Brunton welcomes acclaimed countertenor

Talented duo considers concept of sanctuary.

The idea of sanctuary and solace is a complex one, and it differs from person to person. This diversity is exactly what Stephen Runge and Daniel Cabena attempted to capture in their recital last week, entitled A Sanctuary in Song.

The talented duo delivered a carefully-curated program of songs for voice and piano accompaniment, as well as a select few solo piano preludes by British composer York Bowen. Although the selections were primarily drawn from late nineteenth and early twentieth century England, together they conveyed a multi-faceted journey through various illustrations of sanctuary and solitude.

I use the word “curated” deliberately, as the exact order of the songs was specifically chosen to convey a thematic progression. Divided into different categories of sanctuary, such as night, home, the sea, and finally, love, the two performers took the audience on a musical tour of human emotion.

The performances began with two pieces that introduced the theme, then moved into three songs depicting “wanderings” in a pastoral setting. As these categories progressed, they became darker and isolating. Moving into what they called “spectral wanderings,” the first half came to a climax with the performance of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “The New Ghost,” a chilling song based on a poem by Fredegond Shove. Although the narrative was quickly resolved with heartwarming songs such as “The Water Mill” and “Linden Lea,” Runge and Cabena demonstrated that sanctuaries can be either places of calm contemplation or spiritual crisis.

A countertenor, Cabena sings in a much higher range than many male vocalists, equivalent to the female vocal ranges of contralto or mezzo-soprano. This gives a soft and comforting tone to Cabena’s voice, which suited many of the evening’s selections. Despite his smooth and flowing tone, one could sense that he was tempering an unrealized vocal power that lurked just below the surface. When the moment most required it, Cabena departed from his usual musical constraint and unleashed the robust character of his voice, such as in his performance of “Drake’s Drum” by Charles Villiers Stanford.

Many of the selections featured in the concert were adaptations of poems or folk songs. The evening favoured performances of works by Ralph Vaughan Williams and Gerald Finzi, who both famously revived British folk songs in the early twentieth century by collecting lyrics and poems and giving them new life.

Cabena also treated the audience to a powerful a cappella performance of “Three Ravens,” a traditional folk ballad from the early seventeenth century. After stepping forward to the edge of the stage, Cabena sang in a prophetic, solemn tone that sent chills down the audience’s backs. He also took long pauses between each verse, drawing out the song and preserving the casual storytelling aspect of traditional oral performance.

The selections also carried religious and spiritual undertones. When introducing the evening’s performances, Cabena asked the audience to imagine a grander “narrative” to the songs, and to picture a pilgrim’s journey and exploration of different forms of personal and spiritual sanctuary.

Both of the evening’s performers are distinguished Canadian musicians. Runge, who is currently the Head of Mount Allison’s Department of Music, has been recognized for both teaching and musical performance. This year, he received the J.E.A. Crake award for excellence in teaching, and he has been broadcast nationally on CBC Radio Two.

Cabena has performed extensively in Canada, Europe and the United States, where his recordings have also been featured in radio broadcasts. His unique countertenor voice has been hailed for its gentle and flowing quality, and he was awarded the Virginia Parker Prize in 2012 from the Canada Council for the Arts. The two will go on to perform A Sanctuary in Song at other locations across Canada, including the University of Guelph and the University of Western Ontario in November.

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