VOCA Chorus of Toronto. Photo by Jim CrawfordFall workshop: Once in the fall and once in the spring, artistic director Jenny Crober brings in an artist to work with the VOCA Chorus of Toronto in an intensive workshop. Matthew Emery was the clinician for the fall, working on his song Still Colours, Velvet Shoes. At the very end Crober asked, “Do you mind if we take a little peek at Sing your Song? Would you mind telling them something about who you’ve dedicated this to and why?” Emery agreed and spent the time explaining his reason for writing this song – to honour one of his musical mentors, Ken Fleet, when Fleet retired from Amabile. (Fleet has been living with dementia for many years now.)

“I first met Ken Fleet as a young singer in the Amabile Choirs of London, Canada,” Emery shared by email with The WholeNote. “My first memory of him was thinking “Wow he is so tall, will I ever be that tall?” (Fleet stood six feet five inches. Those who have met Emery in person can attest that yes, he did get to be almost as tall).

“I was a young boy in Grade 4 or 5 at the time,” Emery continues. “It was his presence and influence from singing with Amabile that led me to attend Medway High School where Ken taught music for nearly 30 years. Ken was one of the early mentors I had in composition. He was always encouraging me to write. He also introduced me to the music of Stephen Chatman who I later studied with at UBC.”

The story was impactful for the choir. Crober is reminded “when you look out at the choristers and you see their faces soften; some tears in the eyes. It’s obvious when you hear Matthew speak, the fondness he has for Ken.” That fondness is felt by Crober too, who studied music with Fleet at Western University. “We were at Western together,” she shared. “He was three years ahead of me. And everyone knew who he was, partly because he was very tall, but he was a gentle giant. An extraordinarily lovely human being, a wonderful person.”

“The refrain used in this song is built on the text ‘sing your song’ which is taken from a short documentary about Ken,” shares Emery. “His wish in life was that no matter what “just sing your song” – a beautiful image to be yourself and to be proud of who you are.” For Crober, that message “means get to the heart of it, right now. Get right into it. Don’t waste time. Just do it. In a gentle and supportive way.” The choir has loved learning and singing the song.

“The song uses a verse-chorus type framework to increase its accessibility,” shares Emery. “Ken worked with musicians of all levels, so I wanted to honour that philosophy in some way. There are phrases where the voices enter in canon, a metaphor for life. After the contrapuntal middle passage, the voices join in unity on the text “come home, come home.” This is intentional, to suggest that through grief, strife – anything – music is our refuge.”

“The song has to be very active, very positive, very buoyant,” says Crober. “It really is bubbly. But not flip. There’s nothing flippant or trivial about it … It’s jubilant and tender at the same time. It’s a really lovely piece.”

Emery put significant thought into creating this outcome. “I wanted to create a poignant work,” he said. “The meaning is deeply felt, but kept light-hearted with the syncopated melodies and pulsing piano gestures. To me, I am reminded of the lessons Ken taught me about life and the values he passed on when I hear the song. He was always full of joy and generosity. I tried to capture his genuine full spirit in the work.” The notion that music can bring us “home” – a perfect image to end a concert celebrating a beloved conductor and mentor to thousands of singers.”

Matthew Emery and Jenny CroberUpcoming concert: The signature work of VOCA’s upcoming April 27 concert is the Paul Winter Missa Gaia/Earth Mass. “It has been a while since we last did the Missa Gaia/Earth Mass,” says Crober. “We did it in 2012, when the East York Choir first became the VOCA Chorus of Toronto. This was the first performance of the choir under our new name.” Crober didn’t revisit the piece until two years ago when she had to step in at the last minute to conduct it for the Achill Choral Society in Orangeville. She admits, “I had kind of forgotten how much I loved the piece.” The revisiting is the reason for the “II” added to the concert title – “Earth, Seas & Sky.”

Joining the choir is vocalist Alana Bridgewater who has done the Missa Gaia on several occasions. “I’ve known about her a long time so it’s just a joy to finally be able to work with her,” says Crober. “We’re also doing three pieces by Paul Halley: Freedom Trilogy, Sound Over All Waters and The Rain Is Over and Gone. Alana will be really featured in some of these as well. There’s a moment in the third movement of the Missa Gaia, for example, the Beatitudes. It starts off slow and contemplative and by the end it’s a rocking gospel choir. Alana’s a powerhouse.”

Andrew BalfourSpring workshop: At the end of March, the choir had its spring workshop with Andrew Balfour. (The choir has been learning his piece Ambe for their upcoming concert.) “The first time I heard the piece we were at Podium 2018 in Newfoundland,” says Crober. “It was being performed by Chronos Vocal Ensemble from Edmonton. It was so hypnotic and driving and compelling and powerful and beautifully sung. The minute it was done, I marked in my program ‘Do this!’” Crober approached Balfour later during that conference. She booked him for the VOCA spring clinic this year, so the choir would have a chance to workshop the song directly with Balfour.

Going through the experience of Balfour’s thought process and listening to him give life and meaning to the music he’s written was important. Recently, the Indigenous Performing Arts Alliance (IPAA), of which Balfour is a part, released a statement on Indigenous Musical Sovereignty. The statement is an invitation to participate in the full experience of the music created by Indigenous peoples while simultaneously acknowledging that much of what has passed for Indigenous music or Indigenous themes by outsiders has been traumatizing. The statement asks hard questions of presenters who seek to perform Indigenous music: “to non-Indigenous composers who seek to tell ‘Indigenous-inspired’ works: be honest with yourself and ask why you feel compelled to tell this story and whether you are the right person to do so.”

The statement acknowledges that there is a place for non-Indigenous musicians in partnership, but there is an added weight and depth of responsibility that Indigenous creators have to their communities. To do this work well, the IPAA says, “We seek to hold ourselves to the highest ethical standards of Indigenous community engagement, and request that our collaborators in the Canadian music community work to the same level of accountability.”

