I wonder if we’ll ever overcome our tendency to judge people by their musical taste? When I see social media memes that make lofty pronouncements about the Power of Music (common elements: sunset; a violin bow; Mozart; a rose on a grand piano), I know what I’m in for when I get to the comments section: predictable complaints about today’s lousy songs; the ignorant new generation; hip hop; Taylor Swift; heavy metal, etc.

I have no problem with honest snobbery, I just wish snobs would be consistent. If your musical preferences are elevated ones, you can’t stop there – Benjamin Britten and cheeseburgers don’t mix. Your tastes in literature, dance, film, visual art, clothes, food and architecture need to be on the same haute plateau. If you’ve achieved that, congratulations, your superb acumen is beautifully integrated into every aspect of your life. Unfortunately, you’re probably insufferable. More likely, you don’t actually exist.

Here’s the key – snobbery works best in opposition. It’s not enough to like something – what are you, eight? To be a true aesthete you have to hate something as well. Our love of Sondheim’s tart rhymes is made keener by our dismissal of Lloyd Webber’s sugary melodic hooks. Our veneration of Bach requires a good sneer at the burghers who preferred Telemann for the prestigious post at the Leipzig Thomaskirche. We hone our love of Hank Williams by sharpening our disdain for Clint Black. Louis Armstrong vs. Wynton Marsalis? I Can’t Even, as the status updates say.

Lovers of choral music yield to no one in their readiness to indulge in a good love it/hate it status fest. But there are elements of choral culture that mitigate this unfortunate tendency and may make us a little more tolerant than say, indie-rock fans or free improv obsessives.

For one thing, there is a strong amateur aspect to choral music, in both the modern and ancient sense. We usually love what makes us feel good, and the modernist asceticism that produced so much defiantly listener-unfriendly music in the last century made less headway in choral circles than, say, orchestral ones. For another, the kind of singing that takes place in liturgical settings, or even plain old group singalongs, has had its influence on choral composers. And finally, children’s choirs are a main entry point of apprenticeship both for musicians and choral music audiences, and composers who write for them know that their music must be visceral, energetic, and above all, fun.

Unfortunately, choral audiences also have a tendency to stick with what they know, and our preference for familiarity and adherence to the cult of the masterwork means that a good deal of interesting music goes unheard. We’re willing to listen to minutiae and fragments from our musical gods – our love of Mozart’s final musical sketchbook, the Requiem in D Minor, proves that. But coming up this month is an exciting revival of a work by a composer who is familiar to us for only a few pages of his entire musical oeuvre.

2007-Choral-Martin.jpgParry’s Judith: Anyone who has attended a Last Night of the Proms concert knows Sir Charles Hubert Hastings Parry’s Jerusalem, and anyone who’s sung in a church choir knows his “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind.” Parry’s name alone situates him firmly in the 19th century, a time when British imperialism dominated politics and culture. But isn’t that the kind of facile dismissal I deplored above? If music of 18th-century Austria still speaks to us, what about British music from closer to our time, and from a culture that many of us still understand and share?

Parry (1848–1918) had a distinguished career as composer, essayist and teacher. Among other achievements, he wrote some of the first articles in the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, a resource that remains central to music research today. Unlike composers such as Vaughan Williams and Holst, whose music seems to have been able to bridge the gap between the Victorian/Edwardian eras and our own, Parry’s has been ignored or dismissed since his death, surfacing most often in the types of settings mentioned above.

On May 3 at Koerner Hall, Toronto conductor/composer Stephanie Martin and her ensemble, the Pax Christi Chorale, are undertaking the North American premiere of a neglected oratorio by Parry, Judith. First performed to great success in 1888, it tells the biblical story of the heroic Jewish heroine who saves her people by her daring assassination of the Assyrian general Holofernes.

Martin’s interest in the piece turned into something of a quest when she discovered that the orchestral parts for Judith were not available from the original publisher. Assembling a research team and enlisting the help of British Parry scholar Jeremy Dibble, Martin created a performing edition of the score on her own. You can read her thoughts about Judith and its recovery process on her blog, at this address: stephaniemartinmusic.com/judith-at-koerner-hall/. Martin and the Pax Christi Chorale have worked incredibly hard on this historic project – which will also include the first full recording of the work – and I truly hope that they get a strong audience turnout for the performance.

