2204 Choral Scene 1Festive! Festive! Festive!

Holiday music is inseparable from the joy of the season. Every choir has a performance in the next few weeks and while you check out your favourites and traditional hits, try something new and different. There are a host of options in my column this month. Financially, these concerts can help solidify revenue for arts organizations. Just like Indigo sells more in the holiday season than the rest of the year combined, choirs rely on the revenue from holiday concerts to be in the black. The National Ballet of Canada does this with an entire month of productions of The Nutcracker. Arts organizations are desperately in need of solid sales so that new and innovative programming continues to fill the rest of our months. So here we go. Onward into a season of staples!

Oh Lord, Messiah:

Ask a chorister about Handel’s Messiah and you will get a lot of opinions, mostly favourable. Some scathing. Some complicated. This time of year, almost every choir will perform Messiah in its entirety or at least the iconic Hallelujah movement.

Along the way, something is often forgotten – Messiah is not easy. It’s long and technical. It is nuanced and requires diligence and a strong artistic interpretation. It requires musical instinct for appropriate accents and separation, stresses and vowel placement on fugal runs. Sure, an average singer can jump in and go for it and muddy their way through the music but the result is just that – mud. I’ve heard so many versions of choirs belting out Hallelujah at the top of their lungs without regard for blend or nuance. I admit that this is a thrill and a delight to sing, but let’s not get carried away.

Any chorister who tells you they can do the runs of For unto Us a Child Is Born flawlessly every single time is probably not a very good listener. His Yoke Is Easy is another challenging number. Try saying the vowel “ee”. Now try saying it 12 times in four seconds. Then add various rhythms and try to get 20 people in a section to sing it all the same way. Another continuous sore spot is the tuning in the exposed Graves of Since by Man Came Death. Exposed chorales like this are tuning death for unprepared and undisciplined choirs. It is challenging! But also, incredibly fun.

Handel’s writing is also quite forgiving of mistakes. Since by Man Came Death, if heading towards tuning death, is suddenly whipped back into shape with a very loud Allegro from the orchestra. There are very few parts in which the various voicings of the choir are not supported by instrumentation.

I have sung over 20 performances of Messiah over the last few years, a rare chance to get to know a piece of music so intensely that I’ve developed my own personal approach to performing it. For me, the songs mark out a roadmap for the evening. After the doors close, latecomers are permitted to enter again usually after And the Glory of the Lord, which is about eight minutes into the whole performance. So I don’t usually relax until the bass soloist begins For Behold, Darkness Shall Cover the Earth. It isn’t the first time we hear the bass, but when he begins so quietly and begins a build over the 16ths, the effect is exquisite. The second half is my favourite. Getting to the Hallelujah isn’t even the highlight for me. My favourite aria The Trumpets Shall Sound usually hails the end of the final chorus. (Sometimes, Worthy Is the Lamb follows; however, it depends on the edits of the conductor.)

For me, there is no greater movement than Worthy Is the Lamb followed by the epic Amen. The grand D-major chord is a powerful opener to the end of the masterwork. On the very last page, the sopranos hit a high A followed by the tenors a few bars later. This is always the flashing exit gate to the song. For choirs, this is a moment of collective inhalation and exhalation that brings the grand work to an authoritative close. Pure joy when done right!

Oh Lord, Recorded Messiahs:

Toronto has played home to two iconic recordings of Messiah and may well add a third to the mix. Tafelmusik under Ivars Taurins released a recording of the work on period instruments in 2012. For many, this is a gold standard for Messiah interpretations. In 1987 (the year I was born), Sir Andrew Davis recorded a modern interpretation of the work including the forces of the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. This recording has long been a staple of Messiah listeners across the world. Little did I know that I would then be part of the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir for a new recording to be released for the 2016 holidays. (See David Olds’ review in this month’s Editor’s Corner.) This new version (in which Worthy Is the lamb, by the way, is the final chorus) is the grandest interpretation of the work ever. These are all very different interpretations of the work and show the diversity of sound with the same music. (Tafelmusik doesn’t have a lost sheep braying though).

Oh Lord, Big Messiahs:

This year is unusual for the two biggest Messiahs. Normally Tafelmusik and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra productions overlap. This year, they barely do, with Tafelmusik all but done before the TSO starts. Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and the Tafelmusik Chamber Choir perform a period interpretation on period instruments under the baton of perennial favourite Ivars Taurins at Koerner Hall December 14 to 17. The ever-popular “Sing-Along Messiah” celebrates its 30th anniversary December 18 at Massey Hall.

The biggest game in town is always the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir at Roy Thomson Hall, December 18 to 21 and 23. Notably, the conductor changes every year. This year it’s Nicholas McGegan, conductor of the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Chorale who leads.

Oh Lord, More Messiahs:

Elmer Iseler Singers and the Amadeus Choir: December 2, 8pm at Metropolitan United Church.

Soundstreams presents “Electric Messiah,” a stripped-down four-voice, guitar and electronics concept. Vocal improv goddess Christine Duncan is one of the featured soloists: December 5 to 7, 8pm at the Drake Underground.

London Pro Musica and the #WePlayOn (former musicians of Orchestra London) re-create the Dublin Messiah: December 7, 7:30pm at First St. Andrew’s United Church, London.

Chorus Niagara is joined by the Talisker Players: December 10, 7:30pm at FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre, St. Catharines.

Oh yeah, there’s other music this season!

The Upper Canada Choristers and Cantemos present a different take on holiday music with “Noche de Paz: an Old World and New World Christmas.” The feature is Argentianian composer Ariel Ramirez’s Navidad Nuetra representing a distinctly Latin American sound and rhythm. Cantemos, an 11-voice Latin ensemble made up of members of the Choristers, will perform a few smaller carols from Colombia and Peru: December 2, 8pm at Grace Church on-the-Hill.