For Crober, through the opportunity to learn directly from Balfour, the choir will have a better chance to bring life to his musical offering while respecting its Indigenous nature.

See all of this in action in “Earth, Sea & Sky II” presented by VOCA Chorus of Toronto under artistic director Jenny Crober featuring guest artists Alana Bridgewater (vocalist); Colleen Allen (saxaphone); Shawn Grenke (organ); Roberto Occhipinti (bass); Mark Kelso (drums); and Juan Carlos Medrano (percussion). April 27, 7:30pm. Eastminster United Church, Toronto. 

CHORAL SCENE QUICK PICKS

APR 17, 18 AND 20, 8PM: The Toronto Symphony Orchestra is joined by the Amadeus Choir and the Elmer Iseler Singers for the superlative Mahler Symphony No.2 “Resurrection.” A stunning masterpiece of choral music caps off this transformative symphony. Under the baton of Spanish conductor Juanjo Mena, the iconic organ of Roy Thomson Hall shall shake thee to thy bones with the full force and power of orchestra and choirs blended together in a way that only Mahler could. With three options to catch these performances, do it! Roy Thomson Hall, Toronto.

APR 19, 7:30PM: The Grand Philharmonic Choir performs Bach’s St. Matthew Passion joined by the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony Orchestra and a stellar line up of soloists: Isaiah Bell, Daniel Okulitch, Esteli Gomez and Allyson McHardy. Centre in the Square, Kitchener.

Cheryll ChungAPR 27, 4PM: Reaching Out Through Music presents “Spring Breezes.” ROTM provides free music education to children in the St. James Town community. Their hallmark is the Choral Program run by Cheryll Chung. Their Spring fundraising concert features Asitha Tennekoon. With a varied programme, this event will help ensure that the program can continue to provide accessible music education for future generations. Grace Church, Toronto, 383 Jarvis St.

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

Nashke miziwe bi-bepeshaabang ishpiming giizhigong.
Look everywhere how streaks of light appear above in the sky in the heavens.
Miziwe… Everywhere…

-Barbara Croall

odawa composer barbara croallOn March 31, Pax Christi Chorale premieres Barbara Croall’s Ojibwe Odawa oratorio, Miziwe…(Everywhere…). As far as the creative team knows, this is the first time that the choral tradition of oratorio and the language of Ojibwe Odawa will have been united, as Pax Christi, under artistic director David Bowser, bring to life to the stories, musical evocations and spirit that Barbara Croall embodies in her new oratorio.

Croall is Odawa First Nations from Manitoulin Island. Her music education includes degrees and diplomas from the Musikhochschule (Munich), the Royal Conservatory of Music and the University of Toronto. Croall’s extensive repertoire includes many settings of music for solo vocal, ensemble vocal, chamber, orchestral, theatre, film and more.

“I think the complete picture [of Croall’s depth] is really important,” says Bowser in an interview with The WholeNote. “It’s no small task to write a full oratorio for choir, orchestra, and soloists. The quality of the music is exceptional.” The entire oratorio will be performed in Odawa. “It will have surtitles in English and French,” continues Bowser. “The story is one that involves characters who are animals, wind, sun, different elements and creatures.” The choir evokes different aspects and elements of the world through Croall’s composition.

“I always aim for a connectivity between the human and non-human aspects of life as intertwined,” explains Barbara Croall in a written project description of Miziwe… given to The WholeNote. In it she describes the work’s “expansive use of vocal and instrumental techniques and expressive/meaningful breathing in various ways [to] extend beyond merely human notions of sound, to include sounds that we hear in nature.” Some of those sounds include one of Croall’s signature instruments, the pipigwan, a traditional cedar, wooden flute. Bowser is particularly enamoured with the timbre of the flute, a depth of sound not easily matched in similar instruments. Miziwe… includes Croall on the pipigwan as well as a vocalist.

Pax Christi ChoraleOratorio as an art form requires a a major assembly of musical forces including vocalists and instrumentalists, and Pax Christi Chorale –  an advanced 100-voice ensemble, particularly known for its focus on oratorios – fits the bill. Joining them will be mezzo-soprano Krisztina Szabó, baritone Justin Welsh, singer and dancer Rod Nettagog and the Toronto Mozart Players, particularly known for its annual Toronto Mozart Master Class Series, which for 2018/2019 featured soprano Nathalie Paulin and first prize-winner Jennifer Routhier, and of which Bowser is also the artistic director.

What unifies this particular oratorio is the essence of shared spirit. These are not sacred or religious texts or stories, though. “I never use ceremonial or sacred material in my music,” writes Croall. “Most often, the basis of a piece of music I create will be a song of my own – often influenced or inspired by sounds I hear in my time spent outdoors within nature in remote areas … this reflects my own personal need to feel interconnected with the rhythms and flow of life within nature.” The oratorio evokes and shares in the message Croall has composed, focusing on the “manidoo” – “the spirit essence, mystery, spiritual energy and life force, … “a continuity of life of all forms that can be known as ‘spirit’.”

Bowser treasures the composition he’s been entrusted and the larger context it both comes from and participates in. “Barbara wanted to create something that was more unifying and more uplifting and hopeful. And the common element is the sense of spirit that we all have together. It’s a story that ends with some sense of resolution. It’s so interesting to me that in so much oratorio there’s a moral. Here, it’s really about finding a connection. There’s no sense of imposed morality. It’s observation and the sense that we’re all connected through all these elements, and risk, and danger, and opportunity, and release and forgiveness.”

In her writing, Croall describes the work as “focusing toward the light … to always consider hope and continuity as the neverending thread of life.” In her approach, Croall’s generosity of spirit reaches beyond just her musical composition. The work of bringing the work to life in a meaningful way with each musician requires more than just a few reads through vocal lines in rehearsal. Something more was required for this particular project, and Bowser and the choir have had to adjust.

