In this month’s column we have two arts organizations taking on Slavic traditions and history. Pax Christi Chorale presents “Slavic Devotion” and Vesnivka Choir leads a commemorative concert for the 85th anniversary of the Holodomor.

Members of Pax Christi ChoralePax Christi Chorale: Slavic Devotion

Inseparable from Slavic history is the relationship of Orthodox Christianity in the region. The traditions of Slavic Orthodoxy are distinct from those of Western Europe, with the sphere of influence having been Constantinople rather than Rome. In the deep ritual and spirituality of the Orthodoxy, we find many of the great Eastern European composers. Two are featured by artistic director David Bowser: Stravinsky’s A Symphony of Psalms; and Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise and All Night Vigil.

“Slavic Devotion’ refers to the spirited expression of sacred and secular Slavic music,” replies Bowser in response to a few of my questions. “We are presenting Russian, Ukrainian and Bulgarian music to demonstrate a rich variety and beauty in contrasting styles.”

This is not a religious concert in the typical spiritual sense. Bowser has assembled these works to display the rich musical history of Slavic music and the languages, which he describes as “beautifully fluid and melodic.”

“The Symphony of Psalms is the perfect musical pairing for Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil,” says Bowser. “They are both conventional works in some ways, but the bright spark of personality and unique genius shines through. Like Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky before him, Stravinsky rejected much of the Orthodox Church’s teachings and generally did not attend church in his adult life. But these composers found a unique musical voice to express their personal spiritual culture and artistic link to tradition.”

Many choral composers, while not overtly religious, have worked within the space of the spiritual. Of the grand choral works that one can name offhand, a good bunch of them are masses or requiems. “Just as there is no political statement in this program, there is no religious one either,” shares Bowser. “It’s about the impact of beautiful art and vocal vibration on the audience. We are performing sacred and secular works not to recreate their social function but to reveal their beauty in a new light.”

With a strong Ukrainian tradition in Toronto, there are many descendants and members of the diaspora who continue to shape and influence music. Pax Christi Chorale is joined by Natalya Gennadi, a popular presence in the Toronto opera scene. Gennadi and Bowser have collaborated before. He shares: “I have known Natalya for many years ever since she was a selected soloist in the Toronto Mozart Vocal Competition, now called the Toronto Mozart Master Class Series. She is a stunning singer with incredible technique and wonderfully expressive investment in the text.”

Gennadi made a name for herself as the lead in the Tapestry Opera production of the new opera Oksana G. in May 2017. A Russian language and literature specialist, Gennadi’s thorough comfort in the Russian and Ukrainian languages and tradition will be well-suited to this concert. For Bowser, this is a chance to work together again” “We have been looking for a project and her expertise in Russian and Ukrainian repertoire and language gave us an opportunity to highlight the great works from this part of the world,” he says.

Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise contains no actual words. The ethereal sounds on beautiful open vowels allow Gennadi to evoke, inspire and create a narrative of her own making through the music. Unlike instrumental music, which exists without consonants and vowels, the physical function of singing is usually a carefully articulated rhythmic roadmap of deftly shaped words. Allowing yourself the indulgence of experiencing gorgeous vocal lines free of the constraints of words has a universality of the effect that may surprise even the most experienced choral listener. Paired with the stunning All-Night Vigil, listeners will find themselves transfixed. “These are extraordinary works for the human voice,” says Bowser. “The synchronized vibration of 100 voices makes this experience all the more satisfying.

October 17 at 7:30pm and October 28 at 3pm. Pax Christi Chorale performs Slavic Devotion. With guest soprano Natalya Gennadi. Grace Church on-the-Hill.

Vesnivka ChoirVesnivka Commemorates the Holodomor

Under the iron fist of Stalin’s Soviet Russia, millions of Ukrainians died from government-sponsored famine, neglect and isolation during peacetime. Restricting people from escaping famine-stricken communities, imposing total government control of food production, confiscating food and restricting community access to it, the Soviet government created the conditions for famine and millions died.

Writing together, artistic director Halyna Kondracki and executive member Lesia Komorowsky responded to a few of my inquiries about the commemorative concert. Chorister Valentina Kuryliw also provided comments. Their knowledge and gracious sharing of history show a connection and thoughtfulness bridging the important acts of memory, religion and music.

In 2003 and 2008, the choir commemorated the 70th and 75th Holodomor anniversaries, respectively. As Kondracki and Komorowsky share: “It is important to keep the memory of this event alive so that future generations learn about it and understand what can happen under the rule of tyranny and media censorship.”

(Compare the frightening reality of our current world in the genocide of Yazidis, the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingyas, and the targeting of women and children by Boko Haram in Nigeria. Many of the horrors we wish would stay in the past continue forward into our present and future.)

Of the Holodomor, Kuryliw notes that for Ukrainians who survived, “No one was allowed to mourn for these people. It was forbidden to mention the famine in Soviet Ukraine for generations. The memory of it was erased from history under the Communists.” As Kuryliw notes, Ukrainians are particularly sensitive to the annexation of Crimea, properly Ukrainian territory, by Russia. For those still in the Ukraine and for the diaspora, remembering events like the Holodomor is “a testimony of the resilience to survive despite starvation, deportations and executions – all attempts to destroy [us].”

