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

Choral music is not one of life’s frills. It’s something that goes to the very heart of our humanity, our sense of community, and our souls.” – John Rutter

Some of my earliest memories of community are from being a member of choir. It has always held great prominence in my life. A few weeks ago, I watched a short YouTube video from J.W. Pepper of an interview with John Rutter, a renowned composer of choral music. Although the clip is only a few minutes long, his words resonated with me, for he spoke so eloquently and profoundly of the significance of choir.

My Introduction to the Choral World

I was seven years old when my family immigrated to Canada. Shortly after settling down in Toronto, my mother became involved with the choir of our then-community church as their pianist. Soon after, she encouraged my sister and me to join it. In addition to singing in church, my sister and I also became members of a choir called VOCE, a children’s choir affiliated with the Toronto Catholic District School Board. The rehearsals were held at Cardinal Carter Academy for the Arts. (We would go on to attend the high school a few years later.)

Because I was considerably younger than the other members of the church choir, attending rehearsals weekly was something I did primarily because of my mother. However, being part of VOCE, with other singers my own age, was a completely different experience. As Rutter says during the interview, “When you get together with a group of other singers […] all of those people are pouring out their hearts and souls in perfect harmony.” I felt at ease in choir as I mingled with like-minded children; all of us bonding over music, learning our parts together, competing for solos but also supporting one another. I remember having a lot of fun.

Carol Woodward RatzlaffChoral Community and Inclusivity

I recently was affiliated with VIVA! Youth Singers of Toronto, as I worked part-time with them and sang with their Main Chorus. Founded in 2000, VIVA! is a welcoming space inclusive to singers with disabilities. After listening to the Rutter video, I was moved to discuss this theme of community with someone deeply rooted in the choral scene, so I reconnected by email with Carol Woodward Ratzlaff, founder of VIVA!, to get her perspective both as a conductor and a chorister.

When schools started eliminating arts programming 20 years ago, Ratzlaff, who was working for the Toronto District School Board at the time, felt she needed to turn to the private sector to respond. She tells me: “We need to work to inform education leaders and those in government of the personal advantages, educational benefits and holistic impact of arts opportunities. Too often, adult-centred economic concerns inform educational outcomes. I was aware of many other excellent private-sector choral experiences in the GTA, but I was not focused on what the market was already providing; it was not a business response. I was motivated by the fact that there were many children (as well as youth and adults with disabilities) who were not being provided with opportunities to sing and to create beautiful music together.” Ratzlaff’s words resonate strongly with Rutter’s. As he states: “Politicians need to take note […], and our educators, those who decide education budgets, church budgets, just need to remember [choral music is] not a frill.”

Ratzlaff’s first experiences in choir were from middle school in St. Catharines ON. Since then, she has sung with several esteemed choirs, including the Elmer Iseler Singers and the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir. She shares: “Choral singing has been one of the great joys of my professional and personal life. I am temperamentally suited to group singing and collaborative creative work. I am particularly intrigued by the rich connections that are fostered between choristers themselves, between choristers and audience, and the changing role of the conductor in this landscape.”

I asked her what she tries to instill in singers as a choral director. She replied: “I try to empower them to make decisions along with me, to take ownership of our creative journey, and to make something beautiful with their voices. […] I seek a balance between meeting individual and group needs.” Ratzlaff shares that she loves “the process of discernment in seeking how to teach a piece of music. [She loves] sound and the capacity of the human voice to produce many expressive colours to tell a story.”

John RutterThe last word on this topic goes to John Rutter again: “Choral music is like a great oak that rises up from the centre of the human race and spreads its branches everywhere. That’s what music does for us. And choral music must stand as one of the supreme examples of it.”

Concerts around the GTA

Speaking of Rutter, we can listen to some of his works that will be included in a few concerts over the next months. Under artistic director, Oliver Balaburski, the King Edward Choir will perform Rutter’s Angels’ Carol and Candlelight Carol during their concert, “Gloria!” on November 30. The Aurora United Church Chancel Choir and Handbell Ensembles, will have a Carols by Candlelight service on December 8. The first movement of Rutter’s Gloria will be one of the pieces sung. The MCS Chorus Mississauga will take you on a musical and literary journey with Christmas with Anne, also on December 8. Along with readings from Lucy Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables books, savour the sounds of Rutter’s Carol of the Children and Angel’s Carol.