To help facilitate this, Croall has welcomed the choir into the world she has created. “The whole choir went out to Crawford Lake in November,” shares Bowser. “[Barbara] did a lot of talking about the traditional, historical, and also modern practices of different First Nations.” The choir was responsive to the learning, and Bowser was pleased: “It’s really exciting to see people opening their eyes and their ears and their hearts.”

“It’s a full relationship we’re engaging in,” says Bowser. In scale and scope, oratorio is to the choral music tradition what opera is to music theatre. Pax Christi, Bowser and Croall have all risen to the challenge of building a full relationship as the one way to ensure the best chance of success – guiding the work to a truer performance where artists, direction and composer align.

Croall has been generously present in the rehearsal process, making herself available in the teaching and the learning. “Barbara is coming to all the rehearsals, teaching us Odawa,” says Bowser. “She’s telling us about the stories and the characters and the imagery and the traditional practices and ways.”

In this process of breathing Miziwe… itself to life, the very joining of all these musical forces together starts to embody the notion of Croall’s “spirit” and her hope for the work  – that in the coming together, Pax Christi Chorale and Miziwe… will “uplift” us all.

On March 31 at 3pm, Pax Christi Chorale presents Miziwe… a world-premiere oratorio composed by Barbara Croall. Featuring Krisztina Szabó, Justin Welsh, Rod Nettagog, Barbara Croall, and the Toronto Mozart Players conducted by David Bowser. Performed in Ojibwe Odawa with surtitles at Koerner Hall, Toronto.

CHORAL SCENE QUICK PICKS

MAR 8, 7:30PM: Orpheus Choir of Toronto presents “Raising Her Voice: Celebrating the Choral Art,” in celebration of International Women’s Day. Artistic director Bob Cooper has partnered with Diaspora Dialogues to commission four new musical compositions, enhancing the female contribution to choral music in Canada. Diaspora Dialogues is an intercultural bridge that supports a community of diverse writers with multiple programs. In this exchange, Diaspora Dialogue authors Yaya Yao, Priscilla Uppal, Shadi Eskandani, and Phoebe Wang were paired with composers Katerina Gimon, Christine Donkin, Anika-France Forget and Tawnie Olson, respectively, for four new commissions by Orpheus. Grace Church on-the-Hill, Toronto.

Charles Daniels. Photo by Annelies van der VegtMAR 9, 7:30PM: The University of Toronto Faculty of Music presents Handel’s oratorio Israel in Egypt. The concert features Daniel Taylor and Jeanne Lamon at the helm of the U of T Theatre of Early Music Choir, Schola Cantorum, and Baroque instrumentalists, Collegium Musicum. Joining them will be members of Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and tenor Charles Daniels. Handel’s oratorios, of which there are many, are often dominated by Messiah. This is a chance to see some of his other great work. In the expert hands of a period interpretation, you can be sure of a fantastic period performance of Handel’s work. St Patrick’s Church, Toronto.

MAR 21 TO 23, 7:30PM & MAR 24, 3:30PM: Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir, five soloists and members of the Toronto Children’s Chorus all meet to present the Bach St. Matthew Passion. Last year, Tafelmusik presented the Mass in B Minor to great acclaim. Baritone Tyler Duncan, featured last year, returns to sing in the St Matthew Passion under maestro Masaaki Suzuki. Suzuki is one of the most renowned interpreters of Bach’s works and has never conducted Tafelmusik. This is one not to miss. With several performances to choose from, early music and Bach fans should hurry and get tickets. Carry a friend while you’re at it! Jeanne Lamon Hall, Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre, Toronto.

Cheryll Chung. Photo by Richard Jonathan ChungMAR 22, 7:30PM: Cantabile Chamber Singers present “Social Justice,” a program that conductor Cheryll Chung calls “an eclectic mix of contemporary works that speak to justice and equity in the world.” The works to be performed include a premiere of Unheard: Voice of the Children, for mixed media and choir by Laura Sgroi. Other great Canadians featured include Matthew Emery and Saman Shahi. All the works touch “on issues such as the environment, the #MeToo movement as well as serenity, eternity, and hope,” shares Chung. Church of the Redeemer, Toronto.

MAR 30, 4PM: Exultate Chamber Singers present “When We Were Young.” Artistic director Mark Ramsay has gathered the Chorus Niagara Children’s Choir and their artistic director, Amanda Nelli, in this “celebration of joy and youth.” Featuring John Rutter’s Mass of the Children with its blending of William Blake poetry and different mass traditions. Other music includes music from Timothy Corlis, Ēriks Ešenvalds, Eric Whitacre and more. St Thomas’s Anglican Church, Toronto.

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

 

Two upcoming choral concerts promise to take some of the chill out of winter. The Nathaniel Dett Chorale, joined by alumni, premieres a new work, Hosea, to perform what artistic director Brainerd Blyden-Taylor calls a concert of “wonderful, inspirational, moving music.” This concert continues the Chorale’s 20th anniversary season. And two of the finest chamber choirs in Canada join forces to present a joint concert; the Vancouver Chamber Choir (VCC) is hosted by the Elmer Iseler Singers on their 92nd and last tour with Jon Washburn at the head of the VCC.

The Nathaniel Dett Chorale's composer-in-residence, Dr. Stephen Newby in his role as national anthem singer for the Seattle Sounders FC.To Return, with Love: Hosea

The Nathaniel Dett Chorale takes the Koerner Hall stage to perform a new work, Hosea. “This year we have a composer-in-residence, Dr. Stephen Newby,” shares artistic director Blyden-Taylor. “He has written a mini-oratorio based on the Old Testament Book of Hosea. It is a fusion mashup of the classical, jazz and gospel genres.”

“When the Book of Hosea was written, it was a metaphor for God’s relationship with the children of Israel,” shares Blyden-Taylor. “Initially God tells Hosea he should marry a prostitute and take in her children.” Figuratively, Hosea invokes wayward Israelites, who have turned their backs on God, to turn back to God. “He calls them to repentance with an open heart of forgiveness should they return to him.” That path to repentance is one of inclusion, opening doors and hearts to the denigrated and lowly.