2007-Choral-Rozario.jpgTavener Explored: Another British composer is celebrated in Toronto this month – John Tavener, who died in 2013, almost a century after Parry. On April 16 Soundstreams presents “Song for Athene,” a concert devoted to Tavener’s works, that will also feature music of Jonathan Harvey and Canada’s own Christos Hatzis. David Fallis will lead Choir 21, and Elise Bradley will conduct the Toronto Children’s Chorus. The concert is notable both for the special participation of British soprano Patricia Rozario, a musician who is especially associated with Tavener, and for whom he wrote over 30 works, and for the North American premiere of Tavener’s setting of the Missa Brevis text. For more information see
soundstreams.ca/Song-for-Athene.

Like the Judith concert, I think this exploration of Tavener is an event not to be missed this month. Parry, once celebrated, may be re-emerging from the shadows. Tavener, recently deceased, is greatly popular in choral circles. What will be his fate in the century to come?

Once again, I’m uneasily aware of having neglected many excellent concerts while focusing on just two. Please have a look in the listings and stay informed about what’s taking place this month. In May I will take an in-depth look at the art of a cappella singing. 

Benjamin Stein is a Toronto tenor and lutenist. He can be contacted at choralscene@thewholenote. Visit his website at benjaminstein.ca.

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2006-Choral-Exultate_Chamber_Singers.jpgGoing back to graduate school this year has made me terrified of making declarative statements about music, choirs or pretty much everything else. What I had previously assumed to be safe, boring statements of fact have turned, each and every one,  into points of heated argument.

For instance, previously I would have in all innocence said things like “next week I am going to hear Mozart’s Mass in C Major.” Now, no sooner are the words out of my mouth than I feel compelled to explain   (before someone points it out) that I am actually attending a concert, not a church mass like the one at which Mozart’s music would have first been heard; and that I realize that the C Major chords being sounded will not bear any resemblance to the timbre and tuning of those imagined by Mozart; and that I am aware that the sweeping assumptions about the nature of Time implied by my use of the words “next” and “week” are presumptuous and not provable.

I’m not kidding! Individual words are the subject not just of discussions and articles, but of entire books. Heavily contested terms to both ponder and avoid: “music,” “metre,” “sound,” “sonata,” “Haydn,” “Beyoncé,” etc.

Masses: I mention all this because of the nature of March and April choral concerts, many of which feature musical settings of the Mass, and other sacred texts, to coincide with the Christian holiday of Good Friday and the six-week season of Lent. The last time I was at a traditional church mass was almost 20 years ago at a friend’s wedding. But I have sung in and attended performances of many masses of all types and styles since that time, and that is probably not an uncommon experience, especially for people involved in choral music.

When we hear a concert version of a mass, what is our relationship to the music? Is it a religious experience, an aesthetic one or some kind of combination of the two? How – and why – did Mozart and Haydn become part of a pantheon of classical music demigods, rather than the down-to-earth musical civil servants of the European courts they actually were? (Short answer: it’s kind of Beethoven’s fault, but let’s not get into that now.)

Speaking of Mozart, Haydn and masses, on March 15 Hart House Singers perform Haydn’s Paukenmesse (Mass in Time of War), a crowd-pleaser since its premiere in 1796. And on March 20 and 28 the excellent Exultate Chamber Singers perform “O Be Joyful,” a concert that includes one of my favourite Mozart pieces, his Vesperae Solennes de Confessore K339 (Solemn Vespers), as well as settings of Psalm 100 by Palestrina, di Lasso, Schütz and Mendelssohn. On March 7 Orpheus Choir performs “The Soul’s Journey,” featuring English composer John Rutter’s appealing Requiem setting. The concert also includes a rare opportunity to hear James MacMillan’s Seven Last Words from the Cross. MacMillan is a Scottish composer who has been recorded and performed extensively in the U.K., and it’s great that the OC is making his work available to be heard live. On March 28 Orillia’s Cellar Singers perform “Light Perpetual,” a concert that features Canadian Eleanor Daley’s setting of the Requiem mass as well as Fauré’s celebrated version.