The Tallis Choir of Toronto presents “Monteverdi: Vespers of Christmas Eve.” Artistic director Peter Mahon promises a period interpretation and performance that will evoke a Renaissance Christmas Eve in St. Mark’s, Venice: December 3, 7:30pm at St. Patrick’s Church, Toronto.

Singing OUT! presents “Not Another Fa La La.” There’s always choreography! Saturday December 3, 7:30pm at Jane Mallett Theatre, St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts.

The Oakville Children’s Choir presents three different sets of concerts. The first is “Stories, Songs, and Snow” featuring Lineage by Andrea Ramsey and Ngoma by Moira Stanley. Both composers workshopped with the choir on their visit to the Pacific International Choral Festival earlier this year: December 3, 7pm at St. John’s United Church, Oakville. The second, “Community Carol Concerts,” also at St. John’s United Church, takes place December 10 at 1:30pm and 4pm. The choir then joins the Oakville Symphony Orchestra to perform carols and the fun Suite from John Williams Christmas in the 14th annual “Family Christmas Concert”: December 11, 1:30pm and 4pm at the Oakville Centre for the Performing Arts.

The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir presents “Festival of Carols” with the Salvation Army Canadian Staff Band. (I’ll be in the tenors!): December 7, 7:30pm at Yorkminster Park Baptist Church.

Exultate Chamber Singers present “A Time for Celebration: A Canadian Christmas.” University of Toronto professor Hilary Apfelstadt’s Exultate Chamber Singers are always a delight. Featuring Ring Wild Bells by Stephanie Martin, O Magnum Mysterium by Timothy Corlis and a premiere of a new arrangement of Silent Night by Exultate singer/composer J. Scott Brubacher: December 9, 8pm at St. Thomas’s Anglican Church.

Univox presents “Serenity, Hope, Light” celebrating all the various holidays of the season. The feature is Bach’s Lobet den Herrn alle Heiden (Praise the Lord, all ye nations): December 9, 8pm at Christ Church Deer Park.

Pax Christi Chorale presents Ode on the Nativity by C.H.H. Parry with the Aslan Boys Choir and other guests: December 10, 7:30pm and December 11, 3pm at Grace Church on-the-Hill, as well as their eighth annual Children’s Messiah, at 4pm December 17 at Church of St. Mary Magdalene.

Echo Women’s Choir celebrates its 25th anniversary with “Ain’t Life Sweet.” Special guest Annabelle Chvostek joins the choir with a special arrangement of her song Black Hole. The choir will feature songs and arrangements by Vermont artist Brendan Taafe and Penny Lang among others: December 11, 7:30pm at Church of the Holy Trinity.

The super accessible and diverse City Choir presents “This Shining Night, a Bright-Hearted Concert.”: December 13, 7:30pm at St. Peter’s Church.

Incontra Vocal Ensemble (which I also sing in) performs “O Nata Lux:” December 14, 7:30pm at Regis College, University of Toronto.

That Choir: “Carols.” Most fun a choir can have, legally. ’Nuff said: December 18, 8pm at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Toronto.

The huge conglomeration of the Toronto Children’s Chorus ensembles (nine of them!) come together for their annual Roy Thomson Hall concert – “A Child’s Christmas.” Special guest, Stratford Festival veteran Geraint Wyn Davies will narrate the evening. A variety of instrumentalists including TSO musicians will join in the fun: December 17, 2pm at Roy Thomson Hall, Toronto.

The JUNO award-winning Toronto Mass Choir presents “A Gospel Christmas,” featuring special guests and a truly uplifting concert experience: December 17, 7pm at Bayview Chapel, Tyndale University College.

Oh Lord, a New Year!

Our double listing for December 2016 and January 2017 would be remiss without some highlights early in 2017.

Every year the Toronto Mendelsohn Choir hosts five or six emerging conductors in a weeklong intensive. This culminates with a free concert featuring the choir and the Elora Festival Singers: January 28, 3pm at Yorkminster Park Baptist Church.

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra is joined by the Amadeus Choir and the Elmer Iseler Singers in a performance of Fauré’s Requiem: February 1 and 2, 8pm at Roy Thomson Hall.

Soundstreams presents the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir featuring Rachmaninoff’s Vespers and more. February 2, 8pm at St. Paul’s Basilica.

Follow Brian on Twitter @bfchang. Send info/media/tips to choralscene@thewholenote.com


2203 Choral Scene 1Movies and music are a match made in heaven. Several fantastic opportunities are coming up in the next few months to enjoy and experience live music set to films. One of my favourite Oscar moments is seeing the nominees for Best Song, Best Score and Best Soundtrack. Music in films can be incredibly impactful. Yet, even a choral singer like me can overlook or miss some of the important sounds and textures being created by compositions, while listening to the music when not able to see it being performed.

2203 Choral Scene 1aThe Lord of the Rings is one such example and we have a fantastic and unique opportunity to see a Canadian musical team in action for the screening of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring which will be brought to life by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and the massed power of the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir (including me in the tenors!). Ludwig Wicki, who helms the musicians, specializes in the performance of film music and premiered all the LOTR films with live performance of the full soundtrack. All of the TSO live film performances this year are in partnership with the Toronto International Film Festival.

