Open Ears, Open Minds

Over the course of the 2013/14 concert season I wrote several columns about the challenge that choirs face when programming new music: how to get audiences to risk the price of a ticket on repertoire that is not tried and true, safe and familiar.

One final observation to sum up this theme, before the summer break: most new music for choral ensembles that is not strictly popular falls into the category of “extended tonality.” What exactly is extended tonality?

Twentieth-century music can be viewed as a kind of pitched battle between composers whose work dispensed with the idea that music ought to have a key centre that could help orient the listener and composers who kept elements of traditional harmony and melody even when they were venturing into more experimental territory. The so-called “Second Viennese School” – Schoenberg, Berg, Webern – who began writing what is confusedly known as atonal music and later composers that built on their work, such as Babbitt, Boulez and Stockhausen, are examples of the former, Stravinsky, Britten and Shostakovich, of the latter.

There were many other categories, sub-genres and trends, but very broadly, these were the two opposing camps of musical endeavour that emerged out of the European classical tradition.

Extended tonality won.

1909 Choral

It won in the sense that younger composers generally did not pick up on the atonal experiment in music, and this musical strain now appears to be going the way of cool jazz and the songs of the German meistersingers – intellectually-driven styles that ran aground and seem to have little current appeal to revivalists. Late 20th-century composers did not want to leave behind rock, jazz and world music, influences that operate almost entirely in a tonal framework. Their insistence on integrating these influences in their music placed them firmly in the tradition of earlier composers who had  integrated various types of popular music into their sophisticated compositions.

What does this mean for listeners? Looking at this year’s new composition programming in retrospect, I can state that none of it was music that ought to have sent anyone but the most timid listeners screaming for the exit. So, are you willing to take a chance on something new, knowing that it is not likely to be that weird?

Speaking as someone who will order fish and chips for lunch, dinner or breakfast if possible, I hesitate to be overly judgemental about anyone’s musical menu choices. But it’s time to recognize that we’re living in an era in which composers are reaching out to listeners with alacrity as well as skill and insight. We’re well past the point at which we should be thinking of new music with hostility. So I hope you’ll give some of it a chance this summer, and in the new season as well. Below is a selection of concerts taking place from June to August.

The Ontario Youth Choir was founded in 1971 by the choral organization Choirs Ontario. TheOYC quickly became a vital instrument for generating enthusiasm for choral music among young singers, and for providing an important bridge between children’s choirs and adult ensembles. Each summer 40 talented young singers are auditioned and selected to take part in two weeks of rehearsals, masterclasses and voice lessons, culminating in a short three-city cross-Ontario tour and several concerts. The ensemble is conducted by a different Ontario director each summer. This year Guelph University’s Dr. Marta McCarthy leads the OYC in concerts in Toronto and Midland.

The Open Ears Festival is a great event to attend for those interested in new music – it’s one of my favourite new music festivals around, in part because it always conveys a sense of fun and irreverence in its programming. The Da Capo Chamber Choir will be taking part in the festival with concerts on June 7 and 8. For more information about the festival in general, see          

On June 8 and 14 the Kokoro Singers will be performing inGuelph and Dundas, respectively. Their concert “Celebration of Canadian Composers” features several composers – Mark Sirett, Donald Patriquin and Stephen Chatman among them – who are the most listener-friendly in the country. If you’re looking to ease your way into new music, this is a very good place to start.

On June 11 the Hamilton Children’s Choir performs “Together as One”; the concert is in support of the choir’s tour to Korea.

On June 20 the Adelphi Vocal Ensemble performs“Music for St. John’s Eve,” a concert of English choral music that includes Vaughan Williams’ Mass in G Minor, as well as selections by Tallis and early-20th century composers Harwood and Naylor. The Vaughan Williams mass is an appealing and historically important work that is always worth hearing live.

Speaking of historically significant, this summer Ontarians have two chances to hear the Choir of Trinity College Cambridge. This ensemble dates as far back as the 14th century and has past associations with important composers and conductors. The choir will be performing at the Elora Festival on July 13 and at the Westben Arts Festival on July 19.

