Oakville Children's Chorus at the World Choir Olympics in Latvia (2014)The GTA has a host of fantastic children’s choirs. From Oakville to Mississauga, Hamilton and Niagara, these choirs are often-times the entry point for a lifelong engagement with music and the arts. They provide important exercises in strengthening the fabric of social engagement, inside and outside of music, helping to provide key skills as children age and move on to other adventures – some of which may be still be musical. There are some skills essential to choral music that directly benefit later-life experiences, such as knowing when to blend in and be part of a greater whole; paying attention to difficult situations and implementing plans and practices to address them; learning to follow instructions/direction and applying them to your personal situation/physicality; and learning how to engage contructively with people who ignore all these things. There is so much that these ensembles do in creating and building communities.

Here are some of them: The Toronto Children’s Chorus has eight separate choral programs for different skills and levels of engagement including six choirs. The VIVA! Youth Singers are featured every year in the National Ballet’s performances of The Nutcracker and have five ensembles. The Oakville Children’s Choir has seven programs including six choirs. (Artistic director Sarah Morrison led the Oakville Children’s Choir to a double gold finish at the World Choir Games in the Summer of 2015.) The Hamilton Children’s Choir with Zimfira Poloz was featured in R. Murray Schafer’s Apocalypsis during Luminato, as well as the Pan American Games closing ceremonies. These are some of the hardest working choirs out there year after year. And there are many others throughout Southern Ontario.  It’s also important to note that these are also ensembles who have a presence in their communities beyond their membership. The Oakville Children’s Chorus has begun a project in partnership with ErinoakKids, the largest children’s treatment centre for a variety of disabilities. Members of ErinoakKids and the OCC sing together regularly in a glee club that was created to share music. Sarah Morrison speaks of the joy and learning that is shared when choirs reach out into their communities. And, as she says, more often than not, it’s the kids who have the ideas, the energy and the enthusiasm for these collaborations. The Hamilton Children’s Choir also performs regularly for seniors in their communities.

A functional musical vocabulary is another benefit of early involvement in a choir.  As a policy analyst by educational training and trade, I spend a lot of time around people who have no formal musical background. These are not people who don’t have music in their lives – far from it. But they aren’t playing clarinet in a wind ensemble or violin in a string quartet or singing alto in a mixed-voices choir. They have a musical vocabulary made up of words like “rocking,” “energetic” and “soft,” instead of “chromatic,” “largamente” and “that suspension in the time change before the major chord was innovative.” Children’s choirs have an important part to play in the evolution of how larger communities engage in music. Because really, who looks at a bunch of kids singing and goes “Wow. I really don’t like this.” These kids inevitably grow up and in time share their experiences in music with a new generation. Moreover, the skills they learn will continue to serve them and us throughout their lives.

That being said, we should beware of making the jargon of music into a kind of closed door club. I take friends to concerts who have never been or go infrequently to live instrumental or choral music. The musical fabric of the city is built into their lives in bars, pop concerts, street performers and music theatre, but the same cannot be said of instrumental music. On a recent trip to the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s presentation of La Mer and A Sea Symphony, I brought a friend who had been to a symphony only twice before. I gave a briefer on the Sea Symphony and used many of the words that I used in last month’s column: bombastic; imperialistic; grand. This worked for him. For a person untrained in music, who cannot usually tell the difference in sound between a trombone or a horn, or what a cadence is, he understood because he felt it. And this is where the great power of instrumental music lies, in common experience. His vocabulary didn’t need to be RCM certified to convey the commonality of experience. So the languages trained musicians use to communicate widely should not exclude others. The languages of what we could describe as music in the widest sense are as varied and many, as diverse as the living things that make up this planet. One doesn’t need to analyze the pitch and program of toads in the Caledon Hills during mating season to appreciate that something grand and exceptional is happening. Similarly, one can listen to A Sea Symphony and interpret a military sound without knowing that trumpets and snare drums are creating that sound.

It is also worth considering the information we get as to the state of choral music making in our communities not by what the established choirs are doing, but by what is happening on the fringes, and anywhere children and young voices are concerned. Where are younger people engaging with music? EDM, DJ Skratch Bastid, Choir!Choir!Choir, Pentatonix, music theatre and film soundtracks are just some of the sources of music I find my friends going to that aren’t mega-scale, heavily produced pop concerts. And for this, and an even younger crowd, Disney movies continue to be a source of deep and powerful musical tradition (That Choir recently had a Disney-themed cabaret).