The original film soundtrack – by prolific composer Howard Shore, who wrote the music to all of Peter Jackson’s LOTR and The Hobbit films – is quite frankly one of the most exquisite pieces of film music available. For many in my generation the iconic trumpet theme in The Ring Goes South (as the Fellowship marches across the mountains after leaving Rivendell) is instantly recognizable. But it is the choral richness of Shore’s writing that provides the texture and energy that drives this remarkable score. The accented harshness of the Elvish can be found energizing the chase of the Nazgul. There are soft chorales throughout the music that help accentuate important moments (when Gandalf lights the main hall of the Dwarven city Dwarrowdelf, for example).

And then there is the ending to the Bridge of Khazad-Dum after Gandalf is lost. The entire previous scene is sounded with accented rhythms from the male voices. These give way as the Fellowship escapes into the sunlight. Soft cellos accompany a rich chorale with a delicate treble voice on a slow, piercing descending line. It is remarkably poignant writing. Rehearsing this section the other day reminded me just how powerful music can be in evoking feelings and emotion.

The magic of these performances lies in hearing music with your own ears. Soundtracks are meticulously mixed, balanced and produced to create a specific sound. Often, choral music and the textures of live voices cannot translate very well into recordings. Live, your ears will notice choral lines in places you never would have known: little hidden gems of gentleness or punctuations of energy. It’s a pleasure to learn this music and at the same time engage a brand new understanding and appreciation of it.

There are three opportunities to see The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring in action: December 1, 2 and 3 at 7:30pm, Roy Thomson Hall.

Other film and TV music performances in the coming months include:

Itzhak Perlman’s “Cinema Serenade” with the TSO conducted by Peter Oundjian features iconic violin highlights from film scores by Ennio Morricone, John Williams and others, plus Beethoven’s Symphony 7, November 22 at 7:30pm, Roy Thomson Hall.

The Sony Centre and Film Concerts Live present E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial live in concert. Hear John Williams’ iconic score performed by the Motion Picture Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Kingston Symphony Orchestra music director Evan Mitchell, December 29 and 30 at 7:30pm, Sony Centre.

The TSO presents Disney-Pixar’s Ratatouille in concert featuring Michael Giacchino’s Oscar-winning score under the baton of Sarah Hicks, principal conductor of Live at Orchestra Hall at the Minnesota Orchestra, February 18, 2017 at 11:30am and 4pm, Roy Thomson Hall.

The Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony Orchestra presents “Music from the Movies,” featuring music from Titanic to The Avengers, under Daniel Bartholomew-Poyser, assistant conductor of the KWS, February 24, 2017 at 8pm and February 25, 2017 at 2:30pm and 8pm, Centre in the Square, Kitchener.

The TSO presents Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, score by John Williams. This live performance screening of the very first Indiana Jones movie is led by pops conductor Steven Reineke, March 29, 2017 at 7:30pm, Roy Thomson Hall.

Livenation presents Game of Thrones live featuring a huge multimedia, 360-degree stage, screens, special effects, orchestra and choir under direction of composer Ramin Djawadi, March 4, 2017 at 8pm, Air Canada Centre.

The Diary of Anne Frank

2203 Choral Scene 2The Grand Philharmonic Choir presents the Canadian premiere of James Whitbourn’s choral work, Annelies: A Cantata on the Words of Anne Frank, November 19, 7:30pm at Maureen Forrester Hall, Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo. Based on a translation of the Diary of Anne Frank, this choral work is set for soprano, choir and instruments under music director Mark Vuorinen and featuring the Grand Philharmonic Chamber Singers.

To mark the occasion, the Grand Philharmonic Choir has partnered an exhibition with the Kitchener Public Library. There will be displays on Anne Frank’s life from the Anne Frank Centre for Mutual Respect, New York City. A special performance of Annelies by the Grand Philharmonic Chamber Singers under Vuorinen will be held in the Central Library Reading Lounge on November 13..Beth Slepian, education director for the Anne Frank Centre, will be a guest speaker for this interactive, family-friendly presentation. The library exhibition runs to November 15.

Whitbourn’s musical setting follows selected entries from Anne Frank’s actual words. Translated from the original Dutch, Whitbourn has assembled them chronologically to frame the story. Her writing is remarkable in its intimacy and simplicity. Whitbourn uses repetition of her own words to shape the music. At times, this intimacy is highlighted with solo soprano, at times with chorale. At times minimalist and dissonant, he uses plainchant, military, music hall, solo violin, solo clarinet and more. Whitbourn has also used a lot of repetition. When I queried Vuorinen’s thoughts on this compositional tool he said it requires the interpretation to be “deliberate and thoughtful” with each iteration. He also understands that “the repetition is there for emphasis, to hammer home the message. Which is a whole different approach to express these in a deliberate way to bring home the point.” It is remarkable to hear the repeated invocations of the choir repeating “We are Jews in chains.”

The fifth movement, Life in Hiding, finishes with repetition of the text: “One day this terrible war will be over, and we’ll be people again, and not just Jews.” Her words are a deeply powerful tapestry to set music to. Whitbourn’s interpretation is evocative and challenges the listener to bear witness to this history. Vuorinen notes: “The text is important. Trying to get the voice of this girl. To hear this voice. It’s quite incredible to read these words, of a girl who is incredibly optimistic. There is optimism in this music. But there is juxtaposition of musical styles and it is crushing and very emotional. It is something the singers have to learn to deal with.” Vuorinen revisited Anne Frank’s diary over the summer in preparation for rehearsals and encouraged his singers to do the same.

All the text is from her writings except for the Kyrie in the eighth movement, Sinfonia, and excerpts from the Book of Psalms and Lamentations in the 13th, penultimate movement of the work. We all know that Anne Frank and her companions were betrayed, captured and later died in a concentration camp. Her diary remains a poignant reminder of the impacts of racism, intolerance, hatred, and state-sponsored violence. Again, Anne’s words are best: “As long as you can look fearlessly at the sky, you’ll know you’re pure within” (February 23, 1944). This must be a remarkable experience for the Grand Philharmonic Chamber Singers and it will be for their audience as well.

