Most of us have experienced fine theatre at the Shaw Festival, but recently I discovered the other great cultural gem in town: the Music Niagara Festival.
In its 21st season, Music Niagara has built a strong reputation by presenting a broad range of musical genres, performed by award-winning talent from Canada and around the world.
With 29 concerts over a fairly short festival season (July 14 to Aug. 10), I’m working my way through the schedule with an eye to broadening my selections.
At the top of my list is Countermeasure, the internationally acclaimed a cappella group that is headlining the festival’s opening gala on July 14.
A cappella as a genre is experiencing a huge resurgence in popularity and being embraced by everyone, from millennials (who think it is new and hip), to adults of all ages.
I asked Aaron Jensen (artistic director) and J-M Erlendson (general manager) of Countermeasure what makes their group special, and how they’ve managed to redefine a cappella performance so well in Canada and internationally.
Erlendson told me there are many reasons for the rebirth of a cappella but the most important one is fundamental. “There is something so human and disarming about the voice; it is a direct line into people’s hearts, with singers standing in front of you, sharing a piece of themselves that is incomparable to instrumental music. Artists are leaning into that…and audiences are coming back to see and feel what it is like to be human on stage.”
“When you work with a band, you know the instruments you have,” award-winning composer/arranger Jensen added. “When you work with a cappella everyone’s a synthesizer and you can do anything, all with the turn of a voice. A large percentage of our audiences aren’t a cappella followers, they’re just lovers of music that touches them.”
If the voice becomes the instrument, I asked, how does this affect the sound, and what genres can we expect to hear.
“All of our music has a spirited jazz background to it, even though we cover a range of styles, pulling from many different genres including pop music, jazz, contemporary, choral, soul and gospel moments, and even hard-hitting songs in the rock vein,” Erlendson explained. “Within the overarching genres there are pieces pulled from Bruce Cockburn or Cole Porter, and even the sounds of James Brown and urban jungle beats. When we perform old songs and soul standards we conjure up a different decade with a fresh sound, a different spin that makes it feel modern and new.”
“Half of our repertoire is original with a lot of pieces constructed specifically for our singers, Jensen added. “We have been making music together for 10 years, so we can write for specific skills and performers. There are 13 members in the group. Sometimes they’re all onstage together and a song can have as many as 20 different parts happening concurrently (through looping), creating a complex wall of sound. And then we’ll trim it down with only five on stage for an intimate moment.”
Countermeasure has become an international phenomenon and will launch their latest album in Tokyo in August, 2019. Erlendson ended our conversation on a high note. “People always tell us they walk away having gained something special from our concert experience,” he said.
Also featured at MNF next week, I’m looking forward to seeing Paris Connection: The Odin String Quartet, with appearances by renowned pianist Victoria Kogan and festival artistic director Atis Bankas on violin.
The full programming line-up and ticket sales can be found at musicniagara.org.