Music has been a way to keep many of those traditions alive. “Music is an integral part of Ukrainian culture and, in particular, a strong choral tradition,” say Kondracki and Komorosky. “From the very beginning when Ukrainian pioneers came to Canada, they organized in order to keep their cultural traditions alive in the diaspora. In almost every Ukrainian-Canadian community throughout Canada you will find choirs, bands, orchestras and dance groups. The Ukrainian community in and around the GTA has long been a strong bastion of Ukrainian culture with its many community and church choirs.”

It is no accident that Vesnivka is celebrating its 53rd year of music making.

For this commemoration, Kondracki has programmed an entirely Ukrainian concert. Many Ukrainian composers have written works to commemorate the Holodomor. Evhen Stankovych’s Requiem will be performed as well as Hanna Havryletz’s My God, why have You abandoned me? The late Ukrainian-Canadian composer Zenoby Lawryshyn’s Tryptych: In Memoriam to the Victims of Holodomor will also be performed. Lawryshyn was a dear friend of the choir and created many works for Vesnivka over the years. And treasured local Ukrainian-Canadian composer Larysa Kuzmenko’s Voice of Hope will be performed with soprano solo by Antonina Ermolenko accompanied by the Gryphon Trio.

Recognizing the Slavic Orthodoxy is inseparable from the Ukrainian-Canadian experience. Sacred music composer Roman Hurko is of Ukrainian Canadian descent. Educated at the University of Toronto and Yale University, his speciality has been composing for the Byzantine Rite, still the major form used by Slavic Orthodoxy. The historical rootedness of his composing was brought forth in his major work Requiem/Panachyda, written to commemorate another Ukrainian historical moment – the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl. The choirs will sing Eternal Memory, an excerpt from the Requiem.

This commemorative concert fits into the musical tradition of the community who have long marked important moments with music. “In addition to previous concerts commemorating Holodomor,” Kondracki and Komorosky write, “Vesnivka Choir has spearheaded or taken part in four concerts commemorating the Chernobyl disaster. Following the Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine in 1986, many Ukrainian musicians in Canada and abroad wrote music, including requiems, commemorating this event. Other commemorative concerts have included remembering the Ukrainian Army of WWI, the arrival of Ukrainian pioneers in Canada, the 100th anniversary of Ukraine’s independence in 1918, and several concerts in tribute to various Ukrainian composers and literary figures.”

The church continues to be an important part of the Ukrainian-Canadian tradition and Vesnivka continues that work. And never far form their work is the Orthodox Rite. At their religious home of St Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic Church, Vesnivka bring forth all the history and memory of what it means to be Ukrainian and Canadian.

On October 21, 2018, Vesnivka will join other dignitaries and guests at the unveiling of the Toronto memorial to the victims of the Holodomor. Led by the Toronto Ukrainian Association, the new memorial will stand just north of the Princess Gates to Exhibition Place.

October 28, 5pm. Vesnivka and the Toronto Ukrainian Male Chamber Choir present “Commemorating Holodomor.” With special guests the Elmer Iseler Singers, the Gryphon Trio and soprano Antonina Ermolenko. Runnymede United Church, Toronto. 

CHORAL SCENE QUICK PICKS

OCT 10, 7:30PM: Chorus Niagara presents Brahms’ great work: Ein Deutsches Requiem (A German Requiem). With the Avanti Orchestra and soloists. Chorus Niagara, under Bob Cooper, is a fantastic ensemble bringing fine choral music to the Niagara region. FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre, St Catharines.

OCT 27, 7:30PM: The Orpheus Choir of Toronto performs the music to the 1924 silent film Peter Pan. This is a new film undertaking for the choir and will prove to be an exciting addition to the oft-performed Phantom of the Opera. Eglinton St. Georges United Church.

NOV 4, 4PM: The Amadeus Choir presents “The Great War: A Commemoration.” Featuring Gabriel Faure’s Requiem and joined by guests, the Eglinton St. George’s Choir and soloists. This is an earlier option for those looking to catch commemorations for Remembrance Day. Eglinton St .George’s United Church.

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

Lucas Harris. Photo by Scarlet O'Neill.All it takes is one person with initiative and a few friends to start a choir.” The speaker is Lucas Harris, current artistic director of the Toronto Chamber Choir (TCC). The person he is talking about is Annegret Wright whose initiative it was, five decades ago, to get the TCC started. Not many arts organizations can sustain themselves for decades, and 50 years is a remarkable feat, requiring not just loyalty to an organization’s founder but also the ability to change. Harris is now at the helm, taking the TCC into its golden jubilee, but “[past conductors],Elizabeth Anderson, Mark Vuorinen and David Fallis are all heroes of mine,” says Harris, “and I’m honoured to feature them in this concert.” Together on September 29, the combined forces of these impressive artistic leaders should make the start of the TCC’s 50th anniversary season a celebration to remember.

Harris reaches me by email, providing a glimpse into how the choir retains its awareness of its history. The choir’s archivist, Sharon Adamson, has kept meticulous records, he explains. These include “the choir’s complete membership history, every concert performed, every venue rented, every work sung, every soloist/section lead/instrumentalist hired over the choir’s entire history.” He gives me statistics that can be drawn from the archival work: 177 concert programs, 1500 works performed, 418 members across the decades, 357 instrumentalists hired, and five artistic directors. Impressive.