On June 7 and 8 the University of Waterloo’s Conrad Grebel University College choirs will perform “Sound in the Land: Music and the Environment: Kalahari Journey,” a choral initiative that is part of a larger environmental project to understand the nature of the earth through the medium of sound. The event involves workshops, lectures and events as well as concerts. More information can be found at 

Finally, check out the Festival of the Sound in Parry Sound for performances of Rachmaninoff’s Vespers by the Elora Festival Singers on July 29 and of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony by the Elmer Isler Singers on August 10. The Elora Festival Singers will also be performing several exciting-sounding concerts at their own festival, notably David Fanshawe’s celebrated African Sanctus on July 12. 

Benjamin Stein is a Toronto tenor and lutenist. He can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..">This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Visit his website at

What’s That Whistling Sound?

1908-ChoralThat whistling sound you heard this week might have been an entire city breathing a sigh as the last vestiges of this wretched winter – which lasted well into April – finally passed away and we all unclenched our shoulders from around our ears. (On the other hand it might have been the sound of more than 120 choirs flocking to this month’s Canary Pages – see page 29 – something that has become an annual rite of passage for choirs in this part of the world.)

As usual, Toronto came in for lots of scorn from Canadians this year for not being tough enough to withstand winter conditions that other parts of the country would consider mild, or at least normal.

For these folk, I have five words: “Union Station at rush hour.” By the end of the winter, the Canadian military had recruiters stationed on the subway platform ready to enlist the winners of the trench warfare that took place at Union every day. Nobody’s tougher than Torontonians. Or meaner, after this winter; out-of-towners, you’re warned.

This year’s spring concerts are likely to combine triumph and relief in equal measure. There are many choices to be found in the listings; below are several.

Spring-Themed Concerts: On May 4 the Etobicoke Youth Choir performs their spring concert, entitled “Why We Sing.”

On May 10 the Toronto Swedish Singers perform their “Annual Spring Concert.” The evening includes a selection of Swedish and Nordic music. I confess that this group is new to me – I hope to find them in these pages in the future.

Also on May 10, the Toronto Welsh Male Voice Choir performs their “Spring Gala Concert.”

The Echo Women’s Choir performs “Singing! Here! Now!” on May 11, with an eclectic program that includes folk music from China, the Balkans and Ukraine.

On May 31 the St. Elizabeth Scola Cantorum Hungarian Choir performs their spring concert, which includes Schubert’s Mass in G and works by Hungarian composer Zoltán Kodály.

Festivals: Jewish Music Week in Toronto, May 18 to 25, is the brainchild of Aliza Spiro. In its fourth year, it is increasingly attracting the attention of Toronto audiences and the many Jewish musicians in the city who welcome the opportunity to showcase their talents and artistic projects.

There are many excellent solo performers and ensembles participating in this festival. Choral ensembles include Lachan Jewish Chamber Choir, taking part in a free May 19 concert, “Vocals for Victoria Marathon,” at Nathan Phillips Square.

The Lirit Singers, perform in “Music of Milton Barnes” on May 20. Barnes was a Jewish-Canadian composer whose approachable music, rooted in jazz and traditional Jewish sources, continues to be performed by many performers and ensembles.

More information about this event can be found at

SING! The Toronto Vocal Arts Festival: May 30 to June 1,is an intensive weekend of a cappella vocal music. Taking place at Harbourfront, it is a well-curated eclectic mix of choirs, smaller vocal ensembles and soloists. Choirs performing during the weekend include the Cantemus Singers and Cawthra Park Chamber Choir, Pax Christi Chorale, That Choir and Hamilton Children’s Choir.

On May 31, a number of these ensembles will take part in a concert devoted to the music of R. Murray Shafer. Later on the afternoon of the same day, several of the vocal ensembles and soloists from the festival will sing musical accompaniment to a selection of National Film Board of Canada short films. NFB shorts, most famously the works of Norman McLaren, are renowned among film aficionados and have won awards all over the world.