The Book of Hosea is controversial, more so now, for its disparaging depictions of “wanton women.” The metaphoric reading, though, is more nuanced than the literal text taken at face value. For Blyden-Taylor, “looking at it from our point of view today, it’s essentially the theme of unconditional love, reconciliation, and compassion.”

Composer-in-residence Newby is professor of music at Seattle Pacific University, a Christian college rooted in the Wesleyan Methodist tradition. He conducts the University’s Gospel Choir and teaches composition. Blyden-Taylor describes Hosea as “a combination of Newby’s two passions: music and theology.”

Hosea will be performed by the current Chorale. The other half of the concert will include alumni across the 20-year history of the ensemble. Blyden-Taylor says “there are about 18 to 20 alumni who are coming back to sing with the current ensemble. We’re doing a series of favourite spirituals in the other half of the concert. We’re doing pieces by Nathaniel Dett and Moses Hogan.” Added to this, Blyden-Taylor has programmed songs from young American composer, Brandon Waddles, making three generations of composers spanning 100 years.

It is a banner year for the Chorale, celebrating its 20th anniversary. It is also, Blyden Taylor shares, “a big year for Nathaniel Dett too. This season marks the 75th anniversary of his death, and the 90th anniversary of the school of music he founded in Hampton University, Virginia. Dett was also one of the founding members of the National Association of Negro Musicians in the US, and they’ll be celebrating their 100th anniversary in Chicago in the summertime.”

The ongoing process of exploring Afrocentric music has become a life’s work for Blyden-Taylor. “This ensemble is not just to commemorate Nathaniel Dett, but also his belief in Afrocentric music in its entirety,” he says. “It’s been a rich 20 years, and we’ve done a lot of things over that time, always striving to provide wonderful, inspirational, moving music.”

February 13, 8pm. The Nathaniel Dett Chorale presents Voices of the Diaspora… Hosea & Friends. Koerner Hall, Telus Centre for Performance and Learning, Toronto.

Vancouver Chamber ChoirTwo of the Finest; One Beautiful Concert

The Vancouver Chamber Choir comes to Toronto on its final tour with Jon Washburn as artistic director. “We’re singing the top-ten-performed pieces from the choir’s history,” says Washburn, who keeps meticulous lists of performances and songs performed. “A lot of this repertoire is repertoire that has been toured quite a bit over the years. For example, we’re doing Trois Chansons de Charles d’Orléans by Debussy; we’ve done 113 performances of that piece. The Imant Raminsh Ave Verum Corpus we’ve given 64 times.”

The concert will also feature many of Washburn’s beloved, often-performed arrangements including music of Stephen Foster and Rise! Shine!, his setting of four spirituals. “There are so many concerts at home and they kind of fade into each other over time,” shares Washburn. “But when you’re on tour, you associate a concert with a certain hall in a certain community in a certain season of the year. They are very vivid memories. For instance, the Schafer A Garden of Bells, was written for us many years ago. I remember when we did our tour of the Soviet Union in 1989, the incredible reception we got for this piece. We travelled the Baltics (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania), the Ukraine, and Moscow, Russia. We finished that tour with the Moscow Chamber Choir in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory.” The Choir has performed A Garden of Bells 82 times over the years since it was first written in 1984.

Washburn has named the tour and the performances “Music Sea to Sea: The Farewell Tour.” The tour is taking them from their usual home on the Pacific across the country to the Atlantic. Starting in Edmonton, then to Calgary, Lethbridge, Regina, Toronto, St. John’s, Halifax, Antigonish, Wolfville, Truro, Lunenberg, and back to Vancouver over 18 days. This will be the 92nd tour in the last 48 years and Washburn has been on all but one of them. This is his last as the artistic director of the VCC as they continue their search for a new leader.

The Elmer Iseler Singers are hosting this particular visit. “[Artistic director] Lydia Adams and I go way back and we’ve just always had a wonderful friendship and so it’s very special to do my last official event as artistic director in Toronto,” says Washburn. “I think there will be a lot of feelings that night.”

Adams feels the same. “For me, I’m really looking forward to this time together. I’ve known Jon since the early 90s when I played for the Ontario Youth Choir and he was the conductor. We hit it off. I was so taken by his work with the Youth Choir and the results he was able to get; his focus and attention. He was able to make great music with them, and that’s the case every time we work with him.”

The Elmer Iseler Singers, for their portion of the concert, will perform a selection of choral works new and familiar. For the new, Adams has chosen The Spheres, which is the opening movement of Ola Gjeilo’s Sunrise Mass. For the old, William Byrd’s Sing Joyfully. Rounding out the program is Healey Willan’s anthem, Gloria Deo, and James MacMillan’s The Gallant Weaver.

“It takes a lot to hand over a choir that you’ve taken care of for so long,” shares Adams. She knows herself what it is like to give up the reins; this is her final season at the helm of the Amadeus Choir. “There’s something about coming to the end of something. Things become more intense; every moment becomes very precious and there’s not a moment wasted. There’s nothing thrown away; everything has meaning.”

Washburn notes the long history of the two choirs: “We have a great working relationship that has gone back decades. It’s really nice that we have been able to work together on a regular basis.” Adams appreciates this history as well. “The choirs are so meshed,” she says, “when they come together, it’s old friends, with immediate friendship and music making.”

March 1, 7:30pm. The Elmer Iseler Singers present the Vancouver Chamber Choir “Music from Sea to Sea: The Farewell Tour.” Eglinton St. George’s United Church, Toronto. See elmeriselersingers.com for more information. 

