advance tickets (and advance purchase of the CD and sheet music folio) are available on-line at www.eliseletourneau.com/music.html. You can buy tickets in person at Alcorn Music Studios, The Leading Note, Wellington Herb & Spice, and Compact Music (Glebe location).
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