The work for this concert began last season, and the programming reflects Harris’s awareness of its past. He has programmed “hits by the choir’s all-time favorite composers, including Monteverdi, Purcell, Bach, Britten and more,” he says. There’s even a chorus from Schütz’s Musikalische Exequien (Funeral Music) that was in the very first TCC concert. Other homages include Fallis leading Healey Willan’s three Marian motets. Elizabeth Anderson, a frequent guest conductor of the choir, began rehearsing the concert in March. Harris describes her as “a seasoned church musician with amazing ears (and perfect pitch) and is brilliant at firing up the group to learn music quickly.” As they head back to rehearsals, they’ve already got a head start.

“Because it’s a best of/greatest hits… it’s a lot of repertoire we already know. We started last season when we had some down time,” shares David Barber, a longtime singer in the choir. Barber has also created a new work for the choir, Gaudeamus, adding something new to the mix. It is meant to feel old, though, and fits right into the mix of the flavours that make up the typical repertoire of the choir. “It starts with the Introit of the Gregorian chant and actually goes through the history of the music that this choir sings, all in about five minutes,” continues Barber. He describes the song as including flavours and techniques akin to Machaut, Tudor, Byrd, Tallis, Purcell and much more. This combination of the old and the new fits well for the choir. It’s a unique value proposition that TCC offers that other choirs don’t. Barber describes the versatility: “We’re one of the few choirs that specializes in early music, with a bridge to the contemporary when we can find a connection. Certainly, it’s been a speciality of this choir.”

Harris has further thoughts on the longevity of the choir and what it has to offer. “I think that the most important factor keeping our music-making fresh is the enormous amount of repertoire there is to explore … even just within Baroque and Renaissance music,” says Harris. Much can be said about the bridging of the old and the new in creative ways.

Under Harris’s leadership, the ensemble is embracing some innovative programming. With a modernization of the “Kaffeemusik” format, the choir’s Sunday afternoon performances have taken on a new life with multimedia, narrators and actors. The goal is “to explore something broader than just the music … to add historical and/or social context to the music,” shares Harris. He’s excited about previous forays into Eastern European and Scandinavian music, and a special focus on female composers prior to Clara Schumann.

“We’re also partnering with more diverse artists in order to explore beyond our usual repertoire,” he continues. The list of upcoming guests is impressive and exciting. The Nathaniel Dett Chorale, soprano/conductor Teri Dunn, tenor Charles Daniels, musicologists, and even First Nations language specialists are part of the plans. Harris continues to look both to the old and the new in programming. “There is still so much more music out there to explore … I’m keenly aware of this every time I visit a good music library and just pull volumes of music off the shelves. Even after two decades of specializing in early music, I humbly realize that I have only experienced the tip of an iceberg,” he says.

The rest of the season will include many more collaborations and explorations of new and challenging programs. For now though, it’s a chance for the ensemble to take 50 years of history and have a great time. “The goal is to bring the TCC family together and celebrate its history,” says Harris. “It is really about celebrating the TCC’s extended family by bringing together as many former members, directors, soloists/section leads and other friends.” It’s a big family too, with over 400 members from seasons past and 17 years of an apprentice program with the Rosedale School for the Arts. Alumni of the choir have been invited to join in the program, and will beef up some of the performances in the second half of the concert. “Even more than the music itself, I’m looking forward to this as a community event,” says Harris. “It will be a gathering of people whose love of early music caused them to be connected to this extraordinary organization at some point in their lives.”

Fifty years ago, all it took was a few friends around Annegret Wright (far left) to start a new choir.Fifty years ago, all it took was a few friends around Annegret Wright to start a new choir. 177 concert programs and 1500 works performed later, the Toronto Chamber Choir begins its 50th anniversary season in fine style and esteemed company – with the prospect of much more ahead.

The Toronto Chamber Choir presents “Music & Friendship” September 29 at 8pm at Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre, Toronto. See more about upcoming performances of the Toronto Chamber Choir at torontochamberchoir.ca.

Honorary Mention

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra opens its season with a rarely heard choral presentation of Fantasy on Shakespeare’s The Tempest from Lélio, or The Return to Life by Hector Berlioz. The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir joins the TSO under interim artistic director Sir Andrew Davis. September 20 and 22 at 8pm; September 21 at 7:30pm. Roy Thomson Hall, Toronto.

A choir for you!

At the start of every season I always encourage readers to get out there and join. Whether you sing or not, there’s a choir for you in this city. The WholeNote maintains a database of choirs across the region known as the Canary Pages – available on thewholenote.com under the “Who’s Who” tab. Here are just some of the many options:

Accessible Community – City Choir
Adult Female – Penthelia Singers
Adult Male – Forte - Toronto Gay Men’s Chorus
Barbershop – Toronto Northern Lights
Casual – Choir! Choir! Choir!
Chamber Choir – Exultate Chamber Singers
Contemporary – That Choir
Early Music – Toronto Chamber Choir
East York – VOCA Chorus of Toronto
Etobicoke – Etobicoke Centennial Choir
Everyone – Univox
Gospel – Toronto Mass Choir
Inclusive – Singing Out!
Mississauga – Mississauga Festival Choir
Opera – Toronto City Opera Chorus
Richmond Hill – Chorus York
Rock – newchoir
Scarborough – Ruckus: the UTSC Alumni and Community Choir
Social Justice – Echo Women’s Choir
Youth (Mississauga) – Resonance Youth Choir (See Mississauga Festival Choir)
Youth (Toronto) – Toronto Youth Choir

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

The month of May is one of fully ripened choral fruit. At the end of the season for many choirs, these are the signature concerts for many ensembles and in some cases, farewells. I’ve provided some in-depth interviews and insights into a handful of concerts. Check out the Choral Canary Pages and learn about choirs in your area – and check out the listings for a more extensive list of concerts this month.