Passions: Passion settings, which describe the events of the Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, also take place this time of year. These are usually settings of the Christian Gospel texts. As with Mass settings, Passions have moved to a concert experience from their original church role.

On March 10 and 11 Toronto Mendelssohn Choir performs Arvo Pärt’s Passio, a setting that at least one critic found too reflective for the savagery and drama of the Passion story. I disagree. Pärt’s version is haunting, and a large group like the TMC can convey the work’s scope and grandeur. Audiences from all over the world have responded enthusiastically to Pärt’s modern take on classical tonal structures. For those who would like to explore his work further, on March 7 and 8 Kitchener’s DaCapo Chamber Choir perform his setting of the Magnificat text in a concert titled “O Earth, Return.”

Bach’s St. John Passionis the textbook example of this genre, and Tafelmusik’s interpretation of this work, performed every few years under the direction of Ivars Taurins, has become something of an institution in the city. Performances this year take place between March 19 to 22. As well as the virtuoso choir and orchestra, the performances offer a chance to hear the acclaimed English tenor Charles Daniels in the role of the Evangelist.

On April  3 The Georgetown Bach Chorale will be performing the same work in their home town. This month there is also an opportunity to hear another noted Bach tenor, Rufus Müller, in Kitchener-Waterloo, in the Grand Philharmonic Chamber Singers performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. This companion piece to the St. John is performed more rarely, in part because of its larger scope and instrumentation needs, but many consider it Bach’s greatest choral work.

Personal: I try not to use this column to mention any concert in which I’m taking part, but I have to make an exception for the Metropolitan Festival Choir’s “The Grace of Mourning: Music for Good Friday” on April 3. Along with the crowd-pleasing Fauré Requiem and German Romantic composer Josef Rheinberger’s Stabat Mater, the MFC is performing a rare work that merits the interest of choral aficionados, Hugo Distler’s haunting Totentanz (Dance of Death). Distler was a German composer of great courage and principle, who actually committed suicide rather than be drafted into the German army during WWII. His musical language borrows from the Lutheran motet tradition that extends from Bach back to composers like Schütz, Schein and Eccard. Borrowing rhythmic and modal elements from this 16th- and 17th-century repertoire, Distler’s music offsets the harsh austerity of the text with great empathy and compassion.

Quickly: Two younger choirs deserve your attention and support in upcoming concerts. On March 15 That Choir performs “That Choir: Unplugged,” with choral versions of music by Pentatonix, Mumford & Sons and Imogen Heap, among others. And on March 28 the Univox Choir performs “Kühl/Caliente,” a concert in support of Doctors without Borders.

The Vienna Boys Choir is a venerable choral institution well-established for crowd-pleasing concerts and enjoyable repertoire. They are performing in Midland on March 24, Guelph and Brampton March 25,  Burlington March 26, Kingston March 27 and St. Catharines March 28.

And finally, a special note: this month the Elora Festival Singers will be travelling to New York to perform at Carnegie Hall. They will be performing a sneak preview of their program on March 8 in Elora.

Benjamin Stein is a Toronto tenor and lutenist. He can be contacted at choralscene@thewholenote.com. Visit his website at benjaminstein.ca.

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2005_-_Beat_-_Choral_-_Da_Capo_Choir.pngThis column starts out with information about a few choirs from outside of the GTA, interspersed with several concerts that have a Latin or Mediterranean theme. If you think this might indicate a hidden desire to be anywhere but Toronto in February , even if it’s only halfway sunny and pleasant –  you would most likely be right. Here are a few listings which even if they don’t warm you up, will at least keep you moving!

On February 7 London, Ontario’s Karen Schuessler Singers perform their annual singathon. The concert is a fundraiser and will feature special guest conductors from the London area. More information can be found here: kssingers.com.