In September, That Choir did a season launch that wasn’t a choral performance. This is unusual and welcome in an attempt to build a community of relationships that support a choir and its work. The TSO does this as well, with donors of much more privileged wallets. One day I might make it through the doors of the Maestro Club or the fancy Amex lounge at Roy Thomson Hall. For now, having a drink at No One Writes to the Colonel and singing “I can’t feel my face when I’m with you” by the Weeknd with 100 other people hits the spot pretty well. And importantly, it does for a lot of other people as well.

Children’s Choir Concerts

The Toronto Children’s Chorus is going on tour to Boston and New York City in March 2016. These talented kids will light up the hallowed walls of Carnegie Hall in the Choirs of America National Competition. The Toronto Children’s Chorus presents “Spectral Contrasts” on Saturday November 7, at 4pm, in Calvin Presbyterian Church. Proceeds will go towards the competition.

The Hamilton Children’s Choir will be part of the City of Hamilton’s Remembrance Day ceremonies on November 8, at 10:30am in St George’s Church.

The VIVA! Youth Singers present “Shanti!: Our Native Land” on November 29, at 3:30pm in Trinity-St Paul’s Centre.

The Oakville Children’s Choir presents “Songs for a Winter Night” on Saturday December 5 at 7pm in St. John’s United Church in Oakville.

Chorus Niagara’s Children’s Choir presents “The Time of Snow” at Beacon Christian School on Saturday December 6 at 2:30pm in St Catharines.

Other Concerts

Chorus Niagara is pulling together the McMaster University Choir and the Niagara Symphony Orchestra in presenting “CELEBRATE!: The Explosive Power of 160 Voices in Partridge Hall” on November 7, at 7:30pm in FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre in St Catharines.

Further east, another conglomeration of choirs is assembling for “Choralpalooza,” featuring the Kingston Chamber Choir, She Sings, the Kingston Townsmen, the Kingston Choral Society and Open Voices Community Choir. This will take place November 8, at 12pm in the Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts, Kingston.

Bel Canto is just one of many choirs in Scarborough. They perform “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year” on December 6, at 2:30pm and 7:30pm, in St. Dunstan’s of Canterbury.

Two sets of German choral works are being presented: one by the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir on November 25, at 7:30pm in Koerner Hall; the other by the Hart House Chorus on November 29, at 4pm in the Great Hall of Hart House. clip_image001.png

Please stay in touch! Feedback: choralscene@thewholenote.com or Twitter @thebfchang

Author: Brian Chang
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Choral_-_Dett.pngTeddy Abrams is the 28-year-old conductor of the Louisville Orchestra. His youth is not for a lack of experience and talent. At the end of the summer he was featured by PBS as the youngest artistic director of a major American orchestra. He spoke of many philosophical questions that are affecting live instrumental music. One in particular has stuck with me, and that’s his belief that artistic organizations need to continue to create a positive direction for our society. He challenges himself and his musicians to think about the ways in which they can bring together, collaborate with and energize the communities they touch. And he sees important elements of civic, social and political life in music.

These big questions are inevitably lost in the competitive musical life of Toronto and the surrounding areas. I have yet to meet a musical organization that exists solely for the creation of a better society, in so many words; but, on the other hand, if so many of us did not have positive experiences with live music, why would we contribute so much of ourselves towards it?

In the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir (of which I am a member), each chorister spends over 150 hours in more than 50 rehearsals each season, apart from personal practice time. Add my other ensembles to the mix, the Scarborough Concert Band and Incontra Vocal Ensemble, and easily eight hours of my week are spent in rehearsals or doing music. When I conducted the UTSC Alumni and Community Choir the commitment was drastically higher with preparation, technique, and score study. Live music is not an insignificant commitment to bring to fruition. But the result is unlike any other. The collaborative nature of music requires the blending of myriad forces into a cohesive engine that can lead in many directions. And yes, they can present ideas, stories and thoughts on deeply political and social issues. A few upcoming performances truly showcase this ability.

Hail October! With October hailing the true start to the musical performance season, there are many performances ahead. Bravo Niagara’s North Star Festival is early in the month from October 2 to 4. This inaugural festival is endorsed by the UNESCO Slave Route Project. At St. Mark’s Anglican in Niagara-on-the-Lake on October 3 at 7:30pm the Nathaniel Dett Chorale presents “Freedom has a Voice.” The Chorale will be featuring Lift Every Voice and Sing by James Wheldon Johnson, a song written in 1899. A contemporary of Canadian Nathaniel Dett, Johnson would make his name as a writer, composer and dignitary in his position as executive secretary of the U.S. National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) for a decade. During the civil rights era, Lift Every Voice and Sing would become an anthem of the people throughout the movement.