The Tallis Choir Celebrates 40 years: Rise Up my Love!

The Tallis Choir concludes their 40th anniversary season. Artistic director Peter Mahon spoke to The WholeNote about what to expect: “As we wrap up our 40th anniversary season, we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the death of Healey Willan and we offer a belated salute to our nation at the tail end of the 150th anniversary of Confederation with music by Canadian composers including Stephanie Martin, Eleanor Daley and Matthew Larkin” (all of whom reside in Toronto, as Mahon points out).

Mahon has a unique connection directly to Willan, whom he describes as “Canada’s best loved composer of church music.” There are few Canadian composers who have had the reach that Willan achieved. “Both my mother and father sang at St. Mary Magdalene,” shares Mahon, “from the time of their arrival in Canada in 1948, until Dr. Willan’s death in 1968 and for many years afterwards.” Willan served as music director at St. Mary Magdalene for almost 50 years. Mahon also remembers being a young chorister who was able to sing with his family in tribute at Willan’s passing: “I was 13 when Dr. Willan died and was privileged to sing at his Requiem Mass, sitting right behind my father in the Ritual Choir.”

“Most church singers in English Canada can name at least one piece by Healey,” says Mahon. “A good majority of them would also say that they can probably sing Rise Up My Love from memory. Such is the universal appeal of Willan’s music. For the most part, he wrote miniature gems, designed for the liturgy of the Church of St. Mary Magdalene, but choirs across the country and beyond sing them regularly… Speaking personally, I grew up listening to Willan’s music at St. Mary Magdalene, so it is in my blood.” Willan’s music anchors this all-Canadian presentation of music for Tallis’ 40th anniversary.

May 12, 7:30pm. The Tallis Choir presents “Milestones.” St. Patrick’s Church, Toronto.

Schola Magdalena: Votes for Women!

Still on the subject of Church of St. Mary Magdalene, Stephanie Martin, the ever-thoughtful composer and conductor-extraordinaire, has noted the upcoming centenary of 100 years since the first Canadian women were permitted to vote for the federal government. Martin and the six-member Schola Magdalena will be singing an all-female-composer concert to mark the event. “A small departure from our usual fare, like Hildegard of Bingen and Brigitte of Sweden,” Martin says, “the concert will also include some modern Toronto music from female composers,” including Martin’s own Missa Lumen, and from soprano Gabrielle McLaughlin. The feature of the evening will be Martin’s Te Deum, which she describes as a song whose “text conjures up so many visual images of martyrs, angels, joy and judgment.”

Schola Magdalena. Photo by Iain LoweAlthough 1918 marked the first time that certain Canadian women were permitted to vote, it wouldn’t be until 1960 that all women in Canada were included in the right to suffrage. (Women of colour, Indigenous women and anyone with mental or physical disabilities were excluded until that time.) Women’s voting rights ties into another event that Martin is exploring. Her upcoming opera Llandovery Castle tells the story of “nurses who served in WWI on the Llandovery Castle hospital ship. [They] were able to vote earlier than other women because they were officers. They could vote federally in 1914.”

While we have much to appreciate in universal suffrage in our contemporary Canada, we would do well to remember that it wasn’t always this way. Stephanie Martin brings history into focus with her thoughtful approach to composition and music.

May 23, 8:15pm. Schola Magdalena presents Celebrating 100 Years of Votes for Women in Canada. Church of St. Mary Magdalene, Toronto.

Upper Canada Choristers and Cantemos Latin Ensemble: La Rosa de los Vientos

For many newcomers to Canada, with family, children, partners, and friends far away, love can feel distant – strong, but distant, explains Jacinto Salcedo, coordinator of the Cantemos Latin Ensemble speaking to The WholeNote about the words he wrote in the poem: La Rosa de los Vientos (The Wind Rose). “This is a recurrent theme for immigrants. Often, families are split, but you still love them, care for them, and want the best for them,” he shares. “It is nostalgic and touching.” For the tenth anniversary of the ensemble, the poem has been set to music by César Alejandro Carrillo, a very well-known Venezuelan choral composer and conductor. Carillo is especially known for his work with the Orfeón Universitario of the Central University of Venezuela.

With 12 singers taken from the ranks of the Upper Canada Choristers (UCC), Cantemos endeavours to bring the sounds of Latin American heritage to Toronto audiences. “Ten years ago, the UCC wanted to feature one or two [Latin American] songs in a concert,” Salcedo shares. “It became a natural evolution to continue exploring the richness of the music. We’ve done Latin music that is sacred, secular, dance, Christmas, and modern pieces that aren’t as well known. It’s become a need to keep doing this. We’re always curious and interested in knowing more of our culture and sharing it with people.”