On February 13 the Upper Canada Choristers hold a concert titled “Music of the Americas,” to help launch a CD of the same name. This community ensemble was founded in 1994, and since 2008 has begun to specialize in music of Latin America, in addition to other international repertoire. This concert will feature Cantemos, a chamber ensemble drawn from members of the UCC. The CD features music from Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Uruguay, Venezuela, Costa Rica, Cuba, Jamaica, the U.S. and Canada, sung in Spanish, Portuguese, Latin and English. More information is available at
uppercanadachoristers.org.

On February 28, the Peterborough Singers perform “Soul,” in honour of Black History Month. The choir combines with an instrumental ensemble and vocal soloists to explore the great rhythm and blues works of Motown (Detroit), Philadelphia, Memphis and New Orleans soul writers and composers. This is some of the best popular music created in the last century, but it tends to be avoided by many Canadian choirs, perhaps because they often Break It when they try to Shake It, so to speak. It’s good to see a choral ensemble taking it on.

Also on February 28, St. Catharines’ Chorus Niagara performs “Life Eternal: The Requiems of Mozart and Rutter.” Mozart’s famous D-Minor Requiem is paired with English composer John Rutter’s tune-filled modern setting of the same text.

On March 1 Dundas, Ontario’s John Laing Singers perform “Poet’s Corner 2: Songs of Faith, Hope and Love.” The concert provides an opportunity to hear a rarely performed (around here, anyhow) choral work by Italian composer Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Romancero Gitano. Castelnuovo-Tedesco is perhaps best known for his guitar compositions, which were championed by Spanish classical guitar legend Andrés Segovia. He was also a prolific film composer, and his works are very energetic, accessible and redolent with Spanish-inflected musical gestures. Romancero Gitano sets the words of Spanish poet and political martyr Federico García Lorca, and is scored for chorus and classical guitar, a rare combination.

On March 7 and 8 the Kitchener/Waterloo-based DaCapo Chamber Choir performs "O Earth, Return." This ensemble specializes in unaccompanied music of the 20th century, with a special focus on Canadian repertoire. They sponsor a competition for new compositions every year, and a work by Matthew Emery, the 2014 winner, Night on a Starry Hill, will be premiered at the concert. Popular composer Arvo Pärt’s Magnificat setting will also be performed. The two performances are held in Kitchener and Waterloo respectively.

Back in Toronto, on March 7 the Jubilate Singers perform “Rhythm Fusions,” a concert featuring British composer Bob Chilcott’s Little Jazz Mass, American Norman Luboff’s African Mass and Swede Lars Jansson’s To The Mothers In Brazil: Salve Regina. The JS’s conductor, Isabel Bernaus, is a good programmer of world music, and the work of all three composers is infused with a lively knowledge of that genre.

And here are more listings, just to prove that I am not neglecting Toronto ensembles, filled with hardy choristers who brave the elements to faithfully attend rehearsals every week:

On March 1 the Toronto Classical Singers perform “Music from Two Great Rivals.” The concert features Antonio Salieri’s Mass No.1 in D and the Mozart D-Minor Requiem.

The purported rivalry between Mozart and his older contemporary Antonio Salieri is one of the many myths that has become part of the Mozartian legend since his death in 1791. This particular myth has its roots in the dramatic poem by Russian writer Alexander Pushkin, Mozart and Salieri published in 1830. But it was British playwright Peter Shaffer’s 1979 play Amadeus that gave us the modern image of the vulpine older composer, consumed with jealousy over the accomplishments of his younger colleague, planning his murder and plotting to steal his brilliant compositions.

The reality is more prosaic – Salieri was only six years older than Mozart, one of the many Viennese composers that Mozart had to compete with for the attention, approbation and patronage of the Austrian aristocracy. Italian by birth, he was a successful opera composer who also has the distinction of teaching Schubert, Beethoven and Liszt. He was a rival to Mozart, in a professional rather than a dramatic sense, but there is also evidence that he and Mozart had a friendly and collegial relationship. Still, if their rivalry is ultimately just a story, it’s a great one, and Shaffer’s Amadeus explores the gap between talent and genius that is part of Mozart’s enduring mystery.