More information about the festival schedule can be found at

Women in Music:Preparing for an exam, one of my students remarked on the almost complete absence of female composers in the repertoire syllabus. Stumbling to explain why this might be the case well into the 21st century, with the amount of historical resources now available, I pondered uneasily the degree to which the educational canon in music often lags behind the initiative taken by performers. There is plenty of music available written by women, currently and from past centuries, and this should be reflected in student as well as concert repertoire.

On May 24 the Jubilate Singers present “Inspire! music by Canadian women.” The program includes works by familiar and established composers Eleanor Daley, Stephanie Martin, Suba Sankaran, and Shelley Marwood, a musician currently pursuing a graduate degree in composition who is beginning to fulfill commissions for ensembles across Canada.

For an historical take on female composers, consider the Voices Chamber Choir’s “Go, Lovely Rose” on June 7. The concert includes works by Hildegard von Bingen, Fanny Hensel, Imogen Holst, Ruth Watson Henderson and others. Fanny Hensel was Felix Mendelssohn’s sister; Imogen Holst was the daughter of Gustav Holst. Both women had rich and varied musical careers; I’d encourage both choral audiences and students interested in the subject to explore their compositions.

War and Struggle:2014 is the centenary of the start of the First World War. Remembrance ceremonies will begin in earnest in the summer, but several choirs have spring concerts with themes of battle and memory. Music was of tremendous importance in both world wars – music to inspire, music to galvanize, to bolster, comfort and commemorate. There is a rich legacy of compositions that choirs can draw upon.

On May 10 the Peterborough Singers perform Maurice Duruflé’s Requiem and Welsh composer Karl Jenkins’ The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace.

On May 31 Barrie’s King Edward Choir performs “KEC Remembers: Songs of Love, Loss and Victory!” The concert includes songs, letters and poetry that commemorate the lives of those lost 100 years ago in World War I.

On June 7 Kingston’s North Lakeshore Mass Chorus performs “Till the Boys Come Home,” also a tribute to those who served.

Finally, a shout-out to another Toronto ensemble that has slipped under my radar in the past. On May 31 the French-themed Ensemble vocal Les voix du coeur performs “Quand on chante, on a toujours 20 ans” (When you sing, you’re always 20 years old). The concert is comprised of popular French songs from different parts of the world. The program is given at 2pm and 8pm.

Benjamin Stein is a Toronto tenor and lutenist. He can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..">This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..
Visit his website at

“Youthful” Assumptions

choralscene paxAnyone involved in arts work knows the importance of involving youth in art’s survival. So how does one generation pass on its interests and traditions to the next? A method often employed by well-meaning over 30s is to solicit ideas and suggestions from the young. The assumption is that such ideas must be indicative of future trends that the cautious elderly would do well to heed.

The problem with this method as Canadian author Robertson Davies once observed is that rather than being open-minded, children and teens can be notably conservative, insisting on strict protocols of behaviour, discourse, gender roles and physical appearance.

When very young we grasp for certainty out of a lack of knowledge or experience, and move towards innovation and experimentation as our understanding and confidence grow. New art is created within the uncomfortable nexus between embracing and rejecting what has been learned.

True, suppressed conservative attitudes in both art and politics often re-emerge as people get older (with notable, or brave, or nutty exceptions), but neither conservatism and liberalism, artistic or otherwise, is really tied to age. True open-mindedness is a rare quality and is often limited to specific areas. There’s no guarantee that a liberal attitude to politics, religion, even food (not to mention more transgressive entertainments), will be accompanied by a liberal attitude towards music or other art forms.

The problem for the choir director, or any teacher of music, is to strike a balance between imparting past traditions and striking into new territory. The question of when to lead, and when to be led by, youthful suggestions can be perplexing. The most cutting-edge art often dates the most quickly, and a choir director can be forgiven for wondering if having the bass section beatbox to a Lorde hit is really the right choice.

There are a number of children’s and youth ensembles performing this month; their performances are referenced a little further on in the column.  Judge for yourself if their work represents the wave of the future, a familiar continuation of the past, or the usual elusive mix of both.

First though, a note on some less than usual fare.


On April 5 the Larkin Singers perform “Modern Mystics,” including works by Tavener, Dove, Briggs and others.