Cantemos Latin Ensemble. Photo by Daniel CharltonThe Upper Canada Choristers, under Laurie Evan Fraser, have a big offering with their “Magic of Music” concert. In addition to Cantemos, guest baritone Bradley Christensen and the Junior and Chamber Choirs of Allenby Public School will join the performance. Christensen will perform Vaughan Williams’ Five Mystical Songs along with the choir. En masse, the choirs will perform Rutter’s The Music’s Always There With You.

“UCC is about sharing music with the community,” says Salcedo. “We come from all kinds of different professions and interests in life, but [singing] is the common ground that we love and nurture.” Next year, the choir goes on tour to Japan with Canadian and Latin repertoire. “We want to keep exploring new rhythms, new songs. We are now at the point where we can be more well known. I think the level of quality and musicianship we’re getting will help us in the next ten years.”

May 11, 8pm. The Upper Canada Choristers and Cantemos Latin Ensemble present “The Magic of Music.” Grace Church on-the-Hill, Toronto.

Celebrating the Human Voice: SING! The A Cappella Festival

SING! The Toronto Vocal Arts Festival co-artistic directors Suba Sankaran and Dylan Bell present a packed schedule this year, with ten days that explore the magic of a cappella music. Sankaran chatted with The WholeNote: “It’s cool again to be singing in Glee clubs, in barbershop ... Through Pentatonix or Pitch Perfect, or Glee, it’s cool to be singing.”

FreePlay Duo: Suba Sankaran and Dylan Bell. Photo by Edward HanleyThere’s an astounding lineup. Part of the festival I’m flagging: artists FreePlay Duo (which is Sankaran and Bell); hugely popular all-male Rockapella; Retrocity, a local 80s group; an all-female concert featuring the Penthelia Singers and Girl Pow-R with others; and Resound, a totally unbelievable gospel trio who will drop your jaw and melt your heart.

For new attendees, Sankaran has some tips. “Take in one of the weekend shows,” she says. “It will give you a chance to experience a workshop or two, go to the outdoor free stage, drink in some of the a cappella artists, and then go to an evening show.” In one concert, three groups are celebrating their 20th anniversaries: Retrocity, the Toronto Northern Lights and Cadence. It’s a great introduction to the “spectrum” of a cappella as Sankaran describes it, including barbershop, jazz and contemporary.

SING! The Toronto Vocal Arts Festival offers big weekend concerts, a free outdoor stage, and intimate performances in small venues like the Jason George Pub and the Little Trinity Church. There’s a huge breadth of performers representing diverse musical styles and that is a direct reflection of the energy and connections that Sankaran and Bell bring to the table. Local sacred traditions are reflected with “SING! Crossroads,” which features the Ruach Singers and Six 13, both Jewish a cappella worship groups. “SING! Celebrates Gospel” brings in the Christian tradition rooted in Black music of North America. And the multidisciplinary aspect of the festival is reflected with “Art Battle”!

Central to all of this is people making music with nothing but their voices. “The power of the human voice, the fact that it can empower a person, whatever age, whatever ability – that to me is the most important thing. It truly is a universal language, especially when you get into a cappella,” says Sankaran. “Your voice is like your fingerprint. It’s completely unique. People can try and imitate you but they can never be you, they can never breathe like you.”

Make sure to check out ten days of empowering a cappella music.

SING! The Toronto Vocal Arts Festival runs from May 23 to June 3 in a variety of venues, mostly centred around the Distillery District, Toronto. Check out www.singtoronto.com for all the offerings.

Exultate Chamber Singers: “We Sing and Connect”

Last month, I wrongly reported that Hilary Apfelstadt’s final concert with the Exultate Chamber Singers was at their April 6 concert. There is one remaining program in the season, however: “We Sing and Connect,” which takes place on Friday May 25 and Saturday May 26.

May 25 and May 26, 8pm. Exultate Chamber Singers presents “We Sing and Connect.” With special guests the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre Adult Choir (May 26 only). St. Thomas’s Anglican Church, Toronto. 

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

Emotion is at the core of every musical performance and storytelling is at the heart of emotion. Sometimes the stories can be esoteric, sometimes they are obvious, sometimes they challenge us to find them. There is an extra dimension that conductors put into their concerts when programming songs that tell a story to evoke certain feelings. Take in a well-constructed choral concert this month and see the part that musical storytelling plays. I’ve highlighted a few below.

“I’ll be Your Refuge”

“Music has a way of softening the edges around a message, of getting at its true emotional core, and of transmitting that to a broad range of people,” says Annabelle Chvostek, JUNO-nominated singer-songwriter and artist-in-residence for Echo Women’s Choir. She continues: “Having music carry ideas can make things feel less preachy or didactic. It’s just giving it from the heart.” Chvostek is answering some of my questions by email. I’ve asked her about her experiences creating and adapting her solo music for Echo Women’s Choir.