Niagara, an important terminus on the Underground Railroad, is the perfect place for Bravo Niagara to honour the important goal of many looking for freedom. Such spirituals as Wade in the Water and Swing Low, Sweet Chariot have histories connected to the Underground Railroad. These songs are now staples of modern choral tradition but were once relegated to minstrel shows, their powerful history perverted in racist processes of minstrelsy and blackface.

Dett and Johnson were two of many musicians who revived these spirituals and re-elevated them from their degradation. With Polaris, the North Star, leading people onwards to Niagara, the region was a haven unlike any other. And the culture and peoples who braved this perilous journey have left an indelible and beautiful history for us to commemorate. I hope this is the first of many years for this festival.

Wilfred Laurier University’s “Sing Fires of Justice 10th Anniversary Concert,” honouring missing and murdered indigenous women, takes place at St. Matthews Lutheran Church in Kitchener, October 4 at 7pm. Choirs from WLU, the University of Waterloo, the Mino Ode Kwewak N’Gamowak (Good Hearted Women Singers) and many other guests are featured: music continues to be a salient and powerful tool in exploring communal trauma, sharing stories and celebrating. Admission is by freewill donation with funds going towards the Mino Ode Kwewak N’Gamowak.

Buffy Sainte-MarieBuffy Sainte-Marie: The pathways that lead to the creation of music, the sharing of music, and the performance of music are many. These deeply social, economic and political issues are heightened through music. Dett’s and Johnson’s history, stories and sense of justice were strongly linked to their musical expression. And for indigenous women in Canada, one only has to look at the artistic practices of the last two years of Polaris Prize winners – Tanya Tagaq and Buffy Sainte-Marie – to recognize a similar, albeit stylistically very different, linking of music and social justice.

Check it out: One sure treat this fall is the October 30 presentation of The Phantom of the Opera by the Orpheus Choir. A unique, one-night-only accompaniment to the 1925 silent film, the blend of cinema and music should inspire more work like this. Movie soundtracks have long incorporated choral music. With the recent involvement of the Tallis Choir with the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony Orchestra in the Sony Centre’s “Gladiator Live,” I can only hope for more opportunities that blend film and music in the city. It’s also worth noting that these film concerts, of which the TSO is doing a few this year (Psycho and Back to the Future), are often the only time under-30s are not greatly outnumbered in instrumental music audiences.

A gospel powerhouse hosted by York University, “G.I.V.E., the Gospel Inter-Varsity Explosion,” will feature more than 150 voices drawn from the York University Gospel Choir, University of Toronto Gospel Choir, McMaster University Gospel Choir and Humber Gospel Choir. G.I.V.E. will perform October 24 at 7pm at the Islington Evangel Centre under conductors Karen Burke and Corey Butler, with special guests the Toronto Mass Choir and Gospel Joy, a choir from Warsaw, Poland.

Toronto Mendelssohn Choir will be singing with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra in Ralph Vaughan William’s A Sea Symphony. Soprano Erin Wall was a pleasure to sing with during last year’s Mahler’s Second Symphony with the TSO. She returns to share her talent on the stage of Roy Thomson Hall. A bold and bombastic work, A Sea Symphony’s  premiere in 1910 was at a time of perhaps unrivalled patriotic and imperialist fervour. The work is a perfect example of a deeply political  and nationalist (dare one say jingoistic)message brought stunningly to life through music. Come and watch us at RTH on October 21 and 24 at 8pm.

Kaffeemusik: A unique performance will be hosted by the Toronto Chamber Choir in its afternoon Kaffeemusik series. Classical 96.3FM’s Kathleen Kajioka will narrate the life of Matteo Ricci (1552-1610), considered to be the first European allowed into the Forbidden City of China’s emperors. The China Court Trio will provide accompaniment with period music from Italy, Portugal and China at the Church of the Redeemer, November 1 at 3pm.