CHORAL SCENE QUICK PICKS

FEB 16, 8PM: The Guelph Chamber Choir presents “Glory: Music of Light and Joy.” The search continues for a new artistic director with candidate Charlene Pauls taking the reins for this concert. Earlier in the season, Patrick Murray tested the baton. Pauls has programmed Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms, Somewhere from West Side Story and a host of smaller works including Sid Robinovitch’s Prayer Before Sleep, and Morten Lauridsen’s Sure on this Shining Night. St. George’s Anglican Church, Guelph.

FEB 16, 8PM:The Living Arts Centre presents “O Happy Day: Ben Heppner and the Toronto Mass Choir.” The Mass Choir has joined Heppner on a few of these concerts over the last few years. Blending the power of Heppner’s renowned tenor with the powerful Mass Choir, this collab is surefire. Living Arts Centre, Mississauga.

FEB 21 to 24, various times: York University, Accolade East Building. Finale Concert FEB 24, 7:30PM, Bayview Glen Church. The Toronto Mass Choir and guests run the annual PowerUp Gospel Music Workshop. The workshop features an entire gamut of classes from vocal technique, to keyboards, to running a choir, to gospel technique and masterclasses. The Workshop week culminates in a Finale Concert featuring the Workshop Mass Choir, Gospel Chorale and Gospel Youth Choir. Check out the full line up at powerupgospel.ca

FEB 27, 7:30PM: The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir presents “Handel and Haydn.” Featuring the iconic Handel Coronation Anthems and Haydn’s Mass in Time of War. St Andrew’s Church, Toronto.

MAR 2, 8PM: The Toronto Chamber Choir presents “Convivencia: Music Across Three Faiths.” With funding from the private Pluralism Fund, artistic director Lucas Harris has assembled a host of music to invoke the multi-religious period in medieval and Renaissance Spain. Grace Church on-the-Hill, Toronto.

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

Johannes Debus. credit Tony HauserToronto Symphony Orchestra CEO Matthew Loden and I are chatting about the beloved cultural phenomenon that is Messiah in Toronto. Sitting in his office overlooking Roy Thomson Hall, I can see the iconic webbing of the edifice, a physical nest that cradles the music hall. In a few weeks, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and guests, under the baton of Johannes Debus, will present a major six-performance run of Handel and Jennens’ masterpiece.. (Full disclosure: as regular readers of this column know, I sing in the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir and will be on stage for these performances.)

“We live in a very disjointed and fractured time right now. I think that the human condition is to long for a kind of togetherness, to find your place with people,” says Loden, speaking about the need for a space for an event like Messiah. “Increasingly, we keep finding ways to disintegrate relationships. When you have a moment where you can come together collectively and still have an individual experience while feeling the music coming off the stage with a couple thousand other people – that is really powerful.” With these TSO performances alone, 15,000 people will experience the majesty of the most iconic of Toronto classical-music traditions.

“People are moved to tears not just because of the artistic nature of what they’re listening to,” Loden continues, “but because they are doing it with other people, live. It’s raw talent from 150-plus people on stage. There’s a kind of magic that happens when you get everybody together to be a part of that.”

Johannes Debus leads the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir with soloists Claire de Sévigné (soprano), Allyson McHardy (mezzo-soprano), Andrew Haji (tenor), and Tyler Duncan (baritone). Surprisingly, over his significant career, Debus has never conducted the entire work. “This is my first time conducting it,” he tells me in a phone call from his home in Berlin. “But when I was in my early teens, I sang it. This was one of the strong, long-lasting musical impressions I have from my childhood. Afterwards, I made my mother buy the John Eliot Gardiner, Monteverdi Choir recording. It’s a dream come true for myself to be able to conduct this piece.”

Debus is a fixture in the classical world in Toronto, serving as the music director for the Canadian Opera Company (COC), a post he has held for almost a decade. In that capacity he isn’t often on the stage, though, in Toronto, and this marks only his second time with the TSO. He is mindful that the music lovers of Toronto are very particular about their Messiahs. “[Conducting] might come with certain expectations,” he says. “On the other hand, you can rely on the experience of the musicians and hopefully bring something new. Not to reinvent the wheel but to inspire us all and bring all forces together. Make it an event that nourishes us and prepares us for the Christmas Day. In the case of Messiah, like every other masterpiece, you discover something new every time. Like a statue, you turn it around and look at it from the back or the side. You discover new angles. That’s what makes music so brave – you perform it in the moment and it can be new every time.” Audience members can safely expect a charismatic, flowing storyteller, and for once will be able to see his whole body in action from the stage, not just the top of his head and hands from the orchestra pit.

Debus is aware of other interpretations of Messiah. He mentions Sir Andrew Davis’ 2016 recording, for one, but promises something a little more literal. “In the beginning we’re dealing with prophecy, birth, and then redemption, like chapters. It’s like a novel, three big parts,” says Debus. “If we manage to bring out a distinctiveness in character and expression of all those aspects, I will be very pleased and happy.”

The dramatic edge of Messiah can easily be lost faced with the technicality of the music. For a master musical storyteller like Debus, it is at the core. Handel’s music uses the assembled text in an emotive fashion that creates a thread of luscious descriptiveness in his music. There is the venomous roar of choir in “He Trusted in God,” remarking in great anger and frustration. “And with his stripes” plainly invokes the whip marks covering Jesus’ body. The playfulness and athleticism of “All we like sheep” finishes with the introspective acknowledgement of the faithful’s iniquity. The solos carry this emotional energy as well. The emotional tenor sings “Thy rebuke has broken his heart,” a call from the deepest depths of despair, for help. The mezzo-soprano maintains a humble supplication with “He was despised.” All of this is underpinned by the orchestra. Handel’s music carries many emotional messages over a short period of time.

“It’s part of Handel’s success in general, that he can unfold and have this incredible impact on your emotional soul, your emotional centre,” says Debus. “It can really shake you and elevate you, make you weak and so on. Among the great dramatists and operatists, Handel knew how to establish this and make it work. He knows very well how to set the mood and his talent for writing ear-worm-like melodies.”