Annabelle Chvostek - photo by Ximena GrisctiI’ll Be Your Refuge is Chvostek’s feature song that gives the Echo Women’s Choir spring concert its title. This isn’t Chvostek’s first time writing or arranging music for Echo. She has adapted her songs Black Hole and Firewalker for them, amongst others. But “this year is the first time I am actually presenting a song that is a choral song first. I’ll Be Your Refuge is a song I want to be singing, but it is so much more poignant to do it with the intent and attention of these women supporting its delivery. And it was a magical process to have room for four vocal parts to carry it instead of my one.”

The story she’s telling here is one that is deeply personal for her. Her partner is a former refugee and Chvostek is sharing a story of acceptance, belonging and open arms. “Observing the global refugee crisis of the last few years has been powerful. Some of the most moving news moments for me have been around [refugees], including watching Canadian families and communities respond to the crisis with openness and generosity,” she continues.“And frustratingly, some people respond with fear.” Echo is sharing this music to move beyond fear.

Echo is unlike any other choir in the city that I’ve met. It is a gathering of female-identified voices rooted in a compassion and drive for social justice. Their concerts are community gatherings centred around music, much of which is uniquely arranged for Echo by Alan Gasser. Becca Whitla and Gasser are co-directors with Chvostek. They want you to think and be challenged by their music and storytelling. There is deep thoughtfulness behind the music they program and the issues they want you to confront.

Echo Women's Choir - photo by Katherine FleitasDene singer Leela Gilday comes to Toronto as the choir’s special guest. Based out of Yellowknife, Gilday shares stories and describes herself as having “a sense of humour as well as a sense of social justice and an ironic appreciation of human folly.” Her music and stories will be welcomed by the choir.

“Music is one way we can express the things that we hope will contribute to a fairer, more just society,” says Chvostek. “One that cultivates joy within all its diversity of expression. Music can actually get at things in a way that words alone can’t.”

Echo Women’s Choir presents “I’ll be Your Refuge” with special guest Leela Gilday and co-directors Becca Whitla, Alan Gasser and Annabelle Chvostek, Sunday April 29 at 3pm, at Church of the Holy Trinity, Toronto.

Now the Guns Have Stopped

For the Oakham House Choir upcoming concert “Better is Peace than Always War,” artistic director Matthew Jaskiewicz has paired Karl Jenkins’ The Armed Man and Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem. Two distinct works, they are companion pieces in their ability to channel a message of peace in the form of a mass. The concert’s title comes from the opening words of the 12th and final movement of Jenkins’ piece. The Armed Man is popular amongst community choirs for its universal message of peace and its musical accessibility. The work includes poetry by Rudyard Kipling, Jonathan Swift and Sankichi Tōge, a Japanese survivor of the Hiroshima bombing by the USA. The hymn L’homme armé, for which the work is named, is based on an ancient tune. The hymn tells us “the armed man should be feared,” a warning against those who carry and use weapons.

Paired with The Armed Man, Jaskiewicz has chosen the Fauré Requiem. A beloved staple of French music and the requiem canon, this is a mass for the dead. Put into the context of a call for peace, this requiem performance will not be used for actual commemoration. Audiences will instead be challenged to think about the areas of the world plagued by conflict at this very moment. And as we approach the centenary of the end of World War I, it serves to remind us of past conflicts as well. This concert commemorates the end of the First World War and is a collaboration with the European Union consulates in Toronto. Members of the armed forces from the Scottish Regiment and Haller’s Army (Blue Army) will be in attendance. Oakham is also pleased to welcome the Novi Singers of Toronto to this performance.

Oakham House Choir Society presents “Better is Peace Than Always War” on April 28, 7:30pm, at Metropolitan United Church, Toronto.

“Let there be light!”

Pax Christi Chorale is joined by the Toronto Mozart Players for a presentation of Haydn’s masterpiece oratorio: Die Schöpfung (The Creation). The Creation represents the highest form of oratorio,” shares David Bowser, artistic director of Pax Christi, via email. “It was written with love for the listener. Haydn paints colourful and vivid musical depictions of darkness and light, water and weather, plants, birds, animals and people, all framed in grand angelic choruses.”

David BowserBowser is presenting the work in its original German because the “text is closer to today’s spoken German, and gives the music a more buoyant phrasing and crisper articulation. It should be underlined that neither Haydn nor van Swieten, who wrote both versions, spoke English with any fluency and the settings are clumsy,” he says. Many a chorister has frowned when confronted with the awkward English of “And to th’ ethereal vaults resound” or “achieved” in three syllables. The original German allows the choir to move beyond such awkwardness.

Pax Christi is joined for this concert by Sandy Rossignol, a video artist. Bowser explains the creative process and the reasoning behind the inclusion of this added dimension to the music. “Often audiences are buried in their programs reading along with the text,” he says. “And they are not as connected with the performers. A video of images compiled and manipulated by Sandy will serve as abstract surtitles to assist the audience in following the German text. The music is so visual that Sandy was immediately inspired. He is also incorporating themes of science, equality, diversity and conservation to bring modern relevance to the performance.”

Rossignol’s live visual accompaniment promises to give the concert a unique visual storytelling dimension.

Pax Christi ChoralePax Christi Chorale presents Die Schöpfung (The Creation) with the Toronto Mozart Players, Danika Lorèn (soprano), Charles Sy (tenor), Oliver Laquerre (bass-baritone), and live video performance by Sandy Rossignol on April 28 at 7:30pm, at Grace Church on-the-Hill, Toronto.