Other great opportunities

Nov 13: The Amadeus Choir presents “Aurora Borealis: Magic and Mystery,“ featuring works by Timothy Corlis, Ola Gjeilo, Eric Whitacre, Eleanor Daley, Morten Lauridsen and Ēriks Ešenvalds at Eglinton St. George’s United Church.

Nov 19: The Orpheus Choir of Toronto presents “Stories: Myths and Mysteries,” the first concert in their “Identities” theme for 2016/2017. This one includes a premiere of The Farthest Shore by Paul Mealor, with guests Young Voices Toronto at Grace Church on-the-Hill.

And: Get out there and check out the huge variety of Christmas and holiday music. December is coming fast and you want to make sure you have tickets! Check out thewholenote.com for all the latest offerings!

Follow Brian on Twitter @bfchang Send info/media/tips to choralscene@thewholenote.com.


2202-Choral1.jpgWhat are the odds that there would be three separate performances of Felix Mendelssohn’s final completed oratorio, Elijah, all taking place this coming November 5? It’s not as though there’s some particularly significant Mendelssohnian anniversary in the offing: he was born in 1809 and died in 1847, at age 38, 14 months after Elijah premiered, in English, at the Birmingham Town Hall, as part of the Birmingham Festival. But by one of those odd twists of planning and timing (and without any discussion among themselves), Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, Pax Christi Chorale and Chorus Niagara have all scheduled the work, same day and time, as a major part of their respective 2016/17 seasons.

Chorus Niagara’s conductor Robert Cooper shrugs off the coincidence, at first: “if it’s not Mendelssohn’s Elijah, it’s Carmina Burana, one or the other – the two works seem always to collide, with several choirs doing them at the same time but it’s purely coincidence.”

Stephanie Martin and Noel Edison, on the other hand, are both entering significant anniversary seasons (20th) with their choirs – Edison with the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir and Martin with the Pax Christi Chorale – and acknowledge that in some way that might have influenced their decisions to mount this particular work at this time. For Martin this will be her last season at the Pax Christi helm, and it’s an opportunity to revisit a work with which she has a history, with the choir, singing it before conducting it. Edison’s Toronto Mendelssohn Choir performed the work for the first time in 1933, and has remounted it regularly; “I know Elmer [Iseler] did it several times, and Sir Ernest [MacMillan],” Edison says. This will be the third time Edison himself has done it with the choir, most recently in 2009. “It’s the great choral period piece,” he says.

Interestingly, for Robert Cooper the choice to take on the work this year has very little to do with how long he has been with Chorus Niagara (one of four choral or vocal ensembles he conducts). But it has everything to do with the availability of a particular singer to sing the role of Elijah. He explains:

“Last year Chorus Niagara celebrated its first year performing in the new FirstOntario Arts Centre in downtown St. Catharines, so I had other kinds of mandates regarding what we needed to perform in the first year. But I’m not going to be with Chorus Niagara forever; I’ve done the work four times already with them, and really want to do it again, it’s a magnificent score.” The very first time he did it, he explains, his Elijah was none other than Russell Braun. “Russell was a student and singing in my Opera in Concert Chorus – he was at the Glenn Gould School, and this year I thought I really want to get him back. So it’s coincidence again – the timing worked for Russell and I wanted to do it and I thought now’s the chance – now’s the time to get us back together again, because he cut his teeth for his first Elijah with me, and it’s one of his signature pieces now – he sings it all over the world. So I get him to come down to St Catharines to our new arts centre and do Elijah yet again with us.”

2202-Choral2.jpgSinger of stature: Right from the first performance in Birmingham in 1846, the success of the oratorio has revolved around the choice and calibre of the soloists, particularly the bass-baritone that sings the title role. Mendelssohn’s Elijah at that first performance was an Austrian bass-baritone Josef Staudigl, who had become something of a fixture at Covent Garden over the preceding few years, and brought significant operatic presence to the role.

“You have to have a singer of real stature for the role,” says Cooper, “someone who has a real sense of personality, who can take charge. It’s a very operatic piece. You want someone who can stand up there and bring all of the operatic fervour that they can and I personally only use Canadian artists…there are certainly a few other gentlemen who can do it but for me Russell is the signature Elijah. So I wanted to grab him while I could.”

Toronto Mendelssohn Choir’s Edison concurs when it comes to the type of performer needed for the role. “Our Elijah is not known in Canada at all; his name is David Pittsinger, making his role debut. When I was searching I wouldn’t say he was my first choice but I’m glad now that he is. He comes from a musical theatre and opera background and he has done some significant oratorio; he’s very well-known in the States. I definitely wanted someone with that theatrical background for this role. It’s quite an imposing role, and it’s a monumental sing, both emotionally and physically. You need somebody that has a very flexible voice and somebody that has got some good theatrical thinking about their musical phrasing because it’s a real pull-and-push piece. And it’s [a role that’s] got to connect in and out of choruses and with other singers. [Elijah] is the constant, the main voice of the oratorio. And it’s his first Elijah!”

Pax Christi’s Elijah will be Canadian Geoff Sirett. “It’s his first Elijah as well, believe it or not,” Stephanie Martin says. “I just heard him recently sing Prince Igor with Bob Cooper’s Opera in Concert (we’re all connected, here, right?)….” But in the case of Sirett, Pax Christi is actually getting all four soloists as an intriguing package deal.