Several of Salieri’s operas have been restaged in recent times, and his Mass in D is worth a listen on its own terms, rivalries and legends aside. The galant style that he was trained in (as were Mozart, Haydn and J.C. Bach) had been imported from Italy to the rest of Europe, and as we explore less venerated or even forgotten composers from that era, we gain new and different insights into how to play and understand this musical tradition.

The University of Toronto music faculty has new music concerts and lectures taking place throughout the months of February and March. On February 8 the Faculty’s Men’s Chorus and MacMillan Singers will perform a contemporary showcase featuring U of T student composers, emerging Canadian composers Matthew Emery and Patrick Murphy and veteran choral masters Steven Chatman and Bob Chilcott.

Another concert of contemporary music to watch out for is Warrior Songs on March 6. The Elmer Iseler Singers perform this new work by Canadian Peter Togni. Warrior Songs takes as its theme the idea of being a “warrior for non-aggression” and explores texts from Buddhism, Malcolm X and the Roman Catholic Liturgy. Togni has had a distinguished career creating work that is both accessible and complex.

Benjamin Stein is a Toronto tenor and lutenist. He can be contacted at choralscene@thewholenote.com. Visit his website at
benjaminstein.ca.

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The term “Christmas carol” has become a kind of catchall for a multifarious group of songs from many parts the world and about 500 years of history. These songs emerge from hiding once a year, saturate our brains like an aural snowstorm and then retreat to their lairs for another ten months.

Christmas music, much of it beautiful, serene and profound, is commonly used by stores of all types to attempt to move product and it’s not surprising that people’s frustration with the hard sell becomes anger at the music itself. I’m not blaming the businesses, who have their own bills to pay, but carols really ought to be for singing, not for shopping. This is where choirs have a crucial role, because as I’ve written in the past, carol concerts are one of the few areas left in modern life where audiences of non-musicians are invited to participate in music making.

Christmas saturation brings with it musical anachronism, as carol singers hired for the holidays often find themselves wandering through 21st century malls, dressed up in garb that is meant to evoke late 19th-century England, while warbling tunes written by an American composer from Pennsylvania in 1951. Here’s a quick guide to help you differentiate one Christmas song from another.

Carols. Rarer than you’d think, carols are thought to have originated from dances; the words were sometimes cadged from pre-Christian sources and retro-fitted to coincide with Christmas celebrations. There were carols for all seasonal and liturgical occasions of the year, and it is only in the last couple of centuries that carolling became solely associated with Christmas. Carols often tell stories, have lively rhythms and a directness of expression that has actually caused church authorities to ban them on occasion. “The Holly and the Ivy,” with its pagan imagery and dancelike tempo, might be considered a true carol.

Christmas Hymns. Often mistaken for carols, Christmas hymns tend to be grander, statelier, with more ornate and even stuffy language. The classic familiar ones were often written by professional priests and clerics, such as Wesley’s “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” At their best, such as in the work of John Goss (“See Amid the Winter’s Snow”), Christmas hymns combine brilliant lyrics with pellucid song composition.

Christmas Anthems. Compositions with a Christmas theme, often composed or arranged specifically for choral performance, and not meant for group singing. Benjamin Britten’s Ceremony of Carols and much of the work of John Rutter fall into this category.

Christmas Songs. This is almost an entirely American,20th-century phenomenon that exploded with the rise of recording technology. Like hymns, Christmas songs tend to tell us what we ought to be feeling, albeit from a secular perspective: excitement, anticipation, togetherness, as opposed to religious fervour. It’s hard to contest the sentiment, but after weeks of it, you start to feel like you’re being beaten on the head with a soft pillow; it doesn’t really hurt, but you wish it would stop. I wonder if the depressed feelings that many experience around Christmas time has to do in part with the gap between the Christmas song paradigm and the reality of credit bills and feuding relatives?  Nonetheless, at their best all four categories of Christmas song contain works of genius. As I pointed out in an earlier column, Christmas has become a big pan-cultural party that can reasonably be enjoyed by people of all backgrounds.

