A Message from PODIUM 2022 video screenshotIt might as well be spring

The WholeNote has been keeping track of the (mostly southern) Ontario choral scene for almost exactly 20 years, and during that time Ontario choirs have followed a predictable winter-to-spring ritual as predictable as swallows to Capistrano. December brings holiday fare, then it’s down to serious business. Choirs gear up over the course of the spring for one last big  performance for the season, often involving their most ambitious or at least newest repertoire. After which, by early June at the latest, the choral tents get folded, the slightly more dog-eared scores get carefully stored, and it’s hugs all round and fond farewells until the fall.

WholeNote Canary coverAs a small part of that predictable ritual, for over two decades, dozens and dozens of Ontario choirs have signed up for The WholeNote’s annual “Canary Pages Directory of Choirs.” First published in May 2003 as our ”Focus on the Choral Scene,” including just over one hundred choirs, it became an annual feature of our May print edition, eventually expanding to include year-round updates on our website. Almost immediately, choirs started using it to describe themselves to prospective choristers: the repertoire they like, where and and how often they rehearse; audition requirements if any, and how often they perform. It became like an annual snapshot of the choral community gathered together – a reminder of how the choral community is more than the sum of its parts. 

A reliable spring ritual: that is, until COVID struck, and choral music was the first casualty, going from the euphoria of drawing collective breath and turning it into music into bewildered masked isolation when the air breathed to sing together became lethal. 

Read more: As the Songbirds Return

Jean-Sébastien Vallée. Photo by Tam Lan TruongI recently connected, twice, with the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir’s recently appointed artistic director, Jean-Sébastien Vallée (the eighth conductor in the choir’s 127-year history). The first time was on September 20, when I visited a TMC rehearsal; the second on October 4, for a chat in The WholeNote office. Both visits were on Mondays, because, at time of writing anyway, Mondays are Vallée’s only Toronto day.

Read more: Understanding what a choir needs - Introducing Jean-Sébastien Vallée

The finale of VOCA's spring cabaret on Apr. 17, 2021: Morten Lauridsen's Sure On This Shining Night, conducted by Jenny Crober (in the middle) with Elizabeth Acker, accompanist (not pictured). vocachorus.caLockdowns! Vaccines! Homemade focaccia! Yes, we are still talking about the pandemic. The media cacophony rises like the tides: job losses, school closures, suspension of hobbies, failing businesses, whole sectors with the rug swept out from under them, including live performance and gathering to make music. 

Happily, with survival depending on reevaluation, creativity and adaptation, we are witnessing an unexpected resurgence among musical ensembles finding ways to get together, even at a time when gathering in person is met with finger-wagging (not from the conductors) and hefty fines.

Regular readers know that May is usually the month when The WholeNote publishes its Canary Pages Choral Directory, but that in May 2020 the period for joining the directory was extended from May right through September, with choral profiles being posted to the website as soon as received. Well, it’s May again, and while uncertainty still prevails for many choirs, a heartening number have already signed up. So I reached out to several of these “early adopters” who have already submitted profiles for this year’s Canary Pages, to try to get a feel for how they weathered the past year and how, if at all, their plans for the coming season are further along than at this time last year. 

Many expressed frustration, mostly due to the shift of being predominantly online. Most are in agreement, however,  that the show, and the opportunity to sing together, must go on. And although more muted than usual, choral directors and choristers are still working together behind the scenes to keep the music in the air. Figuratively speaking, of course.

Read more: “Click Unmute!” How the Zoom Boom is Shifting the Choral World

Against the Grain’s Elliot Madore. Photo ATG THEATRENo performing arts organizations can pretend they don’t exist in a specific time and place – responding to cultural and political moments of the right now, even when the music they perform comes from very different times. Choirs are grappling with the loss of rehearsals and live performances, but they are also grappling with the overlapping realities of fighting for justice and emancipation in a very complex world.

Messiah/Complex is an upcoming new digital performance from Against the Grain Theatre (AtG). Artistic director Joel Ivany and his innovative team are taking the Handel and Jennens masterwork and breathing it alive with diverse voices, languages and cultural inspiration of people across Canada. Ivany has been joined by Reneltta Arluk, director of Indigenous arts at the Banff Centre. Together they have assembled a vast collection of performers representing every province and territory. The WholeNote had a chance to connect with artistic director Joel Ivany to share just what a complex Messiah looks like in our times. “There are complex layers to this work,” AtG’s Ivany shares. “Handel, himself, had investments in the Royal African Company. This means that he profited off of slave trade during the 1720s and 30s.” 

Connecting the history of the work to its time and place is necessary to connect to our time and place, he says. “We’ve asked Indigenous artists to learn settler music set to Biblical text. They have interpreted it and now sing it in their own language. We want to reconcile our relationship with First Nations, but it’s not easy; there are layers and it is complex. We want to support our Black, Indigenous and People of Colour community, but there’s no easy answer or quick fix.”

Read more: A Messiah for our Complex Times

TMC recording sessions, at Trinity-St. Pauls Centre: daily health questionnaires and temperature checks; the stage marked with physically distanced spots for each singer and each orchestra musician (recorded at different times); all participants wore masks, artists removed theirs only in place, to record. Photo by Anne LongmoreThese are challenging times to be a musician. Empathy and compassion is a crucial part of a pandemic response, but it is easily forgotten in the immediate dangers of trying to protect oneself from an unmasked person, or trying to plan out the next month’s rent without income from performing. For some, returning to work, be it the arts or offices or restaurants, isn’t a matter of choice – it’s the difference between having somewhere to live next month or being able to afford dinner that day. The arts are workplaces with livelihoods on the line and right now, we’re all struggling. 

For singers and wind musicians in particular, current circumstances are particularly difficult. Crises are intersecting in our arts communities at the moment and are demanding ever more complex responses from the choral world than ever before if we are going to find a way through. There are real and serious dangers to consider as choristers return to action. 

Speaking with choristers, there is already so much anxiety and lack of knowledge about how to proceed with doing what we love in a time of pandemic. So it is additionally hard to find oneself in a community of interest where, as in society as a whole, some of those voices are pandemic deniers, vehement anti-maskers, who participate in the pandemic conspiracies and spout the paranoia of “state compliance” and our loss of “bodily sovereignty.” The unfortunate truth is that these people are part of our choirs, part of our choral communities, and they present dangers. 

This month, I’m presenting some of my thoughts on recent scientific data and what you can expect from digital rehearsals and upcoming digital concerts.  

Read more: Lessons from Skagit Valley and Beyond: Choral Music in a Time of Pandemic
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