“As a composer of Italian opera, Handel was always drawn to the ideal of theatrical, operatic writing. In terms of drama, we will work to apply that here.” Bringing to life the dramatic solos is a quartet of Canadian talent who have all worked with Debus before: in fact De Sévigné, McHardy and Haji have all been members of the Ensemble Studio, a key part of Debus’ programming direction at the COC.

Matthew LodenMatthew Loden is particularly keen on this set of soloists as well, knowing that three of them have been members of the COC Ensemble Studio. “[This performance] represents a very strong partnership with the COC,” he says, “with Johannes on the podium and three of four of soloists connected to the Ensemble Studio. The fact that there are these remarkable development opportunities for these professional singers on their way into the world, and that the TSO can be one of the stops on their trajectory, is really fulfilling. And Canadians really appreciate when they can celebrate their homegrown talent.”

The Ensemble Studio is part of a musical ecosystem encompassing the University of Toronto, Royal Conservatory of Music, and the COC, incubating, supporting and celebrating new generations of talent. Through performances such as these on the biggest symphonic stage in Canada, the TSO becomes part of that ecosystem.

Messiah is a core programmatic element of the first half of every TSO season. “We do Messiah every year is because one of the roles we play in Toronto is to gather people together into a space that allows them to feel like they are part of something that is bigger than themselves. Bigger than they are individually,” shares Loden. “There’s a ceremony around getting together with friends and family and other musicians on an annual basis that allows people to both reflect and look forward. Messiah is a perfect opportunity for that kind of gathering.”

Messiah isn’t part of any regular subscription package on offer from the TSO. Annually, ever seat sold is an add-on to a subscription, a create-your-own subscription package, or individual concert sale. Sure-fire Messiah sales are important to the TSO when balanced against new works or unfamiliar ones to audiences. Loden acknowledges that these are concerts that sell and sell out. “Whenever we open the phone lines and the next season goes on sale, Messiah is often at the top of people’s list. It tells us that this is something that is working,” says Loden. “Messiah is a highlight and focal point from a financial standpoint, but also within the rhythm of the season. I think if people want to come and be proud of being in this great city, being Canadians and experience this monumental piece of music that has withstood the test of time; to do it in this concert hall, it’s a very special thing; and I think that’s why people keep coming back.”

“The images we get through Handel’s music – with all its weaknesses, the compassion, empathy, glory, exuberance – with all these aspects, you can find them concentrated in this theatre called Messiah. I hope that many people will come to these concerts,” Debus says, adding “and that there won’t be any snowstorms.”

CHORAL SCENE QUICK PICKS

MESSSIAH IS EVERYWHERE

From the November edition of HalfTones, The WholeNote’s mid-month digital newsletter (subscribe online!): Messiah is near-synonymous with choral community-building: with festivity, with meaningful memories of classical music, with standing and singing along. Something about Messiah, and the way it unites community initiatives with musical professionals, gives it a special place in the city and scene’s musical fabric.

Just an example - this year’s Messiah for the City (Dec 22) presented by Toronto Beach Chorale in partnership with St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, features singers from the Toronto Beach Chorale, MCS Chorus Mississauga and the Georgetown Bach Chorale, and players from the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Founded by the late Jack Layton, Messiah for the City is a project dedicated to providing seasonal concert opportunities to people who otherwise might not have access to such events. Tickets are distributed by United Way and its partner agencies.

And then all over the map, and in order of appearance (details in our listings):

DEC 1, 4PM: Pax Christi Chorale’s special Children’s Messiah performance for children and families; Church of St Mary Magdalene, Toronto.

DEC 4-6, 8PM: Soundstreams’ Electric Messiah IV at the Drake Underground, Toronto.

DEC 11, 8PM: An Evening of Choruses and Arias from Handel’s Messiah. The debut performance of B-Xalted! a new choir founded by Barbara Gowdy and Whitney Smith, at the Church of St. Peter & St. Simon-the-Apostle, Toronto.

DEC 8, 7:30PM: Cellar Singers. Handel’s Messiah. Orillia Opera House, Orillia.

DEC 8, 7:30PM: Grand Philharmonic Choir. Handel’s Messiah. Centre in the Square, Kitchener.

DEC 8, 7:30PM: MCS Chorus Mississauga. G. F. Handel: Messiah. First United Church, Mississauga.

DEC 8, 7:30PM: Orchestra Kingston. Handel’s Messiah. Kingston Choral Society. The Spire/Sydenham Street United Church, 82 Sydenham St., Kingston.

DEC 9, 3PM: Dufferin Concert Singers/New Tecumseth Singers. Handel’s Messiah. St. John’s United Church, Creemore.

DEC 15, 7:30PM: Chorus Niagara. Handel’s Messiah. FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre, St. Catharines.

DEC 15, 8PM: Mississauga Symphony Orchestra. Highlights from The Messiah. Living Arts Centre, Hammerson Hall, Mississauga.

DEC 15, 8PM: Orchestra Grey Bruce/Saugeen County Chorus. Messiah. Knox Presbyterian Church, Kincardine.

DEC 16, 3PM: Menno Singers. Sing-along Messiah. St. Jacob’s Mennonite Church, St. Jacobs.

DEC 17-22, 8PM AND 23, 3PM: The Toronto Symphony Orchestra and Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, Roy Thomson Hall, Toronto.

DEC 17, 7:30PM: Peterborough Singers. Handel’s Messiah. Emannuel United Church, Peterborough.

DEC 18-21, 7:30PM: Tafelmusik’s Messiah at Koerner Hall, with their famous Sing-Along Messiah on DEC 22, 2PM, at Roy Thomson Hall (while Massey Hall is being renovated). Toronto

DEC 22, 7:30: Guelph Chamber Choir. Messiah. River Run Centre, Guelph.