Remembrance: Commemorations for Remembrance Day begin over the next few weeks. Exultate Chamber Singers perform “Stories of Remembrance” at St Thomas’s Anglican Church on October 23 at 8pm. Included are smaller works by Eleanor Daley – In Remembrance and For the Fallen – but the feature is American composer Donald McCullough’s Holocaust Cantata. Written in 13 movements for choir, cello, piano and narrators, this piece is in English, translated from real-life accounts of letters found in the American Holocaust Memorial Museum archive. 

Brian Chang is a tenor in the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir and a policy analyst during the day. Follow him on Twitter @bfchang

Author: Brian Chang
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An unusual but fantastic summer has just passed, filled to the brim with culture and sport. With Toronto playing host to the Pan Am and Parapan Am games, the concurrent Panamania cultural events truly allowed our city to showcase its diversity and love of music. Unprecedented energy filled many corners of the GTA as facilities opened their doors and neighbourhoods flew their colours and opened their arms in welcome. Choirs from across the GTA were highlighted across the GTA, from the University of Toronto Scarborough to Nathan Phillips Square to Ajax and the Milton Velodrome. The Element Choir was everywhere, supporting Polaris Prize winner Tanya Tagaq in her transformative music on several occasions. Perennial favourite, the  inclusive, open concept Choir! Choir! Choir! also featured in a Panamania event in the Distillery District with their pop culture approach to choral music. And who can forget the fantastic Hamilton Children’s Choir singing “Shine Your Light” in front of a sold-out Rogers Centre and millions on TV?

Choral_1_-_Tagaq.jpgApocalypsis: For those of us lucky enough, the beginning of summer was enriched by the revelatory powerhouse that was Luminato’s presentation of Apocalypsis. As a tenor in the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, I sang in one of the 12 choirs that made up the second half of this grand masterpiece of art. One thousand performers brought this uniquely conceived piece to fruition for only the second time since its premiere in 1980. Unfortunately, the choristers caught only a brief glimpse of the staging and choreography. I wonder if the audience was even aware of about 400 of us entering towards the end of the first act as Babylon is crumbling. I relished this moment, entering into the darkness of the dim balcony amidst the cacophony of thick chain metal crashing as the Seven Seals of Myth are broken;  and then, in the residue of the broken world, an old woman emerged. I never saw her but the privilege of hearing her was humbling: Tanya Tagaq in her evocative portrayal of the old woman. We are lucky she was around so much this summer.

Luminato Artistic Director Jörn Weisbrodt has one more festival under his helm before he passes on the reins. Luminato has been good for choirs in our region right from the start with such pieces as R. Murray Schafer’s The Children’s Crusade. But this summer’s Schafer work, Apocalypsis, was Luminato’s largest act of civic engagement so far; it was a truly monumental task to produce and assemble the forces needed for this. One thousand performers will forever remember this unique event in history. I myself made friends with choirs and people from Ottawa to Kitchener. Between the festivities of the Parapan Am and Pan Am games and the grandeur of Apocalypsis, city-building through choral music has been given a real shot in the arm. Here’s to much more!

Building time: Followers of choral music are aware of the rehearsal hours and planning that go into a full season of music. There is often a lag between the start of the season and the first choral performances. It takes time to get a choir back into itself. Noel Edison puts it well when talking about the 130-voice Toronto Mendelssohn Choir: “There’s a lot of humanity in this room.” All choirs, regardless of size, need this time together to build good sound.

As adults we may forget the mix of elation and comfort kids feel after returning to school from summer vacation. But this fun, slightly nervous feeling hits me afresh as choirs return from break and begin making sound anew. Most choristers will spend the first few rehearsals listening to funny quips from conductors about the dismal quality of the sound or cries of tone deafness, flat basses and sharp sopranos. (Tenors are always on pitch. Always.) The reality is that it takes a while for an ensemble to get back into it. Ensembles may have new members, they definitely have new repertoire. For choral music audiences, September is a quiet month as choristers get back into the habit. But for those of us in the choirs, we are busy at work.

A few early birds, of course, are always the exception to the rule:

Intersection: Toronto continues to offer some exemplary opportunities to experience the civic experience of choral music with Contact Contemporary Music’s Intersection: New Music Marathon on September 5. Christine Duncan and the Element Choir will be making an appearance at Yonge-Dundas Square along with a host of other performers in a display of performance and interactive installations. Check them out starting at 2pm.

Wilfrid Laurier leads its school year performances October 4 with “Sing Fires of Justice 10th Anniversary Concert.” Held at St Matthew’s Lutheran Church, donations are accepted in lieu of ticket sales. For ten years now, WLU has used this concert as a commemoration of murdered and missing indigenous women across Canada creating a fusion of community-based music and social justice.

