The human voice is an astonishingly versatile instrument, capable of an infinite variety of tones, timbres and inflections. Something primal in us is touched by the extremes of range in the sound of a coloratura soprano or a basso profundo; the virtuoso melismatic technique of a Hindustani or R&B soloist; the mysterious, elusive harmonies of Tibetan and Tuvan throat singing; and the street-corner, sandpaper tones of Tom Waits, Billie Holiday and Joe Turner.

We have an inexhaustible fascination with vocal music. Historical documents about music that ignore technical and artistic questions often go into great detail about the sound of voices. Today’s recording industry is centred around the sound of the human voice, and our ability to mechanically engineer and manipulate sound has reached an astonishing level of ease and complexity. Paradoxically our interest in music’s most basic expression, unaccompanied or a cappella singing, is unabated and may actually be increasing.

2008_-_Choral_-_East_York_Barbershoppers.jpgEast York Barbershoppers: The awareness of tuning necessary to execute a cappella music, unsupported by instruments, can be a challenge even to experienced vocalists. In April I had the pleasure of attending a rehearsal of the East York Barbershoppers, in preparation for their May 23 concert. This event celebrates the group’s 65th year, which makes them one of the longest-running ensembles in the city. For more information see eybs.ca

Barbershop singing is an internationally popular a cappella genre of vocal music. It is notable not only for its particular nature – close harmony singing by male or female ensembles centred around (but not limited to) Anglo-American parlour song of the 19th and 20th centuries – but also for the rehearsal process that trains singers to listen and harmonize, and the continuing vitality of the art form all over the world. The USA-based Barbershop Harmony Society has roughly 25,000 members internationally, with chapters from Sweden to South Africa to New Zealand. Continuing to flourish without the aid of mainstream commercial promotion or institutional instruction, Barbershop has managed to sustain itself in the face of neglect on many fronts.

The East York Barbershoppers have have an ongoing lease agreement with several levels of government that allows them to rehearse regularly in Harmony Hall, 2 Gower St., a community space near Dawes Rd. in what, pre-amalgamation, was called East York. The rehearsals take place in the gym/theatre space on the main floor, but downstairs there is the specially named Quartet Room for small ensemble rehearsals and the President’s Room, a wonderful historical space filled with pictures, trophies and medals that attest to the group’s ongoing presence within the community.

Chatting with some members of the EYB prior to the rehearsal, I am regaled with an intriguing mixture of historical and technical knowledge. Ron Whiteside is a baritone who joined the EYB in 2000 and took his own ensemble, the Scarborough Dukes of Harmony, to competition wins in the 70s and 80s. He gleefully discusses a version of “Jeannie With the Light Brown Hair” that scandalized a 70s era barbershop judging team, or the pitch issues involved in tuning close-harmony seventh chords in vocal standards like “Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue” and “Ain’t She Sweet.”

Close harmony singing is challenging; you can’t assume, as a classically trained musician or experienced choral singer, that you will automatically be able to tune barbershop chords. Classical singers generally sing accompanied by piano, and the tempered tuning of the piano does not always foster sensitive ears. Piano and orchestral accompaniment can become a kind of aural crutch in which a sounding pitch is approximately matched and really sensitive intervallic tuning is neglected.

Barbershop rehearsals make very little recourse to piano, either for harmonies or melodic lines. Singers instead are given a root tone from a pitch pipe, and are expected to be able to build their harmonies from that information alone. They use sheet music in rehearsal – performances are always memorized – but are often working as much by ear and from memory as from a printed score. The singers I talked to all showed an awareness of the nature of pitch relationships and of the necessity of microtuning to give a chord a more vibrant sound, in a manner that would befuddle many musicians with more formal training.

I met some singers who had recently begun singing in the EYB and others who had been singing in barbershop ensembles literally almost all their lives. Director emeritus George Shields continues to sing with the ensemble, along with his, brother-in-law, Jack Kelly, who was a founding member 65 years ago. George and Jack are 89 and 90 years old.

Lindsay-born Pat Hannon, the ensemble’s young director, identifies himself as a fourth generation barbershopper, who grew up with the sound of close harmony in his home. Hannon points out that modern barbershop singing has both branched out from its original repertoire to include arrangements of songs such as Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” and Jason Mraz’s “I’m Yours,” and at the same time is beginning to rediscover and explore its own roots in African-American culture, from which many of its traditions originated.

Before I left, the ensemble serenaded me with Hank Snow’s “You’re as Welcome as the Flowers in May,” keeping perfect tune as every member of the group filed by and shook my hand, one by one. Walking out of Harmony Hall into the cool spring night, I was glad to see that in this corner of East Toronto this charming and rigorous tradition  of a cappella community singing is healthy and thriving.

2008_-_Choral_-_Aaron_Jensen.jpgTime to SING! Barbershop and many other a cappella groups of all sizes and styles can be found at Toronto’s SING! festival, a dynamic event now in its fourth year. SING! The Toronto Vocal Arts Festival will take place May 27 to 31. SING! was co-founded by the energetic and passionate Aaron Jensen, a composer/singer/conductor involved in so many different vocal music projects that he clearly does not have time to sleep. Still, he sounds more than alert when discussing his love of singing. In response to a follow-up email question, Jensen writes: “There is no human culture, no matter how remote or isolated, that doesn’t sing. We sing to build personal bonds, to celebrate, to venerate gods, to mark rites of passage and to pass along ancient stories. Singing boosts your mental health, calms nerves, sharpens your memory, reduces anxiety and raises your spirits. Singing is intimate, evocative, empowering, and it’s just plain fun.”