NOT THE MESSIAH

Just a sampling …

DEC 5, 7:30PM: Nathaniel Dett Chorale. An Indigo Christmas: Black Virgin…Great Joy.

DEC 7, 7:30PM: Surinder Mundra. A Choral Christmas from Across Europe.

DEC 7, 8PM: Exultate Chamber Singers. Winter’s Night with You.

DEC 8, 2PM: Annual City Carol Sing. Alex Pangman & Her Alleycats; Hogtown Brass Quintet; Yorkminster Park Baptist Church Choir; VIVA! Youth Singers of Toronto; That Choir; Hedgerow Singers; Kevin Frankish, host; and others.

DEC 8, 7:30PM: Forte – Toronto Gay Men’s Chorus. All Is Calm, All Is Bright.

DEC 9, 2PM: Duly Noted. Toronto vs. Everybody. All a cappella music celebrating Toronto.

DEC 11, 7:30PM: City Choir. Cakes & Ale.

DEC 16, 3PM: Pax Christi Chorale. England’s Golden Age. A cappella masterpieces from the reign of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I.

DEC 18, 7:30PM: Orpheus Choir of Toronto. A Child’s Christmas in Wales. With Geraint Wyn Davies.

DEC 22, 7:30PM: Quintessence Ensemble. Buon Natale: A Multilingual Christmas.

JAN 13, 3PM: Vesnivka Choir. Ukrainian Christmas Concert. With Toronto Ukrainian Male Chamber Choir and a folk instrumental ensemble.

JAN 13, 7:30PM: The Royal Conservatory of Music presents “We shall overcome: a celebration of Dr Martin Luther King Jr.” Damien Sneed and the Toronto Mass Choir: jazz, gospel, classical, blues, music theatre and spirituals – Sneed and guests will mark the 90th anniversary of MLK’s birth.

JAN 22 & 23, 7:30PM: Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony. KW Glee.

JAN 26, 3PM: Toronto Mendelssohn Choir. Spotlight on North America. A free community concert celebrating great composers from Canada and the United States: interim artistic director David Fallis’ first fully programmed concert

JAN 26, 7PM: Newchoir. The High Society Soir-eh.

JAN 26, 8PM: Confluence. Centuries of Souls.

FEB 2, 2PM & 7PM: Amadeus Choir of Greater Toronto. Songs from a Celtic Heart.

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

One hundred years ago, World War I raged on the battlefields of Europe, across the Middle East, in Southeast Asia and in proxy battles the world over. This year, the generation coming of age has lived entirely in the new millennium. Their experience of war is drastically different from the textbooks and grainy history videos in Grade 9 and 10 classes. Their experience of war is that of insurgency in Afghanistan, invasion of Iraq, annexation of Crimea, the global war on terrorism, and irregular migration. The terms they hear are drones, airstrikes, cyberterrorism, IEDs and asymmetrical warfare. Long past are the stories of trenches, machine guns, Spitfires, barbed wire, tanks and mustard gas.

As new generations of musicians explore works of commemoration, the older histories and stories don’t fade, they evolve. This month, the Choral Scene explores how children’s choirs are marking Remembrance Day.

Elise BradleyThe 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month…

In 2014, Paul Cummins and Tom Piper’s Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red was a public arts installation entailing the placement of 888,246 poppies in the moat of the Tower of London; one handmade ceramic poppy for each of the British fallen in WWI. Elise Bradley, artistic director of the Toronto Children’s Chorus (TCC), remembers this particular exhibit well. Four years on, we are approaching the centenary of the Armistice – 11am, November 11, 1918. “As a teacher and as a musician, I felt it was important to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Armistice that led to the end of World War I,” Bradley shares. “In 2014, I had witnessed many stirring events which honoured the start of the War…but to me, it seemed even more important to mark the end of the War.”

Bradley was born in New Zealand. On November 11 at 7:30, she will be joined by a host of Canadian guests, including Lydia Adams and the Elmer Iseler Singers, along with Australian-born accompanist Lara Dodds-Eden, and Bob Chilcott from England. Bradley highlights the four Commonwealth nations represented: Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the UK – all allies during WWI. “It is vitally important that we know about our history – but sharing it through music adds a very personal and emotional dimension to our understanding.” The concert will present works from all four countries.

From her New Zealand home, Bradley brings a particular history based on her long experience with Maori peoples and culture. “A Maori battalion fought on the fields of Gallipoli,” she says. “Part of the concert will be performing a full kapa haka piece of welcome and dedication to those who have passed.” Bradley holds a unique honour, being bestowed by the Wehi whānau (Wehi family), to act as guardian of the musical legacy and tradition of Ngapo and Pimia Wehi. Only two people outside of the family have this honour, which Bradley holds dearly, having worked with the family for over 25 years. “Where I go, the music can go, but I cannot leave it behind,” she shares. “Part of the guardianship is to honour and respect the music including the performance aspect of the art and dance.”

From the UK, Bob Chilcott is prominently featured, conducting smaller works and his larger sacred works: Peace Mass and Canticles of Light. Canadian Andrew Balfour, of Cree descent, wrote the work Ambe, based on an Ojibway song gifted by Cory Campbell. Local Toronto Ismaili composer Hussein Janmohamed’s Rest for a Soul is also on the set list. The concert features the world premiere of three WWI popular songs in arrangements commissioned by the TCC from Stuart Calvert: It’s a Long Way to Tipperary, Keep the Home Fires Burning, and Keep Right on till the End of the Road. The Elmer Iseler Singers will also perform, including Healey Willan’s How they so softly rest. An unverified, but persistent folktale amongst the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir is that Willan wrote the song to commemorate members of the choir who died in WWI.