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Apr 6: Exultate Chamber Singers presents “We Sing and Play!” As noted in last month’s Choral Scene, Dr Hilary Apfelstadt is retiring from the University of Toronto and as artistic director of Exultate. She brings the Toronto Winds to her final concert with Exultate, which features the premiere of Resurgam by Canadian composer Matthew Emery, the choir’s composer-in-residence. Emery has blended Renaissance polyphony with contemporary compositional techniques to create a work for an interesting pairing: voice and small wind ensemble. St. Thomas’s Anglican Church, Toronto.

Apr 28 and 29: DaCapo Chamber Choir and the Orpheus Choir of Toronto present This Thirsty Land. Joined by instrumentalists, the choirs present the local premiere of DaCapo artistic director Leonard Enns’ work This Thirsty Land, recently commissioned and premiered by the University of Guelph. Other smaller works include Toronto-based composer Hussein Janmohamed’s Sun on Water and Norwegian Trond Kverno’s Ave Maris Stella. April 28, 8pm at St. John’s Lutheran, Waterloo, and April 29, 3:30pm at St. Anne’s Anglican Church, Toronto.

Apr 29: Amadeus Choir of Greater Toronto presents “I Saw Eternity.” Artistic director Lydia Adams conducts the choir’s final concert of the season featuring music by Eric Whitacre, Eleanor Daley, Hussein Janmohamed, Stephen Chatman and more. The inspiration for the concert comes from Henry Vaughan’s poem The World, which opens with the lines: “I saw eternity the other night.” Leonard Enns’ and Stephen Chatman’s settings of The World are presented along with other spacious works including Ola Gjeilo’s Serenity and Eric Whitacre’s Water Night. Eglinton St. George’s United Church, Toronto.

May 5: Mississauga Festival Choirs present “Generations,” with the Mississauga Festival Choir, the Mississauga Festival Chamber Choir, their youth choir, Resonance, and their intergenerational choir Raising Voices. The signature work of the evening will be John Rutter’s Mass of the Children. Living Arts Centre, Mississauga.

May 6: St. Anne’s Anglican Choir presents “A Hubert Parry Tribute.” The Junction Trio joins a larger orchestra and the St. Anne’s Choir under music director John-Luke Addison. The concert commemorates 100 years since the death of Sir Charles Hubert Hastings Parry. Royal music aficionados will know him for his coronation anthem I was Glad, which was written for the coronation of King Edward VII in 1902. The famous Anglican hymn Repton, a staple of congregations around the world was set to music by Parry. St. Anne’s Anglican Church, Toronto. clip_image001.png

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

The opening Kyrie of the Bach Mass in B Minor is one of the hardest starts of any major work for a choir; with no starting pitch, the precisely placed hard “K” prior to any other sound, and careful phrasing that starts right away – the opening has much to say about how the rest of the performance will play out. Bold and full should be the effect. Bach’s masterpiece is not a light undertaking for any choir. This April, it’s safe to assume that Tafelmusik will take up this estimable work with its usual intense professionalism, deep artistry and impeccable technique.

“This is the seventh time Tafelmusik has [programmed] the Mass, with some 25 performances behind us,” shares Charlotte Nediger, Tafelmusik harpsichordist and organist. Instrumentalists and choristers alike relish revisits to Bach’s work, finding “new details and more depth in the score every time.” Nediger continues: “The Bach Mass in B Minor is a very challenging piece on every level, for all performers on stage …[It] demands an extremely high level of skill, virtuosity and artistry of every single singer, and the combined result is astonishing.”

Ivars Taurins takes the reins with early music soloists. Dorothee Mields, a German early music specialist, takes on the soprano. Laura Pudwell, Canadian, is the mezzo-soprano. English tenor Charles Daniels joins Canadian Tyler Duncan to round off the soloists. The essential horn solo in the Quoniam will be performed by Scott Wevers.

On the performance, Nediger concludes: “To say that it is inspiring is an understatement – it is also humbling, in the best sense. Tafelmusik is an ensemble in which everyone brings absolutely everything they can to every performance, and I think you sense that in the audience.” Nediger herself has an enviable position to take it all in, placed at the heart of the stage in front of the orchestra. With the surrounding forces of Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir, she is uniquely positioned to enjoy the music as she works her way through the intense score.

Tafelmusik performs Bach’s Mass in B Minor April 5 to 7, 8pm, April 8, 3:30pm at Jeanne Lamon Hall, Trinity-St Paul’s Centre and April 10, 8pm at George Weston Recital Hall, Toronto Centre for the Arts.

As discussed elsewhere in this issue, on March 30 at 7:30pm at Metropolitan United Church, the Metropolitan Festival Choir and Orchestra also perform the Mass in B Minor for Good Friday, with a top-notch set of soloists: Ellen McAteer and Gisele Kulak, soprano; Christina Stelmacovich, mezzo-soprano; Charles Davidson, tenor; and Daniel Lichti, baritone. Metropolitan United Church.