On to the concerts: I’m going to assume that the readers of this column need no urging from me to find a Messiah performance or a carol singalong this time of year, and so will instead focus on some concerts that take an unusual angle, as well as looking ahead at the post-Christmas concert scene in the new year.

Trinity Pageant: There are many pageants and Lessons and Carols services being held this year at churches and civic centres – please check the listings for events in your area. The Christmas pageant mounted by the downtown Church of the Holy Trinity (just behind Eaton Centre) is a cultural event that has proved so popular over the years that the pageant runs into repeat performances, taking place at various times between December 12 and 21.

Briggs’ Snowman: On December 7 the Bach Children’s Chorus joins Orchestra Toronto for a concert that features the animated film The Snowman , with live musical accompaniment by the orchestra and choir. The film is based on the celebrated book by English illustrator Raymond Briggs. Briggs’ trademark combination of gentle imagery and dark, disturbing themes is a welcome antidote to more sugary Christmas entertainments. The concert also features the premiere of Canadian Dean Burry’s A Hockey Cantata. Burry’s work for children is accessible without being pandering, and this concert is highly recommended.

Choral 26

Brother Heinrich: On a similar note, on Dec 20 the Toronto Children’s Chorus will perform A Chorus Christmas: Ceremonial Splendour. a concert that includes John Rutter’s enjoyable choral fable, Brother Heinrich’s Christmas, about the 14th-century Dominican mystic Heinrich Seuse, thought to be responsible for composing the famous macaronic carol In Dulci Jubilo. The piece is narrated by legendary actor/writer Gordon Pinsent.

Coro San Marco was founded in 1995 by Toronto residents who hail from Italy’s Veneto region (the area around Venice). On December 6 they perform their Advent/Christmas concert, with a selection of Christmas songs from around the world.

Victoria Scholars:  On December 19 and 21 this chamber choir of men’s voices, perform Yuletide on the Cool Canadian Side, a concert of carols arranged by Canadian composers.

Echo Women’s Choir: The ancient concept of the Divine Feminine came to the fore in the last century, as a spiritual conjunct to the struggles for women’s rights that were carried out under the banner of modern feminism. Male-centered aspects of monotheistic worship in Christian and other religions have been challenged and reassessed, and the spiritual insights and strengths of female religious leaders, thinkers, mystics and composers have become part of our modern discussion. On December 7 the Echo Women’s Choir perform The Divine Feminine, a concert that includes music by the12th-century German composer Hildegard von Bingen.

This concert is also notable for a rare appearance by the co-founders of Stringband, Marie-Lynn Hammondand Bob Bossin. Toronto audiences born before the Beatles first album came out may remember Stringband well from a series of celebrated albums from the 1970s, as well as their many club, concert and folk festival appearances.

Bossin and Hammond are two of the most skilled songwriters to come out of the first wave of the Canadian modern folk music movement. Bossin writes in a deliberately political and historical manner, taking politics and cultural issues as subjects for his clever and amusing songs. Hammond’s work is more introspective, mining her family history, in particular her mixed French and English background, for truths found amidst the conflicts and encounters that are part of the Canadian experience. Hammond is based in Toronto, but Bossin now lives on the West Coast, and any chance to see these two folk legends perform together is not to be missed.

A Grand “Midsummer”: Looking ahead to the new year, on January 16 and 17 the Grand Philharmonic Choir Female Chorus joins the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony Orchestra for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” a concert title which in January is going to seem either like wishful thinking or rubbing it in. But the music selection is excellent: Vaughan Williams’ Serenade to Music; Mendelssohn’s famous incidental music for the above play and selections from Purcell’s The Fairy Queen. Purcell never set Shakespeare’s poetry, but The Fairy Queen has great moments of humour, pathos and the composer’s peerless text settings.

Tafelmusik Orchestra and Chamber Choir present a Beethoven double bill from January 22 to 25. The orchestra plays Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, and then are joined by the choir for his Mass in C. Guest conducting is the Montreal Symphony Orchestra’s Kent Nagano.