2202-Choral3.jpgPlaying up the drama: Martin explains: “We have decided to play up the dramatic elements by collaborating with a wonderful young group, the Bicycle Opera Project, who basically perform new opera – a lot of new Canadian opera – so its a stretch for them to sing a big Romantic piece and it’s a stretch for us to do a bit of dramatization. It will not be operatic in the sense that there will be sets flying in and out and anything like that but I think that essentially what Mendelssohn wanted in his libretto was an exchange between characters, a meaningful dialogue, not just singing to the book or parking and barking. It was to be a real dramatic exchange between the four soloists. So BO is going to animate it in that way and we have a lighting designer. We are just trying to break down some of the conventions of oratorio that are maybe strange to a younger audience. Bicycle Opera will do this because they will really bring it off the page. So it’s a little bit of a different approach.”

The four soloists in the Pax Christi production are Bicycle Opera’s four core singers: “Geoff Sirett is our Elijah, Christopher Enns is our tenor; Larissa Koniuk (BO’s artistic director) is the soprano, and Marjorie Maltais is the mezzo. So we’ve hired the entire company…they are used to working together; they can spin ideas and when someone does something they can react because they know and trust each other very well on stage.”

The collaboration will extend to a few kinetic elements for the choir as well. “The choir’s going to try to break a few oratorio conventions. They won’t be wearing black, they’ll be dressed a little differently so the lights will reflect off them nicer, and a group of them will be doing a bit of action – not over the top but just to bring it a little bit closer to our audience, to break down that fourth wall a bit.”

Attempts to overlay operatic elements on orchestral or stand-and-sing repertoire can fail spectacularly unless the work in question suggests the need for them. There is little chance of that happening here. From the earliest days of the oratorio’s gestation, Mendelssohn appears to have been inspired precisely by the story’s most intensely dramatic elements. According to a lovely detailed preface to the New Novello Choral Edition Mendelssohn Elijah, as early as 1836 Mendelssohn was grumbling in a letter to a friend, Karl Klingemann (who was busy arranging a performance of Mendelssohn’s St. Paul in Liverpool), that he wished Klingemann “would give all the care and thought you now bestow on ‘St. Paul’ to an ‘Elijah’ or a “St. Peter,’ or even an ‘Og of Bashan’.”

And as momentum on the work built over the ensuing decade, one finds Mendelssohn’s librettist, the Rev. Julius Schubring admonishing Mendelssohn that “the thing is becoming too objective – an interesting, even a thrilling, picture…we must diligently set to work to keep down the dramatic and raise the sacred element.” To which Mendelssohn responds: “I figure to myself Elijah as a thorough prophet, such as we might again require in our own day…in opposition to the whole world and yet borne on angels’ wings…I would fain see the dramatic element more prominent, as well as more exuberant and defined – appeal and rejoinder, question and answer, sudden interruptions etc., etc.”

Edison concurs. “The principles of oratorio, chorus, soloists, orchestra, recits, arias, are all there, but for me it’s not an oratorio, it’s an opera – it is Mendelssohn’s opera. It’s through-composed, it never stops except at intermission. It chugs right along, it tells the biblical story, it’s got hellfire and brimstone, it’s all Old Testament, Book of Kings, the Psalms, the resurrection of a dead youth, the ascension of Elijah in a fiery chariot, all the components of an opera. There are love duets, like the one between the Mother and the bass, the heavenly choir and the earthly chorus…In its scope, within its oratorio confines, it’s quite operatic.”

Cooper is even more emphatic: “I’ve always had a passion for things operatic. When I was at the CBC, as you may or may not know, I created the show called Saturday Afternoon at the Opera which I produced for 30-plus years, and I’ve been with Opera in Concert for over 30 years and I’ve always loved working in the theatrical world. But when you look at that score, it’s very clear, that feeling of being through-composed. It may have 41 [separate] numbers but it’s not 41 numbers, it’s little dramatic choral scenas and they go lambasting the one into the other and that makes it hard to conduct. You really have to be on your toes and know what’s coming next to get all the transitions and the tempos. And interestingly for an oratorio of this period, you have scenes where you have the soloist with these dramatic little recitatives and arias interspersed with little choral moments of four or five measures, so it’s quite clear that Mendelssohn meant this to have the thrust and parry of an opera…it’s meant to go attacca…bang, bang, bang.”

Assembling the forces: “Bang, bang, bang” certainly describes how the first Birmingham performance must have gone, based on the forces assembled for it: an orchestra of 125 and a choir of 271 (79 sopranos, 60 male altos, 60 tenors and 72 basses).

“Pax Christi has 100 singers,” Stephanie Martin says, “but we’d never accommodate an orchestra that big (mostly because it would cost a great deal). But you see a lot of those Victorian oratorios where you do see an optional group doubling and playing to get a really huge sound. Ours will be a little bit scaled back from that, but really with modern instruments the balance is better with a smaller orchestra. In 1846, those people would probably still have been playing on gut strings, trombones with smaller bores. That makes a huge difference because Elijah is often accompanied by a chorus of trombones – modern trombone just blows the singer away. The 1846 orchestra would have been just a little bit lighter, so you could accommodate a few more players. And a lot of those back bench players would only have played at a few very climactic points when everyone is playing and it’s very exciting and the big Birmingham Town Hall organ would have been screaming away and it would have been quite grand. On our tour this summer, Pax Christi visited Birmingham because it was such a hotbed for oratorio composition and it was great to be there and see where Mendelssohn premiered Elijah, where [Hubert Parry’s] Judith was premiered, where [Elgar’s] Dream of Gerontius and Apostles were premiered…it was an amazing centre for innovation at the time.”