Hilary Apfelstadt and the University of Toronto at Lincoln Center

Hilary Apfelstadt, (soon to be retiring) director of choral activities at the University of Toronto, last visited Lincoln Center, New York City, to perform as part of the Distinguished Concerts International New York City (DCINY) concert series for an International Women’s Day concert in March 2014. This month she returns for DCINY’s March 17 concert, conducting the combined forces of singers and orchestra in the major choral work on the program, Luigi Cherubini’s Requiem. Among the 200 singers from across the US and Canada, including the Luther College Choir from Regina, will be singers from Toronto’s Kingsway-Lambton United Church Chancel Choir and a few dozen singers from the four major choirs of the University of Toronto Faculty of Music. The Cherubini shares the ticket with a set of smaller choral works conducted by Martha Shaw, and the premiere of a concerto for flute, harp and orchestra by DCINY composer-in-residence Dinos Constantinides, led by DCINY principal conductor Jonathan Griffith.

Hilary ApfelstadtOf the Cherubini, Apfelstadt says: “It’s a lovely work, a little unusual, in that it has no soloists. The choir is singing almost nonstop. It was performed at Beethoven’s funeral because he admired it so much, but was originally created for the memorial of King Louis XVI of France.” This work follows the standard requiem format, but with Romantic and Classical elements reflecting the transition period beginning in 19th-century European music. The opening two movements are performed without violins. The deeper sound and broad crescendos provide a dramatic edge without the higher pitches. Apfelstadt also notes that the instrumentation lacks flutes, further contributing to a profound bass and heaviness in the music.

Early Romantic ideals are apparent in the bombastic Dies Irae, with the unusual programming of a gong. The same movement also shows a more classical ideal, with fugal runs and strings typical of Mozart and other classical contemporaries. The choir provides the dramatic energy of the piece, consistently singing in chorale throughout. The fugal runs of the Offertorium are particularly exciting.

Apfelstadt is mindful of the intense time commitments and existing rehearsals music students must juggle. “From a pragmatic point of view, when you’re teaching at school, you’re always trying to find things that are vocally challenging, without being overtaxing.” The goal is to set up the students for success and the Cherubini represents “a choral piece that is a challenge, with enough elements in it to be surprising.”

“They seem to like it, have a feel of accomplishment,” says Apfelstadt. “Virtually none of the students have encountered [Cherubini’s] work, or heard much about this composer. It’s really well written, bits remind me of Mozart, bits remind me of Beethoven. And because Beethoven was such a fan of the work, it’s like a stamp of approval.”

Those students who join Apfelstadt in New York will have the privilege of experiencing Lincoln Center from the stage. Here in Toronto, later in the month, on March 24 at the MacMillan Theatre, you can catch the entire massing of the four main faculty choirs, the Women’s Choir, the Women’s Chamber Choir, the Men’s Chorus and the MacMillan Singers, along with the University of Toronto Symphony Orchestra as they present the Cherubini Requiem. With 200 singers and the power of the U of T Symphony Orchestra at her fingertips, Apfelstadt looks forward to this performance capping off her distinguished career at the University of Toronto.

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Mar 8 and 9: Soundstreams presents Tan Dun’s Water Passion. David Fallis helms this performance with instrumentalists and Choir 21. Dun has not often composed for choir and this complex work invokes the circular passage and flow of life, intimated by the story of Christ, and evoked by the presence and sound of water. Helmuth Rilling, founder of the Internationale Bachakademie Stuttgart, commissioned four new interpretations of the Passion of Christ from the four Gospels in 2000. Tan Dun was given the commission for St. Matthew’s. Mar 8, 7:30pm at the Isabel Bader Theatre, Kingston; Mar 9, 8pm at Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre, Toronto.

For a more conventional performance of the Bach St. Matthew Passion, Chorus Niagara under Robert Cooper performs it the week prior. Mar 3, 7:30pm at FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre, St. Catharines.

Mar 28 and 30, 7:30pm: The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir presents “Sacred Music for a Sacred Space.” All the choristers (myself included) always love this annual Easter tradition. Performing on Good Friday, in the aural and visual splendour of St. Paul’s Basilica, maintains an annual tradition of emotionally deep a cappella music presented by Toronto’s finest. Artistic director Noel Edison has programmed a horn of plenty including Eric Whitacre’s Sleep, John Tavener’s Song for Athene, Rachmaninoff’s Bogoroditse Devo and works by Bruckner, Mendelssohn, Łukaszewski and others.

Mar 30, 3pm: The Trinity St. Paul’s United Church Choir are joined by VIVA! Youth Singers and the Oakville Choir for Children and Youth in presenting “Good Friday Choral Concert.” Part of the programming is Andrew Balfour’s Take the Indian: A Vocal Reflection on Missing Children, a remarkable piece built from the pain of the Canadian government’s residential school atrocities and the longstanding institutionalized racism and neglect of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. Balfour, himself an Indigenous child taken by and into state care, is artistic director of Camerata Nova, an early, contemporary and Indigenous-infused music ensemble based in Winnipeg. Balfour is being brought in to help prepare the choirs. If sufficient weight is given to the work’s performance, its power and its discomforting narrative, I anticipate a significant and moving display.

Mar 31, 7:30pm: The Guelph Chamber Choir bids farewell to conductor Gerald Neufeld after 37 years at the helm. Neufeld, a longstanding music educator, has taught in the faculties at the University of Guelph and Western University. His final performance will be Brahms’ masterpiece: A German Requiem at the River Run Centre, Guelph.

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

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