Mary Lou FallisChoral Mosaic: Invitation to Choirs

With all this dialogue on choral music and community, you may feel inspired to get out and join a choir right away. But circle your calendar too for a great choral event, the inaugural Choral Mosaic Festival, taking place from June 25 to 27, 2020. Organized by the Mississauga Festival Choir and Festival Team, under the direction of David Ambrose, it will be three days of choral merriment; the choral Osheaga, if you will. Complete choirs, as well as individuals, are welcome to participate in the festival. Take the opportunity to hone your vocal skills and gain insight from professional speakers, be challenged by a variety of workshops and enjoy fraternizing with other singers. In addition, some notable features include an act by comedian Mary Lou Fallis and a closing gala performance by all the participants. The Festival will be held at the Living Arts Centre in Mississauga. If this has piqued your interest, look for more details on the festival website, choralmosaic.com. And take note! Early-bird registration has already begun.

CHORAL SCENE QUICK PICKS

NOV 16, 7:30PM: The Bach Elgar Choir presents Brahms’ Requiem at Melrose United Church in Hamilton. The choir, under the direction of Alexander Cann, will perform with the accompaniment of a full orchestra.

VIVA! Youth Singers of TorontoNOV 23, 6:30PM: Join the VIVA! Youth Singers of Toronto with “The World in a City,” an interactive family-friendly concert. The concert will pay homage to Toronto with works conveying Indigenous roots and waves of migration. Jeanne Lamon Hall, Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre.

NOV 30, 7PM: The Incontra Vocal Ensemble presents “Creator of the Stars of Night,” under the direction of Matthew Otto. Look forward to hearing the works of Britten, Mendelssohn, and Chilcott, among others. The concert will serve as a fundraiser for the Institute for Christian Studies. At Knox College Chapel, U of T.

DEC 6, 7:30PM AND DEC 7, 2PM AND 7:30PM: Cue the Home Alone face. Relive the joyous and laughter-filled memories with this beloved Christmas film. The Toronto Symphony Orchestra, with the Resonance Youth Choir, will present Home Alone in Concert under the direction of Constantine Kitsopoulos. The music by John Williams will be ringing once again at Roy Thomson Hall.

DEC 7, 7:30PM: The Christmas season always feels complete with the soaring harmonies of Handel’s Messiah. Take in the beautiful sound of the Grand Philharmonic Choir with soprano soloist Mireille Asselin, mezzo Maude Brunet, tenor Asitha Tenekoon and baritone Samuel Chan. The Choir will be accompanied by the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony at the Centre in the Square in Kitchener.

Menaka Swaminathan is a writer and chorister, currently based in Toronto. She can be reached via choralscene@thewholenote.com.

Autumn is the most enjoyable season of the four we are lucky to experience in Canada. All right, this may be a biased opinion, but I stand by it. The temperature is comfortable and somewhat consistent, the leaves are changing and we are presented with beautiful colours for a few weeks. And of course Thanksgiving is nigh, which means pumpkin spice everything. Cue all the excitement. I also notice people are happier around this time. That could be an arguable statement too, but I do think the brightness of the season somehow results in an overall brighter demeanour with people.

While looking through choral performances over the next couple of months, I noticed a bit of a thematic trend, in terms of human connection to nature, which reflects the season we are entering, which we appreciate for the natural beauty that surrounds us. Additionally as part of a culture where attempts at living with zero waste are slowly becoming more prominent, it seems fitting to see concerts not only calling for reflection on the state of the Earth and respect of nature but also, especially with our current political climate, providing opportunities to listen to music that takes us out of the hustle and bustle of everyday life with all its distractions, thereby keeping us zoned in to what is truly important: Earth, nature, togetherness.

Dr. Charlene PaulsAdvancing to Where We Are Today

Accordingly, a few concerts piqued my interest pertaining to these themes, one of them being a performance by the Guelph Chamber Choir of Bob Chilcott’s Five Days that Changed the World and other works on October 27. Many choristers will easily recognize Chilcott’s name, for he is a prominent composer of choral repertoire. I have experienced many a Chilcott work, both as a chorister and as an audience member; however, I had not heard of this particular work. I got in touch with Dr. Charlene Pauls, the new artistic director of the Guelph Chamber Choir, to inquire a little further about the work.