On May 3 the Orpheus Choir of Toronto teams up with Chorus Niagara for a performance of Dvořák’s Requiem in St. Catharines; the concert is repeated the next day at Koerner Hall.

On Apr 26 7:30 Pax Christi Chorale performs “Passion and Peace: Radiant Music, Ancient Wisdom” in Kitchener, with three compositions not heard often enough live: Fauré’s Messe Basse; Langlais’ Missa Salve Regina and Randall Thompson’s The Peaceable Kingdom. Conductor Stephanie Martin, also a notable composer, premieres her Now The Queen of Seasons. Concert repeated April 27 in Toronto.

Youth and Young Artist Ensembles

On April 1 the York University Jazz Festival has performances from several of the music program’s Jazz Choirs. Admission is free.

On April 6 young adult and children’s choirs combine, as the University of Toronto Women’s Chorus performs “In High Voice,” with guests Young Voices Toronto. This ensemble is the Children’s Choir-in-Residence at Uof T’s Faculty of Music – another chance to see them takes plays on May 1, when they combine with the Hamilton Children’s Choir to present a free noon-hour concert at Roy Thomson Hall.

On the “imparting past traditions” side of the coin, the Arcady choir joins forces with the Cambridge Kiwanis Boys’ Choir and Cambridge Girls’ Choir to perform Handel’s Messiah on April 13 in Cambridge. The concert is in support of the Cambridge Self-Help Food Bank.

In a similar vein, The University of Waterloo Department of Music’s University Choir performs Orff’s Carmina Burana on April 5 in Waterloo. The Waterloo U. Chamber Choir presents a concert entitled “Earth Teach Me,” on April 4 in Kitchener.

One area in which youth ensembles will likely always out-perform adult ensembles is in show choirs, which combine singing with physically challenging activities that involve bending and twisting, which is what most of us joined choirs to avoid. The Show Choir Canada Nationals, a competition for show choirs, takes place on April 12. High school glee clubs and choirs compete for scholarships and prizes. Visit for more information.

Children’s Choirs

choralscene torontochildren schorusThe Toronto Children’s Chorus (TCC) takes a systematic approach to choral training, with several junior ensembles as well as the main group.

On April 5 no fewer than ten Ontario children’s choirs get together to perform “Flights of Fancy – No Parachute,” conducted by Canadian choral specialist Stephen Hatfield. The TCC’s junior ensembles are taking part in this concert, and on April 12 the TTC’s Chorale Choir performs “Fanciful Fantasmagorical Flights,” a concert that will contain choreography as well as singing.

On May 3 all the Toronto Children’s Chorus groups join together to perform “Flights of Fancy,” with works by tuneful Canadian composers Donald Patriquin and Ruth Watson Henderson, among others.

On April 12 Islington United Church’s Youth Choir and Junior Choir present a joint concert entitled “A Place in the Choir: Youthful Voices.” Free for children and youth.

On May 4 the ASLAN Boys Choir of Toronto kicks out against the city’s inland status in a concert with nautical themes entitled “Pirates, Landlubbers and the High Seas.” Repertoire includes traditional shanties and songs about life on the ocean.


Two choirs celebrate 25-year anniversaries in May. In Toronto, the Cantores Celestes Women’s Choir performs works by Monteverdi, Canadian composer Stephen Hatfield, Paul Halley’s catchy Freedom Trilogy and Wade Hemsworth’s iconic Canadian song, Log Driver’s Waltz. Part of the proceeds from the concert will go to the Huban Cradle of Hope Children’s Home orphanage in Kenya. May 3.

Also May 3, Markham’s Village Voices performs “Silver Stars: 25th Anniversary Concert.” Alumni and past accompanists will join the choir for music by Handel, Mozart, opera and music theatre choruses.

Good Friday Concerts

All of the following concerts take place on Good Friday, April 18:

Cantabile Chorale of York Region “Good Friday Charity Benefit Concert.” Admission with freewill offering; proceeds to selected social service agencies in York Region.

The Choir of Lawrence Park Community Church performs popular English composer John Rutter’s Requiem.