Sweetwater: In the last couple of years there have been quite a few productions of Bach’s Mass in B Minor (one of which I performed in with the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir). I am excited to see it on the lineup for the Sweetwater Music Festival staged as a sing-a-long September 19 at 1pm in Owen Sound. There are quite a few moments of emotion in the piece that are a pleasure to sing as a performer. The Gloria in Excelsis Deo is one not to miss with its bold trumpets and the choir going almost at full tilt before settling into the beautifully gentle Et in Terra Pax. Conductors Kenneth Slowik and Adrian Butterfield have rightfully chosen the Gloria as a feature in the sing-a-long. Unless one is in the Amadeus, Oakham House Choir or Tafelmusik’s sing-a-long Messiah how often does one get to sing with an orchestra? The Bach’s Mass in B Minor can be watched in full the next day, September 20 at 3pm.

Singsation: The Centre for Social Innovation and the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir are offering a free Culture Days’ Singsation. Singsation Saturdays are a mainstay for hundreds of people throughout the season and offer enjoyers of choral music a chance to sing some fabulous music with fantastic local conductors. A highlight of last year was COC chorus master Sandra Horst’s Opera Choruses Singsation. This year VOCA conductor Jenny Crober leads off with a smattering of diverse choral music. Culture Days runs from September 25 to 27 across the country. The Culture Days Singsation takes place September 26 at 10:30am. Free. Last year over 100 people sang, some of them for the first time ever with a choir, some of them for the first time since they were children.

So the new season is upon us. I haven’t yet got any of my new music and rehearsals have yet to start. Like most choristers out there, I’m ready to get back into it and to tackle new works. With a chamber choir, a full symphonic choir and a concert band ahead this year – I’ll be busy. Rehearsing is often considered the painful part with performances as the reward. I very much feel that rehearsing is where the community is built, where the people come together and where choirs truly become great. Performances are merely evidence that everything else is working well. In this, choirs become fantastic acts of community, working together towards a goal. At the start of a new season, there is no time like this in the life of a chorister. A new season. New voices. New music. New challenges. It’s all very exciting. Now is the best time to find an ensemble, try it out and reignite or stoke that love for music and performance. clip_image001.png

Brian Chang is a bass clarinet- and horn-playing policy analyst who sings tenor. Follow him on Twitter @bfchang

Author: Brian Chang
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Choral-Score.jpgThe term avant-garde has come to mean art on the edge – work that is provocative and disturbing. Many people are not aware that avant-garde was originally the military term for soldiers whose task was to scout terrain ahead of an advancing army. To be a member of the avant-garde, therefore, was to be at a higher risk of first contact and combat than other members of the force, and like many that are first over the top in any combat situation, members of the avant-garde were not expected to have a high survival rate.

Frequently, the artistic avant-garde faces a kind of annihilation as well; not death, thankfully, but the loss of their cutting-edge relevance. Their innovations are subsumed into the mainstream, their work ceases to provoke and the public moves on to new outrages and diversions.

Choral-Fallis.jpgIn artistic terms, what happens to a member of the avant-garde who has survived their encounter with a hostile or receptive public and lived to tell the tale? Do they become venerated elder statesmen, losing their indie cred as they join the establishment, or do they stay on the cutting edge? Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer has enjoyed both rebel status and critical success, amassing a performance history that many composers must envy. His work has never been mainstream, but it has extended beyond the small contemporary music audience to which many composers find their work consigned.

Schafer has been credited with inventing the term “soundscape.” It may be hard for young musicians and their audiences, accustomed to opera productions in vodka bars and symphonies on bicycles, to appreciate how revolutionary it was for Schafer to mount his productions in forests, lakes and other spaces beyond the concert hall. But while there can be a gimmicky quality to some non-traditional staging, Schafer’s work was always rooted in a simple but profound belief that (to paraphrase conductor David Fallis) music changes depending on how and where it is heard. Schafer’s staging needs, his graphic scores and sound innovations were a passionate attempt to get both performers and audiences to listen with fresh ears.

Schafer has been scathing in the past about certain concert music traditions that he finds stultifying. I read one memorable essay in which he compared the classical piano itself to a prostitute. Whether you agree with this or not – I’m not sure that much is achieved by denigrating keyboard instruments or sex workers, either on their own or juxtaposed – it certainly made for provocative reading.