I was interested, I told her, to know why Pauls chose to perform Five Days that Changed the World and her reason for calling on this theme of unity; the concert features other pieces as well, but Chilcott is clearly the main event. Pauls explained that “in a world that seems increasingly to highlight so much of what is negative about the human spirit, we wanted to create a program that did the opposite.” As mentioned earlier, we are in a time where there is an increased urge to be more united, trying to leave behind a lighter footprint on our planet and taking care of what we have. “We tend to hear so much about the problems in our world,” Pauls continues, “however, throughout time there have always been those around us who have made an impact through positive change, who have created innovations that have improved society and who have made the world a better place.” This piece “highlights five moments in time that have connected people: the invention of the printing press, the abolition of slavery, the invention of flight, the discovery of penicillin and the first human in space. […] The music is wonderfully varied, with threads of humour, poignancy and wonder woven throughout the various movements.”

Some of the other works to be performed “celebrate connections between us.” They include Winnipeg composer Andrew Balfour’s welcoming song Ambe (sung in Ojibway), American composer Joan Szymko’s It Takes A Village, French composer Maurice Duruflé’s Ubi Caritas, Canadian composer Sarah Quartel’s Sing, My Child, and a great gospel arrangement of Paul Simon’s Bridge Over Troubled Water by Kirby Shaw. Other pieces on the program include works that challenge us to action, such as Eric Whitacre’s Cloudburst that urges us to “dream with our hands.” To top it off, there is a surprise encore piece that should not be missed. Pauls revealed the surprise to me, but I am going to keep it to myself.

Continuing on to explain her aim with this performance, Pauls comments: “Fundamentally, I believe that the foundation of society must be relationships, humanity connecting with each other, because it is only then that we can have empathy and create positive change.”

Mark RamsayNature’s Beauty and Environmental Consciousness

Similarly, another concert that I think will be a captivating listen is “Voices of Earth: In Celebration of Nature’s Beauty” by the Exultate Chamber Singers, entering its 39th season, conducted by Mark Ramsay on October 18. I was interested to know more about the program as well as his decision to set on the theme of nature. Ramsay answered a few of my questions via email..

The music is quite varied, he says, and the concert is a compilation of works by an interesting mix of composers, many of whom are Canadian.

A few works he mentioned are: Voices of Earth by Mark Sirett, which will be performed with a guest violinist, Adrian Irvine. Due North by Stephen Chatman, Ramsay tells me, “is a fun set of five pieces set in the style of soundscapes where [they] explore the sounds associated with and inspired by specific words related to our Canadian landscape, including Mountains, Trees, Mosquitoes and even Woodpecker.”

Come to the Woods by Jake Runestad, with a text by John Muir, is the cornerstone of the program, Ramsay informs me. “It’s an extended work, with a fantastic piano part, that takes us on an emotional journey.” The composer describes it as a piece that “explores Muir’s inspirations and the transporting peace found in the natural world.”

The program also includes, but is not limited to, works by Johannes Brahms, Allan Bevan, Gwynyth Walker, Matthew Emery, and Samuel Barber.

What led him to decide on the theme? Ramsay says: “I personally believe the theme is a timely one. The Earth and our environment has always been a powerful inspiration for writers, musicians and artists from all creative streams. Recently, I think we are seeing a general increased interest in our environment and our relationship with it. How are we harming it? How are we caring for it? What does our future look like? With that in mind I tried to design a program filled with beautiful texts and choral music that depicts this diverse and stunning environment we are so strongly connected to.”

Keep these questions that Ramsay poses in mind as you take in the music. We have to make a conscious effort to take a minute to centre ourselves, think about our planet, think about all that we have gained from it. This theme is one that cannot really get stale or uninteresting, as we continue to slowly but surely witness an active push in working together to keep our Earth healthy and to bridge the divides in society.

On October 27th at 3pm, the Guelph Chamber Choir will perform Bob Chillcot’s Five Days that Changed the World, amongst other works. The performance will take place at the Harcourt Memorial United Church in Guelph. In keeping with a theme of unity, the Guelph Collegiate and Vocational Institute (GCVI) high school choir will join the Guelph Chamber Choir for the main piece.

Exultate Chamber SingersOn October 18th at 8pm, the Exultate Chamber Singers will perform Voices of Earth: In Celebration of Nature’s Beauty at St. Thomas’s Anglican Church in Toronto. 

CHORAL SCENE QUICK PICKS

OCT 20, 2:30PM: The University of Toronto Faculty of Music presents “Choirs in Concert: Seasons of Song.” Be treated to a combination of the Men’s Chorus and Women’s Chorus, under conductors Elaine Choi and Mark Ramsay. Some featured works will be by contemporary Canadian composers Frances Farrell, Matthew Emery and E.K.R. Hammell. The performance will be held at the Church of the Redeemer. U of T students should be sure to carry a valid TCard for free admittance, space permitting.