Bach and Good Friday go together like hip-hop and beatbox. Bach’s St. John Passion can be heard in Kitchener with the Grand Philharmonic Choir, and in Toronto performed by the Metropolitan Festival Choir and Orchestra. Both concerts feature outstanding vocal soloists.

Bach’s Mass In B minor also gets a reading April 12, by the combined forces of the Amadeus Choir of Greater Toronto and the Elmer Iseler Singers. All three Bach concerts feature outstanding vocal soloists.

That’s it for this month. If any choir director is still pondering the advisability of incorporating Lorde and beatboxing into their choral bag of tricks, I say: “Go for it.” Bach and beatbox are a good deal more similar than you might think, and any technique that gets choral singers thinking about rhythm can only be a good thing!

Benjamin Stein is a Toronto tenor and lutenist. He can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..">This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Visit his website at


Great Works, Fresh Ears

1906 choralscene1-rantmaggierantEver heard a purported “Great Work of Art” and been thoroughly underwhelmed? At least one of the well-known compositions l’ve written about this year – perhaps even in this column – has regularly left me cold, either when performing or listening to it. I won’t say which, because I don’t have any intention of stepping on other musicians’ hard work and dedication. But on occasion I’ve recalled Glenn Gould’s remark about one composer’s reputation being based entirely on gossip, and wondered if there isn’t something about that in our approach to certain works by certain names.

It’s relevant to this column’s exploration of new choral works, which are not to be found overmuch in this month’s listing – the mid-season part of the year is often when choirs essay the well-known works of the choral repertoire, and exploration of new music gets left for another time.

When hearing a new work, our attitude is often, “Okay, impress me” – or to use a sports phrase, “You got game?”. But when encountering masterworks, we expect to be impressed or even overwhelmed, to feel a sense of connection to transcendence that we know others before us have undoubtedly experienced. Our thought is something like – to carry the sports analogy back to its schoolyard roots – “Can I play too? Pick me!”.

This is not a bad thing, of course – a sense of openness and receptiveness to music is vital for a satisfying listening experience. The key is to carry that sensibility into the realm of the unfamiliar, even the uncomfortable. In this season of masterworks there are still ways to do it – attend a concert that features music you have never heard live, or find a choir in your region that you have not heard perform. Or pick a composer whose works you have never liked, and go to the concert with that sense of receptiveness you reserve for your favourite music alone.

1906 choralscene2Elijah in Guelph: Speaking of masterworks, I am pleased to see that Guelph is going to be treated to a performance of Mendelssohn’s Elijah on March 22, by the Guelph Chamber Choir, Western University Singers and the Musica Viva Orchestra, with Daniel Lichti in the role of Elijah.

Greatly popular in the 19th century, Mendelssohn’s reputation suffered in the century that followed. His oratorio Elijah has never left the repertory, but it always seems to lack the must-see/can’t-miss quality that attends any live performance of Handel’s Messiah, Mozart’s D Minor Requiem or Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. This is a shame, because it’s a more coherent work than the first two pieces listed above and is easily as dramatic as the final one.

Elijah was first performed at the legendary Birmingham Music Festival in 1846, with an English text. Structurally it is modelled on the oratorios of Bach and Handel that Mendelssohn had studied and admired and in the case of Bach, revived for a 19th century audience.

Based on the performances it sometimes receives, it’s easy to mistake Elijah for a grandiose hunk of early Victorian Anglo-choral stodge. But when performed with rhythmic elan and suppleness, it has a kick like a mule, in part because of the tremendous energy of the choruses and the dramatic scope of the baritone role of Elijah. Mendelssohn’s Elijah is an intensely flawed and human character, pious and savage by turns, brought low but ultimately redeemed. Baritone Daniel Lichti is one of Canada`s most accomplished oratorio singers and his Elijah is not to be missed.

Elijah is also one of the relatively few European oratorios that tells the story of a Jewish protagonist, written by a Jewish composer. Mendelssohn was baptized as a child by his assimilated parents, of course, but the energy of Elijah (contrasted with the dullness of his St. Paul) makes a case for residual pride in and understanding of his family`s religious background.