Edison expands: “Back in 1846 everything was much grander then, even the work itself speaks to that Victorian sentiment of grandiosity. Messiah performances were often hundreds, even thousands of people, a city endeavour where everyone was involved. So that was the thinking and the makeup of the performances back in that generation. Stephanie referred already to the development of the modern instrument; but there’s also the development of the modern singer. They are much stronger, more focussed, more educated…and I think generally more equipped as artists in a singing ensemble. Mendelssohn’s Elijah or any of those big Victorian works – they do require a certain force in order to come off the page, I mean you can’t scale it down like you’re doing a Bach motet but you don’t need quite the grand numbers that they once did. I think our orchestra for this performance is about 50 and the choir is 120, 130. But I work hard to make sure that they are thin and refined and disciplined not lazy overly cholesterol-ridden, vocally. Otherwise this Victorian writing can turn into sentimental garbage really quickly and become very saccharine. Because it’s one bloody nice tune after another. I remember Bramwell Tovey once said to me ‘I don’t know why you like this piece, Noel. It’s like God is in every bar.’”

For Cooper’s Chorus Niagara the scalability of the piece offers some extra challenges and opportunities this time round. “Well it’s a challenge for us in the Niagara region because you know for 27 years we’ve been singing in churches and we’ve always been thrilled to have our place packed, but now we’re in an 800-seat performing arts centre which requires more singers on the stage and a much larger orchestra to really give the room the velocity and the volume of the sound that you want. So we have a chorus of 100-plus at Chorus Niagara but I am also bringing in a group from Redeemer College, which is a very important Bible college down in the Niagara region with a very good music program, so they are bringing more singers to join us as well…”

QUICK PICKS

Nov 5 7:30: Toronto Mendelssohn Choir. Elijah. Mendelssohn. Noel Edison, conductor. Lesley Bouza, soprano; Christina Stelmacovich, mezzo; Michael Schade, tenor; David Pittsinger, bass-baritone; Festival Orchestra. Koerner Hall.

Nov 5 7:30: Chorus Niagara. Elijah. Mendelssohn. Robert Cooper, conductor. Russell Braun, baritone; Leslie Ann Bradley, soprano; Anita Krause, mezzo; Adam Luther, tenor; Niagara Symphony Orchestra; Redeemer College Alumni Choir. FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre, St. Catharines.

Nov 5 7:30 and Nov 6 3:00: Pax Christi Chorale. Elijah. Mendelssohn. Stephanie Martin, conductor. Guest: The Bicycle Opera Project (Geoff Sirett, baritone; Christopher Enns, tenor; Larissa Koniuk, soprano; Marjorie Maltais, mezzo.) Grace Church on-the-Hill.

David Perlman can be reached at publisher@thewholenote.com.

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2201_-_Choral_Scene_1.jpgMuch as I'd like to be enjoying more of summer sitting on a Muskoka chair in my backyard with the sun beaming down on me, the pull of the new arts season is beckoning us all forward into fall.

Exciting things are ahead over the next few months: a 20th anniversary celebration of Noel Edison at the helm of the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir with Mendelssohn’s Elijah; composer Ola Gjeilo (whom I wrote about at some length in last April’s issue) is being featured as part of the third edition of Choral Encounters – “Luminous Festival”; The Lord of the Rings – The Fellowship of the Ring is being done by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir at the beginning of December; and this is just a taste of the big events coming up this fall for our choirs (and of the intensity of the rehearsal and preparation about to get under way).

If you’re like me and want to hold on to summer a bit longer, our summer festival greats, the Stratford Shakespeare Festival and the Shaw Festival, continue to offer some tantalizing  musical theatre munchies: A Chorus Line and A Little Night Music at Stratford and Sweeney Todd and Alice in Wonderland at Shaw. Closer to home, the Lower Ossington Theatre productions of Mamma Mia! or West Side Story may entice. Mirvish Entertainment’s Matilda continues to be the hottest ticket out there right now. Dates and locations vary. Check our listings.

If you’re looking for choral concerts, most won’t be forthcoming until October or later, as ensembles return from summer and spend September adjusting and rehearsing. An exception: MOSAIC Canadian Vocal Ensemble presents a concert featuring Karl Jenkin’s Te Deum, and his well-known work The Armed Man: Mass for Peace. September 24 at 7:30pm in St George’s Cathedral, Kingston.

Check into your subscription series for choral music and other artistic endeavours across the region. Subscriptions are important stabilizers in our artistic communities. From Buddies in Bad Times Theatre to the Orpheus Choir to the Aga Khan Museum, subscribers are a key component for the financial viability of our arts organizations. Subscriptions also ensure that you have access to some of the world’s best art across the region including access to the best seats, sightlines and acoustics. Make sure your subscriptions for the upcoming year are set!

A Luminous Choral Experience

As mentioned, Ola Gjeilo comes to Toronto as part of Choral Encounters 2016 – “Luminous Festival.” Gjeilo is sponsored by Yorkminster Park Baptist Church, in collaboration with the University of Toronto Faculty of Music and the Orpheus Choir of Toronto. His work is increasingly becoming part of standard choral repertoire; the GTA region routinely features many of his dozens of compositions.

The majority of the festival is private masterclasses and sessions with Gjeilo and other choral teachers from the region. But the festival culminates with “Luminous Night” a gala concert on October 15 at 7:30pm in Yorkminster Park Baptist Church, Toronto. This grand celebration of his work will include a full presentation of Sunrise Mass with the Talisker Players and also includes Ubi Caritas, Northern Lights, Eternal Sky, and (one of my top choral songs) Serenity. Voices will be provided by the massing of Exultate Chamber Singers, Orpheus Choir, Resonance, the University of Toronto MacMillan Singers and Women’s Chamber Choir and Yorkminster Park Baptist Church Choir. See more at luminousnightfestival.com.