OCT 27, 3PM: Orchestra Toronto, together with the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, will present “Freude! 30 Years after the Fall of the Berlin Wall” at the George Weston Recital Hall. Under the direction of Michael Newnham, with soloists Lesley Bouza (soprano), Andrea Ludwig (mezzo), Andrew Walker (tenor) and Bradley Christensen (baritone), with pianist Elijah Orlenko; revel in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.23 and Beethoven’s Symphony No.9.

OCT 27, 3PM: The Vesnikva Choir, the Toronto Ukrainian Male Chamber Choir and the St. Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic Church Choir come together for “Tribute to Koshyts,” a concert featuring some of the sacred and secular works of Oleksander Koshyts; at All Saints Kingsway Anglican Church with an introduction by Wasyl Sydorenko.

NOV 2, 7:30PM: Pax Christi Chorale present the world premiere of The Sun, the Wind, and the Man with the Cloak at Yorkminster Park Baptist Church. Music by Stephanie Martin, commissioned by Pax Christie Chorale. With the Intermediate Chorus of Canadian Children’s Opera Company and soloists Allison Walmsley (soprano), Catherine Daniel (mezzo), Asitha Tennekoon (tenor), and Brett Polegato (baritone).

The Kingdom ChoirNOV 5 and 6, 7:30PM: Remember the choir at the big royal wedding of Meghan Markle and Prince Harry? They will be performing in Toronto soon. With two dates in November, the Kingdom Choir, with a reputation of the best gospel choir in the world, will take over the Meridian Arts Centre. Expect to hear stunning renditions of Beyoncé’s Halo, John Legend’s All of Me and of course Stand By Me, now made famous from their world-viewed performance.

Menaka Swaminathan is a writer and chorister, currently based in Toronto. She can be reached via choralscene@thewholenote.com.

If you, like me, are a once-active vocalist who took a break for an extended period of time, looking to rejoin a choir, or looking for a new choir to join, is daunting. A friend recently suggested that I could still audition for the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir (TMC) at the end of August for their upcoming season. My mind went into panic mode. I let out a quick “No!” – I mean, how could I possibly be ready for an audition with mere weeks to get my voice back into shape? And isn’t September too late to join a choir like that? Surely their plans for the coming season are firmly in place?

But it got me thinking, so I spoke to some choristers and reached out by email to the artistic teams of three different choirs in Toronto to ask about their audition requirements, and how far along they are in the behind-the-scenes preparation it takes to get a new choral seasons rolling in the fall.

Cantabile Chamber SingersLooking through WholeNote’s Canary pages to decide who to contact was a great reminder of the variety of choirs present in Toronto. Whether you prefer bigger groups, like the 65-voice ensemble of The Annex Singers, or the intimate setting of a smaller chamber ensemble, like 15 to 20-voice Cantabile Chamber Singers, or a community choir, like the 30 to 35-member Jubilate Singers, there truly is a choir out there for everyone. Many ensembles are open to people of diverse backgrounds, both musical and occupational. Singing can be solely a hobby; using music as a release. It can also be a gateway to a professional career in music. In any case, no one should feel discouraged from joining a choir if an interest in singing is present.

After the summer break, would September be too late to get in touch with any of these three choirs?

The response to my inquiries was encouraging: although holding auditions in different months in the year – May and September for the Cantabile Chamber Singers; June, August and January for The Annex Singers; June and September for the Jubilate Singers – all three ensembles welcome inquiries throughout the season.

So, the fact that it’s nearly September is no excuse! Now is as good a time as any. As for my question as to what new and existing choristers should keep in mind prior to making a commitment to a choir, the responses were unanimous: understanding the extent of the commitment so you can figure out how you will balance your own schedule is essential. As mentioned, choir members come from different backgrounds, and choirs themselves are different: the ability to balance work with rehearsals sufficiently to maintain a dedication to the choir is important. Choristers likely need to be able to commit to weekly rehearsals, make personal time to learn music, and set dates aside for performances. And depending on the choir, additional commitments may be expected for various workshops, sectionals, and choir retreats.

Behind the Concerts

Meanwhile, in these months prior to the start of the new music season, the choral scene is bustling with preparation, a lot of it unobserved by audiences and often even by choristers. Music needs to be selected, artists contacted, auditions arranged, venues booked, funding organized, and year-round administrative duties maintained. As the artistic team of The Annex Singers told me, music selection, for example, must sometimes be done as much as a year in advance.