On to the listings:

March 15: Joseph Haydn’s Creation is a lively interpretation of the Genesis story, filled with programmatic depictions of the world’s birth, the creation of plants and animals and a childishly romantic Adam and Eve as yet untouched by the snake’s temptation. The NYCO Symphony Orchestra performs this work with the choral sections handled by the Hart House Chorus and Oakville Choral Society.

On March 16 the Hart House Singers perform Mozart’s famous Requiem in D Minor. The evening also provides an opportunity to hear Franz Schubert’s setting of the Stabat Mater text. The concert is free, and food donations to the University of Toronto foodbank are welcome.

The Amadeus Choir performs Celtic Celebration on March 22, in both the afternoon and the evening. This concert is a fundraiser for the choir, and will include a silent auction as well as a tasty selection of Scottish, Irish and Maritime tunes. The Celtic trio North Atlantic Drift are guest players. Another Celtic instrumental and choral summit takes place earlier in the month in London on March 7, when the Canadian Celtic Choir teams up with the Celtic fusion group Rant Maggie Rant.

Also on March 22 Ron Ka Ming Cheung’s Voices Chamber Choir performs Brahms’ German Requiem. Usually scored for full romantic orchestra, there is also a chamber version for two pianos that Brahms himself created. Although piano accompaniment lacks the varied timbres and grandeur of an orchestra, it also gives listeners an opportunity to hear more clearly the interplay of the work’s different choral parts, which can easily be obscured (obliterated, actually) in orchestral settings. Brahms’ choral writing is almost unparalleled in its inventiveness and challenge. Like Bach and Mozart, it can actually benefit from stripped-down choral forces.

On March 23 the Ukrainian Canadian Congress sponsors a gala concert commemorating the 200th birthday anniversary of Taras Shevchenko. Shevchenko (1814-1861) was a pivotal cultural figure in the development of Ukrainian culture, as a writer, painter and political actor. The concert is a summit of Ukrainian-Canadian choirs, and features the Vesnivka Choir, Orion Men’s Choir, Levada Women’s Choir and the Toronto Ukrainian Male Chamber Choir.

March 26: If there is an ultimate masterwork in the choral repertoire, it’s probably Bach’s Mass in B Minor. The challenge for any choir, as with the Brahms Requiem, is to forget that it is a masterwork and look instead for the human qualities that bring it to life – exuberance, pathos and a questioning spirit. The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir performs this work on March 26, with an excellent group of soloists.

On April 7 Grace Church on-the-Hill, which boasts a lively and extensive choral program, hosts a workshop with special guests the Oxford Christ Church Cathedral Choir. This choir is the newest version of an ongoing tradition of choral cathedral music that stretches back five hundred years. The workshop allows Toronto choral singers and conductors to work on repertoire with this ensemble, taking part in a performance at the end of the day. It sounds like a fascinating event, especially for students and aficionados of the English cathedral sound. The choir also performs on April 8, and there are group rates available for groups who attend the workshop. (

Benjamin Stein is a Toronto tenor and lutenist. He can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..">This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Visit his website at

Back Then Forth

There are awesome concerts on the horizon for February and March, and I will try to give shoutout space to as many of them as possible. Please check out the listings for the ones I miss – there are great choices for every taste.

First, though, as part of this year’s continuing exploration of new choral music, this column will look back at several Toronto events that took place in January – a rare retrospective angle for a listings column, but one that points to engaging developments and possibilities in the Toronto choral scene; choral aficionados, take note.

On January 17, as part of their celebration of 60 years of professional choral singing, Soundstreams programmed a salon night entitled, “New Directions in Choral Music.” Soundstreams’ Salon 21 is a monthly performance and lecture event, inventively curated by Kyle Brenders, with a wide variety of performers and composers. It is free of charge, and you can sit with a glass of wine as the discussion takes place.

This evening brought together two groups that on the face of it, seem wildly disparate. As the evening progressed, interesting connections emerged.

bbb - choral sceneChoir! Choir! Choir! is the brainchild of two easygoing but skilled musicians, Nobu Adilman and Daveed Goldman. For three years they have been meeting interested participants, usually in a bar, handing out song sheets and then creating fun and inventive arrangements of pop and rock songs, sometimes on the spot.