Bob ChilcottChilcott has a different historical context than those of us on this side of the ocean as well as being of a different generation. He shared some thoughts on the upcoming concert as well. “For most in my country, the two world wars are a fading memory,” he says, “but to visit the Normandy beaches, which many young people still do, or to look for the graves of family members in the First World War cemeteries in Belgium is still an aspect of our history that is truly alive for many and very important to them.” (Many Canadians still make similar pilgrimages to cemeteries around the battlefields Canadian soldiers fought on, but they are a great deal further from Canadian shores than the UK.)

“Music has a role to play in [commemoration] and it reminds us that there are many technical and emotional responses within music that express some very deep and essential elements of our humanity,” Chilcott continues. “Harmony, resolution, blend, balance and unity.” These are all words used by conductors to describe the musicality they are looking for. It is fitting that these are virtues extolled by artists to the wider world. Chilcott finishes with a strong sentiment: “Remembrance is so important in that it teaches us to honour those who believed that fundamentally, good is better than bad.”

The Toronto Children’s Chorus presents “We Remember” a concert commemorating the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day. Featured guests include the Toronto Youth Choir, Elmer Iseler Singers, and guest conductors Lydia Adams and Bob Chilcott. November 11, 7:30pm. George Weston Recital Hall, Toronto Centre for the Arts.

Charissa BaganWhen the old and the new meet

“I want my choristers to know that history matters,” shares Charissa Bagan, artistic director of the Bach Children’s Chorus. “And that we have great power as singing storytellers and artists because we can connect the past, present and future… Choir offers a wonderful way for children to interact with serious topics.” For Remembrance Day, the Bach Children’s Choir and the Bach Youth Chamber Choir present “Resonant Reflection” on November 10.

Choral performance is always meant to be educational. One should learn from every rehearsal, every concert, and leave changed in some way, even if very small. Children’s choirs have a unique place in the musical process, being equally education- and performance-based. Bagan understands the role she has to play in a complex concert like this: “When it comes to working with the choir on a particular song and the text highlights a significant and catastrophic event from the past such as the Holocaust, there is absolutely a responsibility for the conductor to make space in the preparation of the music for the choir to engage with the story,” she shares. “[We have] to consider all that is being expressed and the implications it has for the future.” The management skills necessary to balance this educational and narrative process can easily become unbalanced in the pursuit of performance-readiness. “It is so easy for rehearsal minutes to be consumed with simply learning and polishing the notes,” she says. “And yet choral performances can really only come alive when the singers know the story that they are collectively expressing and the reason for singing it in the first place.

“While War and Remembrance are overarching themes, the concert is designed as just that – a concert and not a ceremony,” says Bagan. There are works by many female Canadian composers on the program including Lydia Adams’ gentle and simple arrangement of In Flanders Fields, Eleanor Daley’s flowing rendition of An Irish Blessing, and Sarah Quartel’s focused, bright Lux aeterna, a sonic setting of Vancouver Island sky from her four-part Sanctum. Bagan has also found an arrangement of After the War with words and music by Canadian actor Paul Gross and David Keele. The song was made popular by local Toronto artist Sarah Slean in the 2008 WWI film, Passchendaele.

Like Chilcott, Bagan has some insights, as well, on the new generation: “It seems to me that young people are more likely to [be] educated by their families, friends and teachers, facing new, complex issues, which were oversimplified for us in the past.” Bagan sees their intelligence and compassion firsthand: “Their thoughts go to the people their own age who are affected by the devastation of war as well as human suffering in all forms, from residential schools to modern-day slavery to famine and injustice at local, national, and international levels. …They’re more aware of the importance of considering multiple perspectives, less likely to assume a Commonwealth allegiance, and are genuinely grappling with how to be peacemakers in their communities.” Music is a good place to start.

Bagan raises another aspect of conflict that is often lost in commemorations – refugees. “I know that some of our choristers’ families have personally sponsored refugees which brings such a different perspective on war and peace than my experiences as a child, listening to my grandfather tell stories about the war.” This contemporary reality is striking. The major conflicts may not be physically in our neighbourhoods, but in a diverse city like Toronto, you’re never far removed from someone who has personal experience of some conflict around the world.

“Resonant Reflection presents a wide range of styles of music with some weighty history, sincere conviction, as well as hope and happiness,” says Bagan. “It is a way of engaging with the past and gradually understanding it a little more with each passing year through reflection, poetry, songs and communal moments that stay with us.”

These children though, are contributing more than just their voices in the service of healing. Some of the proceeds from the concert will benefit the East End Refugee Committee Fund.

The Bach Children’s Chorus and Bach Chamber Youth Choir present “Resonant Reflection,” a benefit concert for the East End Refugee Committee Fund featuring songs of remembrance and winter seasonal music. November 10 at 7:30pm. St. John’s Norway Church, Toronto. 

CHORAL SCENE QUICK PICKS

NOV 3, 7:30PM:. The Guelph Chamber Choir presents “Haven: Music of Protection and Peace.” As the search for Gerald Neufeld’s replacement as artistic director continues, one of the contenders, Patrick Murray, takes the helm of the choir for this concert as part of the Passing the Baton: The Search for Our Next Conductor series. St George’s Anglican Church, Guelph.

NOV 8 AND NOV 10, 8PM: The Toronto Symphony Orchestra presents Benjamin Britten’s masterwork War Requiem. With soloists Tatiana Pavlovskaya, Toby Spence and Russell Braun, and the massed power of the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir and the Toronto Children’s Chorus. Bramwell Tovey takes the baton. Roy Thomson Hall.

NOV 17, 7:30PM AND NOV 18, 3PM: The Grand Philharmonic Chamber Singers present the Canadian premiere of Craig Hella Johnson’s masterpiece, Considering Matthew Shepard. 20 years have passed since Matt Shepard was beaten and left tied to a fence to die in rural Wyoming. His remains were recently interred at the National Cathedral in Washington DC in respect. Humanities Theatre, University of Waterloo, Waterloo.

Remember to look ahead into December for holiday music concert listings at thewholenote.com. Many performances will start to sell out by the time you get the December issue in your hands!

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

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