Grand Philharmonic ChoirAnyone who sings in a choir has likely seen the tragic story of the Amsterdam Mixed Choir where after a performance of the Bach St John Passion, 102 of the 130 choristers were sickened by COVID-19. One of those members would pass away from the virus in the following weeks, just as news also broke of the Skagit Valley Chorale in Washington State where 52 members would ultimately be infected, with two deaths. Smaller group outbreaks were noted in other choirs around the world such as the Berlin Cathedral Choir and in many faith-based settings. The headlines are enough to make any person take pause. The choral community has been shaken particularly hard by these stories as, for many, choir is their escape from the pain and stress of the world, not the cause of it. 

In the absence of clear scientific evidence, the precautionary principle has provided the only guidance available to choirs throughout much of the pandemic so far. Organizations have not waited to take strict action, instead choosing to comply with blanket safety, quarantine and shutdown measures. For every choir in Ontario, it is now over three months since any rehearsals. Seasons were ended early, summer festivals are cancelled, tours are out of the question, and uncertainty reigns, with planning for next season made difficult by differing assumptions of what may be. 

Read more: In the Absence of Singing, Uncertainty

Come What May

Readers of The WholeNote know me primarily as the Choral Scene columnist and an active participant in choral music in Toronto. My involvement and experiences in the rich cultural offerings of Toronto isn’t purely journalistic though, I’m also an avid theatregoer and it feels strange to me to go more than a few weeks without live art of some kind. This month I’m expanding our “What May Be” exploration beyond the choral world for some other touchpoints in the world of performing arts that I will miss.Choral Scene columnist Brian Chang at home recording a vocal part for a virtual choir project with the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir and Toronto Symphony Youth Orchestra.. Photo by Jeff Slater.

What Was, and Yet Again May Be, Thoroughly Enjoyed

The biggest theatre event of the year, hands down, was the Toronto arrival of the touring production of Hamilton. Toronto was home to the “Phillip” cast of the tour, and this was the biggest selling, most expensive set of tickets ever released for a Toronto music theatre show. The state of emergency happened a month into the Toronto run. I had early tickets in February, a trick of luck with the subscription my mom and I have had for a decade. And then I was lucky enough to catch it again when a friend’s tickets became available and my boyfriend snatched them up so he could see it as well. I’m lucky, so very lucky to have experienced this magnificent theatre magic twice.

Read more: Maybe Soon? Or Maybe Not

The end of March and beginning of April mark a special time for anyone in the post-secondary education sector. The term comes to a close, the academic school year settles into its final exams, papers, and for music students – final concerts. This month we’re exploring the end-of-term concerts at Western University, University of Toronto (my alma mater), and York University.

University of Toronto is lucky in its breadth of ensembles and guests. The program is also very large with four major choral ensembles and over 200 students across the various ensembles. As conductors Mark Ramsay, Elaine Choi, Lori-Anne Dolloff, and David Fallis share, this work begins the previous year before the students even start classes.

It’s a delicate balance to program works that are familiar while challenging; pedagogical, but fun. Not all the music needs to be new, because as Ramsay shares, “Working with a new conductor and/or singing with new colleagues can bring a fresh perspective to a familiar work. Singers also sometimes note [by revisiting familiar works] that their own skills have improved. Elements such as break management, vowel unification and dynamic control that were challenging the first time, may now be easier.” But they note, “It’s important to have some challenging music late in the season to keep a goal to strive for.” The MacMillan singers, under David Fallis also have the pleasure of singing a composition written by one of their own, Katharine Petkovski’s The Angels.

Read more: Graduation With High Honours in Song

Artists of many kinds feel like it should be the goal for their art to rise above the everyday – art is its own thing. Other artists strive to make the everyday the fulcrum of their art: to drive conversations to respond to them, to change narratives, and to leave people changed. Over the next month I’m highlighting two of the latter for you to attend and find yourself inserted into an ongoing conversation about the past, about now, about who we are, about who we want to be. I hope you don’t just accept the music passively and are instead empowered to respond to it. My kind of choral music is about conversations in song. Join me!

A previously unreleased conceptual design of a new $20 note that was produced by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing and obtained by The New York Times depicts Harriet Tubman in a dark coat with a wide collar and a white scarf. This preliminary design was completed in late 2016.The Woman Donald Trump Took off American Money
The Nathaniel Dett Chorale presents a concert version of American composer Nkeiru Okoye’s opera Harriet Tubman: When I Crossed That Line to Freedom as part of their Voices of the Diaspora series. Harriet Tubman has been much in popular culture lately. Beginning in 2020, she should have been on American $20 bills in circulation across the US, but Donald Trump’s office has stopped this from happening. Tubman, born Araminta Ross, is part of the black history of Canada and her incredible story and leadership continue to inspire. Cynthia Erivo brought Tubman to life in the 2019 film Harriet and has earned Oscar nominations for Best Actress and Best Original Song for it.

Read more: Conversations in Song and Choral Relevance

Along with gift exchanges and eggnog giggles with loved ones, listening to Handel’s Messiah has become a Christmas staple for me. Especially in recent years, I repeatedly listen to this masterpiece of a work, my interest for it never wavering. Even after singing it several times and watching a number of performances, I have yet to tire of the soaring harmonies and elegant solos.

Grand River Philharmonic: This year, I’m looking forward to Messiah as performed, in an annual tradition going back decades, by the Grand Philharmonic Choir in Kitchener. With orchestral accompaniment by the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony, the concert will be conducted by Mark Vuorinen and will feature soloists, soprano Mireille Asselin, mezzo-soprano Maude Brunet, tenor Asitha Tennekoon and baritone Samuel Chan. Choosing to see this particular version is part of my quest to broaden my knowledge of the choirs around me, and attend concerts outside of the Greater Toronto Area. Their Messiah will be held at the Centre in the Square in Kitchener, Ontario on December 7. Ever the one to want to introduce the Messiah to new ears, I have gifted a ticket to a friend of mine who (aside from knowing the “Hallelujah” chorus) has never listened to the work in its entirety. 

Read more: Handel's Messiah and the Glee Effect
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