Jensen’s vision for the SING! festival is one that welcomes and celebrates many genres of music in the context of unaccompanied singing. His mandate is to make the festival and attendant events throughout the year a resource and hub for vocal training and performance in Canada. Jensen has also reached out to other North American cities, and there will be an upcoming SING! festival in Austin, Texas in October 2015.

Most of the activities in the Toronto event will be centred in the Distillery district just east of Parliament and Front Streets, but concerts will also take place at Koerner Hall and Glenn Gould Studio, as well as several Toronto churches, which are some of the best performance spaces in the city.

R.A.M. to Rajaton: The Estonian National Male Choir, known in Estonia as the R.A.M. Koor performs at Christ Church Deer Park May 28. This ensemble, which celebrates its 70th anniversary this year, has recorded for both Deutsche Grammophon and Sony records. Their performance includes a premiere by acclaimed Estonian Composer Arvo Pärt : his setting of the Da Pacem Domini text, in a new version for string orchestra and male choir. The choir’s SING! concert is part of a seven-concert tour of southern Ontario. More details about the tour’s dates and locations can be found at this Facebook group: facebook.com/estotour.

Two other acclaimed vocal chamber ensembles will be visiting Toronto for SING! 2015. Take 6 is a jazz harmony marvel that has performed with Ray Charles, Quincy Jones and Stevie Wonder. Finnish ensemble Rajaton, less well known in North America, are multi-platinum recording artists in Europe.

The Canadian contingent: This year Canada is represented at SING! by a number of different groups, including the Nathaniel Dett Chorale, with guests Countermeasure, one of Aaron Jensen’s ensembles. In a concert titled “Jubilate Deo: Great Sacred Choral Music through the Ages,” four Toronto choirs will sing together: the Cathedral Church of St. James, Rosedale United Church, Kingsway-Lambton Chancel, and All Saints Kingsway Anglican.

There will also be a series of intriguing workshops geared towards musicians and arts managers interested in networking, developing skills and building viable ensembles. Workshop topics will address subjects such as securing funding, the logistics of management, composing music for film and television, vocal care, and songwriting and audition strategies, among others. The Take 6 and Rajaton ensembles will be hosting workshops that investigate the technical and artistic aspects of their concert work. For information on the SING! concert and workshop schedule – there are many other groups performing that are not mentioned here –go to singtoronto.com.

Other May/June concerts:

On May 9 the Orpheus Choir of Toronto, one of the city’s staunchest choral champions of living composers, presents “Touch the Earth Lightly.” The concert features the premiere of Canadian composer (and Da Capo Chamber Choir conductor) Leonard Enns’ Ten Thousand Rivers of Oil and the Toronto premiere of Norwegian composer Ola Gjeilo’s Sunrise–Symphonic Mass .

On May 10 the ECHO Women’s Choir presents “My Mother is the Ocean Sea.” The concert features special guests Lemon Bucket Orchestra’s Mark Marczyk and singer/ethnomusicologist Marichka Kudriavtseva.

On May 23 the Masterworks of Oakville Chorus & Orchestra will give a tenth anniversary concert, performing two popular modern works, Poulenc’s Gloria and Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms.

On May 24 choral audiences will be forced to choose between two different womens’ voices ensembles. The Oriana Women’s Choir performs “The Voice of Oriana: Music for a New Day,” with works by Eleanor Daley, Harry Freedman, Derek Healey and others. And the Florivox Choir performs “This Woman’s Work,” a concert that includes music by Kate Bush.

On May 31 the male vocal ensemble, the Victoria Scholars, performs “Simple Gifts,” with what the choir bills as “easy on the ears”: works by Casals, Copland, Debussy, Kodály and Lauridsen.

On June 6 the Etobicoke Centennial Choir performs “Songs of Hope, Songs of Inspiration,” a concert that includes modern choral favourites such as Paul Halley’s catchy Freedom Trilogy and Samuel Barber’s serene Sure on This Shining Night.

Also on June 6 the Voices Chamber Choir performs “Brother Sun, Sister Moon,” with a theme of choral music for the morning and the evening,  The concert includes current American choral starMorten Lauridsen’s Nocturnes and Canadian Healy Willan’s Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis.

A final thought on the subject of a cappella singing: Our love of the voice stems from our love of music, defined very roughly as pitched and coherently organized sound. The reasons why we love music are varied, complex and usually expressed with too much flowery verbosity to suit me. Music, executed well, makes us feel good. We don’t need any more justification for its pursuit than that. But there is a special and unique quality to music’s expression through the human voice. The act of singing affects us in a manner we scarcely understand, but feel at the most elemental level.

When we sing, our vocal chords become the reeds that translate vibration into pitch. Our throats become conduits for air flow, our bones conduct sound and our bodies become the echo chambers that give life and resonance to the tones we create. No matter where voiced pitch finds expression – the shower, a concert hall, a school gym, a digital or analogue recording – its source is ultimately flesh and bone. Singing is the closest we come not just to making music, but to being music. It’s the nearest a process of transmutation that human beings can experience. As we embody music, music embodies us.

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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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.

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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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