Both pieces were written in the first decade of the 19th century. The Mass in C was composed for the Austrian ruler Prince Nikolaus Esterházy  II in 1807, and has the classical structure of liturgical works composed by Mozart and Haydn under similar conditions and royal patronage. At the premiere there was a scene – the prince was not sufficiently appreciative of the piece, perhaps -- and Beethoven left the concert venue in a fury, a breach of royal protocol that would have been unthinkable, and professionally fatal, to the older composers mentioned above. Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony captures unforgettably the spirit that led the composer to assert his humanity and freedom against the patronage system to which most European composers had been forced to submit for centuries. 

Benjamin Stein is a Toronto tenor and lutenist. He can be contacted at choralscene@thewholenote.com. Visit his website at benjaminstein.ca.

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beat - choral 1This year is the centenary of the First World War, which began in June 1914. We commemorate the 1918 armistice date of November 11, commonly known as Remembrance Day, with a mixture of hope and horror, knowing now that what was called “the war to end all wars” was merely the beginning of the bloodiest hundred years in recorded history.

WWI was the century’s grimmest – and last – example of the confluence of 19th-century battle tactics with 20th-century industrial weaponry. The carnage that resulted came about in part because soldiers and their leaders alike clung to a notion of bravery under fire that lost its meaning in the metal rain and poison air that the new weapons created.

In wartime, music brings solace for the devastated, becomes a marshalling tool for further conflict, and on occasion, strengthens those voices raised in protest and in question against the imperatives of war. Phil Ochs wrote at the height of the USA’s conflict in Vietnam, “It’s always the old to lead us to the war/It’s always the young to fall.”

Several concerts commemorate the bravery and sacrifice of all who served, and lived and died, and endured during that time. For others not mentioned here, please consult the listings.

On November 8 and 9 the DaCapo Chamber Choir performs three elegiac works in a concert titled “There Will be Rest.” The repertoire includes Barber’s Agnus Dei (the choral setting of his famous Adagio for Strings) Elgar’s Lux Aeterna, and Canadian Eleanor Daley’s Requiem setting.

On November 9 That Choir also performs Eleanor Daley’s Requiem, as well as works by Whitacre, Mealor, Clausen, Górecki and Runestad.

On November 11 the Orpheus Choir performs “The End of Innocence: Readings, music and images in commemoration of the centenary of the Great War.” Conductor Robert Cooper states, “WWI was a turning point for Canada, transitioning from a British colony to nationhood. We want our audience to feel that emotional experience with a greater appreciation of Canada’s impact in the First World War, through the medium that we so value – choral music.” The concert includes texts from the Canadian archives, read by actors, to recreate the voices of soldiers and nurses serving on the front lines, and their family and friends reaching out to them from home.

Vespers: The phrase “Setting the Mass” is something of a classical composer’s shorthand for the much longer “daring to claim your place amongst the pantheon of the greats by setting the same texts they did.” The Latin Mass text is considered by many the greatest test of a composer’s sensitivity to text and command of musical form.

A close second to the Mass text is the Vespers, the set of prayers intoned during evening services, most often within Catholic, Orthodox and Lutheran churches. These prayers draw together disparate elements of Christian worship, combining the Magnificat from the Gospel of Luke with Latin translations of psalms from the Hebrew Scriptures.

These Hebrew texts normally have appended to them a Gloria Patri – glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost – which can make an English translation of the complete prayer jarring from a Jewish point of view. And yes, this paragraph is what is known as a kvetch.

But I digress. The Vespers texts have elicited beautiful settings by composers over the centuries – Mozart wrote two settings that I prefer to all his masses. But the setting that has emerged as a masterwork comparable to the canon of mass settings of the common practice era is Monteverdi’s Vespro della Beata Vergine 1610.

Because there is little information about the 1610 Vespers, as it is commonly known, we have no idea how, or even if, the work was ever performed. Its offbeat structure and orchestration has led to speculation that the piece was a kind of compositional resume, used to show ecclesiastical patrons what kind of work Monteverdi was capable of executing. In any case, it is a stunning group of compositions, and a chance to hear it live is not to be missed.