But Schafer’s ire was partly a reaction to what he regarded as the ossified concert culture which unfortunately remains with us still. Schafer’s approach to actual musicians, and the concert audience itself, has been anything but stern and insulting. On the contrary, it has often been playfully generous, notably in his works for children. Unlike some avant-garde artists, Schafer’s lack of contempt for the audience, and his clear desire to connect using musical language that is accessible as well as challenging, has been in part responsible for the positive response to his work.

And so, despite avant-garde aspects in Schafer’s music, I have always thought of him as the last Romantic, a Canadian Mahler of the North. While his tonal language uses extended harmonies and non-traditional soundscapes, his music is rooted in the techniques of earlier eras, including his ability to write a good old-fashioned catchy melody, the most deceptively simple and undervalued of a composer’s skills. Schafer’s fascination with nature, and his frequent depiction of metaphysical battles between good and evil, connect his work to traditions that seem at odds with this era’s self-referential irony and arch diffidence. I would urge both those of advanced and conservative tastes to give Schafer a listen, if they have not done so before.

Choral-Cover.jpgThis month brings the opportunity to do just that, by attending a performance of one of Schafer’s most ambitious works. In June, Toronto’s Luminato Festival will mount a new production of Schafer’s Apocalypsis. This is the first time that the work will be heard in its entirety since its 1980 premiere in London, Ontario.

Apocalypsis is a two-part work. The first half is based on the Book of Revelation, the Christian text that has contributed so many images to literature and popular culture – the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, the Seven Seals, the Whore of Babylon, the Beast and the False Prophet, all of whom are defeated by the forces of good. The second part, Credo, is an extended chorus that has been performed several times as a concert work. The text is a translation of writings by Giordano Bruno, a 16th-century Jesuit priest who was also a philosopher and astronomer. Bruno’s ideas of spirituality, and the place of the world in the universe, were so disturbing to Catholic authorities that he was imprisoned and put to death in 1600.

Part of the difficulty in restaging Apocalypsis has been that the forces that Schafer specifies for performance are enormous, requiring a muster that evokes the original military meaning of avant-garde. Toronto conductor David Fallis, who has performed Schafer’s work in the past, will be leading the advance. Samoan choreographer Lemi Ponifasio and MAU, his ensemble, will be the central group involved in the staging. Canadian star performers Brent Carver, Tanya Tagaq, Denise Fujiwara and Nina Arsenault have solo roles. New Zealand opera singer Kawiti Waetford will join them, and performance art legend Laurie Anderson will have a video cameo as well.

Then there are Apocalypsis’ ensemble requirements. The list of performers constitutes a music festival in its own right. Groups from all over Ontario are participating – see the list of choirs at the end of the column, which does not even include the many instrumentalists involved. There will be close to 1,000 performers – dancers, soloists, choristers, conductors, brass, strings (including 12 string quartets!), winds and percussion – in the Sony Centre in three performances on June 26, 27 and 28, making Apocalypsis a Mahlerian endeavour indeed.

That the performance of such a large work has been made possible is a tribute both to the producers of Luminato and the commitment of Canadian ensembles to indigenous modern composition. Conductor Fallis speaks with enthusiasm about the conductors and choirs that he had never worked with, and whose drive and excellence he has come to admire. Considering that the last complete performance of Apocalypsis  took place 35 years ago, for many this one may well be a once-in-a-lifetime experience – but hopefully not. It is exciting to witness many Ontario groups joining together to make arts events take place, so let’s hope this will be a model for future collaborations, especially with Canadian works.

For tickets and further information, see luminatofestival.com. 

Choirs Involved with Apocalypsis:

Bell’Arte Singers
Cantabile Chamber Singers
Cantores Celestes Women’s Choir
City Choir
Concord Vocal Ensemble
Da Capo Chamber Choir
The Element Choir
Exultate Chamber Singers
Grand Philharmonic Choir
Guelph Chamber Choir
Hamilton Children’s Choir
Tallis Choir of Toronto
That Choir
Toronto Chamber Choir
Toronto Mendelssohn Choir
Oakham House Choir
Ontario Youth Choir Alumni
Orpheus Choir of Toronto
Ottawa Bach Choir
Pax Christi Chorale
Regent Park School of Music
Seraphim Men’s Chorus
St. James Cathedral Choir
Singing Out!
Univox Choir Toronto

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 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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