I have written on the Sunrise Mass before, a remarkable collection of Latin text set to lush beautiful melodies. Using the cycle of a day, from morning to evening to mirror that of life, Gjeilo’s work is an evocative invitation to contemplation and intimacy. It is indeed his art and skill as a composer that the music is both grand and thick in sound, yet intimate and personal in execution. He writes in the notes to his piece Contrition: “I feel that my music should be bigger than me, bigger than my everyday concerns as a human being – concerns that may seem incredibly important in the moment but, in the grand scheme of things, really don’t amount to much when compared to the great mystery of life and the universe.”

Gjeilo is especially good at combining quicker, energized vocal lines (or string lines) with slower, poignant melodies. These undulating lines, such as those in Tundra, Contrition or Movement 2 of Sunrise Mass, give an insistence and texture to his music. In setting up listener’s ears to hear these lines, he is most successful in reaching the thick, large chords that texturize his music later on. Appropriately, the word “lush” is most often used to describe his work.

A perceptive listener will notice that incremental semi-tone movement both up and down amongst his lines will create a sparkling essence to the music. Invariably, the sparkle resolves towards the end of the piece, leaving a consonant sound. Most often, it is that Gjeilo introduces the start of a chord with its dominant note before providing the full chord one or two bars later. It’s an accessible, pleasing way that music hits the ear.

2201_-_Choral_Scene_2.jpgCraving Nostalgia: As a child in the early 90s, I grew up listening to the Motown records my father played frequently. Doo-Wop and golden age pop have influenced my musical tastes since then. Remarkably, many of these groups that began in the 50s and 60s continue to perform. ARB Productions, a Toronto based company, specializes in nostalgia performers.

ARB presents the Four Lads and the Four Aces at the Palais Royale on September 26 at noon and 7pm for a full meal and dinner. The Four Lads are homegrown talent having gone to St. Michael’s Choir School and most found fame with their hit Moments to Remember and No, Not Much. The Four Aces hail from the U.S.A. and have had their share of hits including Love is a Many-Splendored Thing and Stranger in Paradise.

This should prove to be a lovely lunch or dinner at an unparalleled historic location. Lunch, martini, a dance or two right on the waterfront – it sounds lovely!

Choir Open Houses

With all this great fun ahead for the start of the musical season, you should join a choir! Many choirs host open houses to see how rehearsals go, check out the conductors and experience the overall vibe of a choir. Most choirs will be happy to welcome spectators for the first few rehearsals. Consider going and more importantly, joining! A few I know about are:

Hart House Singers, September 12 and 19, 7:45pm Hart House Great Hall, University of Toronto.

Orpheus Choir, September 13, 7pm, Yorkminster Park Baptist Church.

Etobicoke Centennial Choir, September 13, 7:30pm, Humber Valley United Church.

Westeros: Finally, later this year, on March 4, 2017 for one night only, Westeros will descend on the Air Canada Centre. Game of Thrones Live is coming with composer Ramin Djawadi at the podium. I’m mentioning this early as this event already has incredible buzz and will completely sell out, so you will thank me later! Featuring a full orchestra and a full, mixed-voices choir set to a multimedia show including pyrotechnics, this isn’t an event to miss. Tickets available on Ticketmaster.

Follow Brian on Twitter @bfchang Send info/media/tips to choralscene@thewholenote.com


As we voyage into the beauty of summer and the winding down of the regular 2015/2016 choral season, it has been my pleasure to write this column over the last year. One fascinating theme for me, as an active singer and performer, and as a regular attendee of concerts in the region, has been how often choral music finds itself at the crossroads of the secular and the sacred. From a Eurocentric perspective this comes as no surprise: much of what we revere as choral singers is deeply rooted in biblical and church liturgy - Handel’s Messiah, Mendelssohn’s Elijah, countless requiems, oratorios based on stories and teachings from scripture. Less evident, from that perspective, is the extent to which choral music is inseparable from global spirituality. We are lucky to be in Toronto, a truly global village where we can  interact with, learn from, and be humbled by the myriad diversity of the human voice, human spirituality and music.

One great case in point is the Aga Khan Museum which has hosted a variety of fabulous musicians from across the world. Qawwali is a devotional, passionate music inspired by Sufi tradition and the California-based Fanna-Fi-Allah Sufi Qawwali Party will perform it at the museum, August 4. This youthful group will bring us sounds and words that have been part of South Asian culture for over 700 years, showing us the harmony of the sacred and secular at play. I hope their programming goes from strength to strength, and that more institutions like this emerge as our city’s cultural landscape continues to change.

Reflecting on the past season, the year has been an extraordinary choral soundscape: 1000 performers in Luminato’s staging of Murray Schafer’s Apocalypsis; several opportunities to experience contemporary throat singing with Tanya Tagaq; fans coming together to sing choral tributes to David Bowie and Prince; a diverse series of Ismaili and other South Asian works by the Aga Khan Museum; an unusual Messiah under Sir Andrew Davis with the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir and the TSO; and the voices of so many children, in the region’s children’s choirs and guests from around the world. Choral City isn’t just humming, it is belting a message of hope across the region!

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Gospel Music – Community in Action: Karen Burke, a York University professor specializing in music education and gospel music, is also the director of the Toronto Mass Choir. She’s incredibly in demand as a clinician and teacher. She talks about the music, but it is clear that people are the key to her approach and to her appeal as an educator and expert. The community that is built, the stories, the personalities, and the love of them all coming together – this is the core of gospel music. An opportunity to talk to Burke immersed me in all the things I like about choral music – love, sharing music in ensemble and being part of something much greater than ourselves.