On November 25 Soundstreams will pair Monteverdi’s vespers setting with one by Canadian composer Gilles Tremblay. Tremblay is a modernist of the old school, if one can make such a formulation. He studied under Messiaen in Paris, and attended the famous Darmstadt school, meeting with and influenced by Boulez, Stockhausen and Xenakis. Tremblay’s work extends and maintains an important stream of 20th-century compositional endeavour.

Based in Quebec, Tremblay maintained his European connections, and in 1986 his Les Vèpres de la Vierge was commissioned to celebrate the 850th anniversary of France’s Notre-Dame de Sylvanès Abbey. For further concert details see soundstreams.ca/Vespers.

beat - choral 2Christmas: Christmas concerts are starting in November this year, most likely in an attempt not to have to fight for audience share in the crowded December field. Pecksniffian types might deplore this, but these are the same people who object to seeing Halloween costumes hawked during the summer. Come on – when is there a wrong time to try on costumes and stock up on chocolate? Same thing with Christmas carols and egg nog. I say, go for it. Christmas has gone right back to its ancient winter solstice roots, becoming a rollicking bacchanalia of food, drink, and reckless spending. May as well start in November, ’cause once January hits we’ve got a good three months of frigid misery to look forward to. Hell, I’m lobbying for Christmas partying to begin at the end of September – who’s with me? Anyhow, here are some November concerts to get you in the mood, and some December events that will take place too early to list in next month’s column.

On November 28 and 29 Oakville’s Tempus Choral Society performs “Songs for a Winter’s Eve,” an eclectic program including selections from Vaughan Williams’ Dona Nobis Pacem, early baroque composer Caccini’s setting of the Ave Maria text and folk legend Gordon Lightfoot’s tender Song for a Winter’s Night.

For those interested in further Canadian content – and yes, that should be every single one of us, at any time of the year – the Exultate Chamber Singers perform “A Canadian Noël” on December 5. The concert sounds fun and folksy – works by Canadian composers, Christmas stories from singers in the ensemble and an audience carol sing-along.

On November 29 and 30 Orangeville’s Achill Choral Society performs “The Glory of Christmas.” This concert provides a rare opportunity to hear the work of opera composer Giacomo Puccini in another setting. Puccini’s setting of the Mass text, commonly known as the Messa di Gloria, was written early in his career. It was unpublished during his lifetime but has since been revived and has been recorded and performed many times.

The Jubilate Deo (glory to God) text, originally the Hebrew Psalm 100, is another poem that has inspired composers from many eras and locales. On November 29 the Jubilate Singers use their own name as inspiration for “World Jubilate,” performing settings of this psalm and other seasonal songs.

On November 30 the Healey Willan Singers perform “A Garland of Carols.” The afternoon will feature Britten’s popular A Ceremony of Carols, a work that demonstrates perfectly Britten’s Mozartian ability to wed formal coherence to a series of great tunes.

J.S. Bach’s Weihnachtsoratorium, or Christmas Oratorio, is another masterwork that was likely never performed in one sitting (cf. the 1610 Vespers discussion above) during the composer’s lifetime. Bach composed six cantatas to be performed at different church services during the Christmas season, retrofitting new lyrics to pre-existing music that he had composed for other cantatas. With many composers, this would be a recipe for chaos, but not for Bach, who could create order in a bowl of rice krispies. The Weihnachtsoratorium is a beautifully conceived work, gentle and celebratory by turns, with an unparalleled unity of text, melody and form. On November 22 and 23 the Masterworks of Oakville Chorus and Orchestra perform parts 1 to 3 of the Christmas Oratorio.

Also, on November 28 the Bach Consort will perform the work in its entirety, in their concert titled “Giving Bach to the Community.” Players from the Toronto Symphony and Canadian Opera Company orchestras will join Mississauga Festival Chamber Choir; proceeds from the event will be shared among various downtown charities.

Benjamin Stein is a Toronto tenor and lutenist. He can be contacted at choralscene@thewholenote.com. Visit his website at benjaminstein.ca.

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