The initiative has been wildly successful, and has led to recordings and media appearances. At the Soundstreams event the audience watched a video of Choir! Choir! Choir! performing Daft Punk’s Get Lucky. a club number which was one of last year’s catchier guitar riffs.

The night’s other group, the Element Choir, is a different phenomenon altogether. This ensemble works entirely in improvised form. The conductor and founder of the Element Choir, Christine Duncan, has a two-page lexicon of gestures that have specific sonic meaning, and as the piece progresses, she improvises its shape and structure by combining different sounds and letting their combinations grow and develop organically.

The performance was only several minutes long, but often the pieces become extended soundscapes that can last as long as an hour. It is certainly not the usual paradigm that one expects from a choral concert, but it is an absolutely arresting experience.

The singers in the ensemble improvise fearlessly, and one hears clicks, wooshing, yelps, growls and hums as well as melodic fragments and timbres that evoke classical, jazz and folk singing techniques.  The Element Choir works more like an orchestral ensemble than a traditional choir, as the skills of individual members of the ensemble are employed to create solo lines that blend into the larger soundscape.

The aspect of each group that represented the clearest challenge to the traditional choral model is that neither ensemble used sheet music – a tool that most choirs cannot do without. Choir! Choir! Choir! uses lyric sheets, but presumably can dispense with these once parts have been learned.

Choir! Choir! Choir!’s arrangements of pop songs use repeated syncopation, as is stylistically appropriate. These type of rhythms, so common throughout the last century, often represents a challenge for classically trained choirs. While Choir! Choir! Choir!’s syncopations are not wildly difficult to hear or replicate, some of them would look awkward and confusing when notated with traditional sheet music, and would likely cause a few stutters for classically trained musicians.

Choir! Choir! Choir! relies instead on their singers’ ears, and is accompanied by guitar rather than the ubiquitous rehearsal piano. I noticed that both the syncopations and the tuning of this group had a lively quality that piano-trained choirs often lack.

The Element Choir, meanwhile, dispenses almost entirely with the division of labour that most choirs embody – a composition, usually created by one individual, that the conductor and singers must attempt to execute. Instead, the conductor and singers are co-creators, blending their skills and ideas in an improvised process that will never be repeated in the same manner.

The work of these two groups has its own inherent value, of course – but as I listened to the performances, I couldn’t help thinking what a shot in the arm the techniques employed in these ensembles would be to more standard classical choral training as well.  The ability to execute complex rhythms, improvise and experiment with extended performance techniques without a musical score in hand, is of course an integral part of music training. But how often are these skills called on in choirs?

Imagine entire university courses devoted to either of these choral paradigms. How much more confident young singers would be in a variety of musical situations, many of which they will encounter in the working world, in which they have to think – and sing – on their feet.

Daring to Dream: Moving on to another choral event – on January 20, the American holiday celebrating the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr., the Culchahworks Arts Collective presented We Still Dare To Dream, a new oratorio written to commemorate the 50th anniversary of King’s historic “I Have a Dream” speech.

The work was conceived by Andrew Craig, an astonishingly talented composer, producer and performer who has also worked as a radio personality for the CBC. The oratorio grew out of a promise that Craig made to his mother that he would somehow mark this occasion with a new musical work, even if he had to stand outside and play it on the street on January 20.

Craig had originally hoped to use the text of the actual speech, but when this proved impossible, he simply decided to write his own libretto and set it to music. He enlisted the support of the Faith Chorale and the University of Toronto Gospel Choir, as well as assembling a third choral ensemble, band and violin soloist (Andréa Tyniec).

We Still Dare To Dream is a sprawling and ambitious mixture of solos, choruses and spoken recitations that seeks to bring the ideas and challenges posed by King’s oration into a new century of conflict and challenge.

I was unfortunately not in Toronto during the performance, but I attended the dress rehearsal in an effort to get a sense of some aspects of the work.