One of the key abilities of a great conductor is to be able to build an ensemble of people, not just singers. As a professor, Burke takes a unique approach. “Our first class is about making memories. How do you intentionally learn the names of your children so they feel like people and not just voices?” She tells a story that shows how deeply she cares about the singers she works with, and how she is changed by those experiences. In this way, grief becomes joy, and fear can become wonder – for everyone involved – and it all comes out in the music.

I reveal to her my own ignorance of the place of gospel music in Canadian history, and it prompts our conversation. Burke situates gospel music in its Toronto context citing the work of colleagues who have  studied the growth and experience of gospel music, in the region and in how it has shaped the very fabric of choral history. “It is part and parcel of our history here; our choral history, our musical culture,” she says. “And then it’s only a few steps away from remembering how much gospel music is part of our mainstream and what it has done in terms of making our ears more familiar to the different harmonies we hear. And especially how it is has influenced popular music. That is why, working with young people, it is so readily accessible and why they love it. So many [mainstream] harmonies and performances are taken directly from gospel music. So it’s an easier sell to people we want to reach as we try to keep choral music alive.”

She’s absolutely right. So much popular music has been directly influenced by gospel music. It is a musical vernacular that everyone is familiar with, even if they don’t know what it is. Examples include: Lisa Fischer and the backing vocals in Gimme Shelter with the Rolling Stones; NSync’s bridge in This I Promise You; Beyoncé’s chorus in Halo; the end of Lady Gaga’s Born this Way; the Book of Mormon’s Hasa Diga Eebowai; and pretty much anything ever done by Motown. We know the sounds, the harmonies, the bridges into a full-step key change, the call and response, the dominant harmonies – gospel has been part of music for a very long time. This is indeed our music. Is it any wonder that Burke can get youth engaged in choral music and singing at the top of their lungs? This is accessible music and it is also youthful music with a deep local history.

She also talks about how the rote nature of most gospel music requires musicians to use their skills in a different way instead of relying too heavily on sheet music: “What’s on paper is only three quarters of what you need…there’s this phenomenal thing called listening. It’s an incredible tool.” She finds herself constantly surprised by the hesitancy of choristers who don’t think they can sing without music, and then “their eyes come up out of the folders, out of the music, and the sound is just there.” It’s transformative not only for choristers but their directors as well.

Every time one performs gospel, she says, the energy, the feeling, the personality will be different (in contrast to much Eurocentric choral music where we seek to evoke the original intention of the composers as exactly as possible. Gospel music often demands of us to be different and new, every single time. “It’s about what you do for the music personally. When you’re given that permission to be personal, and the choir relates to it, it provides a whole different take on things. People can give more,” she says.

Choral_Scene_2.pngThe Toronto Mass Choir is a prolific performing and recording group. I highly encourage you to check them out; their full gamut of experience is available on Google Play. Karen Burke and the Toronto Mass Choir will present a concert as part of the TD Toronto Jazz Festival on Sunday June 26 at 12:30pm, Nathan Phillips Square.

Summer Festivals: As the regular musical season winds down, there are still many opportunities to catch fantastic music across the region. I hope to see you at some of the performances I have highlighted here, and please look at the listings of the other summer festivals in the region. There is choral music happening everywhere!

The Elora Festival: The Elora Festival continues to provide world-class musical performances in an adorable rural Ontario setting. There is a lot of choral programming over its 16 days. On Friday July 8 at 7:30pm the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir joins the Elora Festival Singers and the Festival Orchestra in an opening night gala featuring a brand new commission, River of Life by Timothy Corlis, as well as Mozart’s Requiem. July 10 at 4pm is “The Glory of Bach” featuring Bach’s Mass in G Minor and more. The incredibly popular all-male chorus Chanticleer performs on Friday July 15 at 7:30pm. Don’t miss a chance to hear Haydn and Mozart on Friday July 17 at 4pm featuring the Elora Festival Singers and the Festival Orchestra in Mozart’s Vesperae solennes de confessore and Haydn’s Lord Nelson Mass, a fantastic double bill. The Elora Festival Singers present “Choral Mystics II” including two new premieres by British composer Patrick Hawes. Hawes will be present as the singers record these premieres on Thursday July 21 at 7:30pm. In the year of Queen Elizabeth’s 90th birthday, the festival presents “Coronation Anthems,” music by Handel on July 23 at 4pm. The festival closes on July 24 at 2pm with the Montreal Jubilation Gospel Choir. See elorafestival.ca for all the listings and locations. Most performances are in a variety of intimate venues.

Toronto Summer Music presents the Theatre of Early Music with Daniel Taylor in a reconstruction of the music that accompanied King George II’s ascension to the throne in 1727. Music by Handel, Purcell, Gibbons and Tallis is featured, Tuesday July 26 at 7:30pm, Walter Hall.

The Brott Music Festival presents its 29th season, featuring a variety of fantastic music across the Hamilton area. The first choral performance is Beethoven’s Ninth on Thursday June 30 at 7:30pm at St. Thomas the Apostle Church, Waterdown. Brott presents Classic Blend in“Songs of the Seasons in Ladies Barbershop Style,” a rare chance to hear a female barbershop ensemble, Saturday July 23 at 7:30pm, Zoetic Theatre. The season closes with Verdi’s Requiem on Thursday August 18, 7:30pm at the Mohawk College McIntyre Performing Arts Centre.

Follow Brian on Twitter @bfchang Send info/media/tips to choralscene@thewholenote.com


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