I wonder how effective the spoken word facet of the oratorio ultimately was. Dramatic recitation is an incredibly difficult technique to make work; even with musical underscoring, it can too easily slip into earnestness or portentousness.

But the musical sections of the piece were superb. The choral writing generally supported the vocal solos, which were executed by four virtuoso Toronto singers from Jewish, Muslim, East Indian and American gospel traditions: David Wall, Waleed Abdulhamid, Suba Sankaran and Sharon Riley.

There was also a delightful section in which a group of young Toronto primary and secondary school students came out and sang, danced, executed martial arts moves and engaged in a call-and-response rap with Craig.

Craig is a master of gospel composition, but he did not limit himself to that genre, instead executing convincing and catchy compositional riffs on ragas and middle eastern vocal techniques from religious traditions that often find themselves at war. The syncretic aspects of the music reflected the composition’s essential theme, which was reconciliation, unity, peace and activism.

I can see this work having a life beyond this particular anniversary occasion. The American Paul Winter Consort spent years travelling to different cities, performing the Missa Gaia. The experienced musicians of the ensemble often combined with local choirs, especially youth and children’s groups. Craig’s work has the potential to be a Canadian version of this performance model. I hope other ensembles have a future chance to engage with this music – it certainly deserves a repeat performance and a wider audience in Toronto and other parts of the country.

On to this month’s concerts. To get the month started, in Kingston the Melos Choir and Chamber Orchestra perform an early music program, Eros and Agape: Love’s Longing and Laments on February 9. The concert includes works by Hildegard von Bingen, Victoria, Palestrina, Machaut, Dufay and others. Guillaume de Machaut, wrote in 14th century France, and is one of the earliest composers from whom we have comprehensive musical scores. It is always fascinating to hear his music live.

For more early music choices (mixed with a little Beatles) the Annex Singers perform works by Josquin and Palestrina on February 22.

In a later vein, the Tafelmusik Chamber Choir performs Handel’s Saul on February 21 to 23. Saul explores the themes of jealousy, love and ambition that characterize the rivalry between the biblical Saul, king of Israel, and the young, charismatic shepherd and musician David, who will ultimately usurp the Israelite throne. David’s loving relationship with Saul’s son, the doomed young warrior Jonathan, adds the final element through which internecine conflict becomes tragedy. It is one of the most dramatic stories of the Hebrew scriptures, and one that is beautifully suited to Handelian choruses and solos of ferocity, triumph and lament.

Richard III was the last Plantagenet king of England before the rise of the Tudor dynasty. He was killed in battle in 1485 at the end of the War of the Roses. These guys basically spent centuries killing each other back and forth, which ought to put Prince Harry’s naughty Las Vegas adventures in a bit of perspective. On March 1 the Tallis Choir sings a Requiem for Richard III, a recreation of a requiem mass as it might have been celebrated at the end of the 15th century. The music will include medieval carols and some of the the stunning late English Renaissance choral works of the Chapel Royal of Richard’s Tudor usurper, Henry VII. Which is kind of rubbing it in.

In Hamilton on February 28 and March 2the Bach Elgar Choir perform two midsize masterworks of the classical repertoire, Fauré’s Requiem and Vaughan Williams’ Mass in G. The Fauré work in particular is a small miracle of orchestration and melodic and harmonic invention. It’s a piece every fan of choral music ought to know, and every choral singer must perform at least once.

In Kitchener on February 22, the Grand Philharmonic Choir also performs theVaughan Williams work, as part of an anglophile program entitled Glorious England.

Also in the classical vein, on March 2 the Toronto Classical Singers perform Handel’s Dettingen Te Deum and Haydn’s Mass in the Time of War (In Haydn’s original autograph, the Missa in tempore belli.) Haydn’s mass was first performed in 1796 Vienna, during the turbulent and violent era of upheaval following the French Revolution and prior to the rise of Napoleon. Anyone who asserts that the works of classical composers are ivory tower art, divorced from the political realities that buffet us all, would be advised to listen to this mass, which contains dramatic moments that approach savagery.

Benjamin Stein is a Toronto tenor and lutenist. He can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..">This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Visit his website at

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