The music community as an art is unlike the music entertainment industry. It is a labour of love, a conscientious drive to keep music as an art form alive. It is not easy. All three choirs mentioned here are led by women, all of them sharing the same determination; a determination to bring diversity to Toronto’s choral scene and to make choral music accessible to a large number of people.

Jubilate SingersI asked how specific works are selected for a music season. Cheryll Chung, artistic director of Cantabile, answered, “I usually have a running list of pieces that I want to perform. I’m always on the lookout for new repertoire – always researching, especially music written by living composers, and female composers who are local.” The music director of Jubilate, Isabel Bernaus, makes all programming decisions for their three-concert season, although she “usually consults with an informal program advisory group of choir members. Concert themes and individual works are outlined the previous January (in preparation for the arts council grant applications.)” Similarly, Maria Case, artistic director of The Annex Singers, creates the program for each concert well in advance, adding that the concerts usually centre on a theme.

With respect to collaborations with guest artists and/or ensembles, Jubilate makes their selections “depending on the music and program needs.” One example: inviting “a Spanish dance company to collaborate on a program of classical Spanish and flamenco music. […] The selection of collaborators is often dependent on the professional and personal connections of the music director (or, occasionally, of one of the choir members).”

In a like manner, The Annex Singers “match the instrument, style, and area of interest of [their] guest performers to the particular program.” They mentioned a tribute performance to Shakespeare where they welcomed guest harpsichordist, Cynthia Hiebert. They also “see supporting young artists as part of [their] responsibility within the choral community.”

As someone who previously worked behind the scenes in a choral organization, I am aware of how essential funding is to the advancement and scope of choirs. I asked if these choirs receive funding from any additional stakeholders outside of their members. As might be expected, their answers differed.

Chung shared that Cantabile hasn’t been successful with all of their grant applications, “except for the one [they] applied for with [their] composer-in-residence Laura Sgroi. It was a commissioning grant awarded by the Ontario Arts Council (OAC). [They therefore] rely solely on ticket sales and donations.”

The artistic team of The Annex Singers answered, “We receive advertising revenues from local business owners and merchants in the community who promote their services in our concert programs and provide donations to our raffles and silent auction throughout the concert season. We also receive financial support from donors within and outside the choir. Our audiences are aware of the costs of running a choir, and have proved loyal, responsive and generous to our fundraising campaigns. However, most of our revenue comes from membership fees and ticket sales.”

The Jubilate Singers have “the support of multi-year grants from the Toronto Arts Council. In some years [they] have been fortunate to receive a grant from the OAC. In addition, individual donors give some funding, and some businesses advertise in [their] programs.” I asked why arts funding is important to Jubilate. They answered, “Arts funding helps with expenses, especially for paying the honoraria to the music director and accompanist, as well as venue rental for rehearsals and concerts. This kind of funding also shows that the community at large respects our contribution and recognizes the importance of music in the life of the community.”

Why should there be an interest in investing in choirs? And why should people in the community care to expand the choral scene? For a community choir like The Jubilate Singers, it’s because they “[occupy] a special niche, performing an eclectic range of world music that reflects the diversity of the greater Toronto region. … A small donation to a choir can make a big impact on the ability of that choir to present interesting and/or unusual music […] More generally, community choirs represent the ideal of amateur musicians who rehearse and perform for the love of singing. Whatever polish a choir may lack is made up for by the energy and dedication that its members bring to the music.”

Chung adds a similar sentiment, “I think people want to give back to the arts and support living musicians. Generally they see the value of live music and enjoy the diversity of our concerts.”

As for the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, I spoke briefly with a chorister I know, Chantelle Whiteside, who has been a TMC member, and is lamenting that, as TMC gets ready to celebrate their 125th anniversary, she won’t be able to make the commitment of time she knows she would have to, to be part of what promises to be a special year. “Being a part of Mendelssohn has been the most rewarding thing,” she says. “It’s a community, … meeting new friends who become your closest friends.” Many choral groups require a fee from members to survive; however, the experience earned and lasting relationships formed are ultimately priceless.

To inquire about any of the specific choirs mentioned above, please contact:

Jubilate Singers – info@jubilatesingers.ca; 416-223-7690

Cantabile Chamber Singers – cantabilechambersingers@gmail.com; 416-509-8122

The Annex Singers – joeidinger@gmail.com; 416-458-4434

The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir – admin@tmchoir.org; 416-598-0422

Or to delve into the myriad other opportunities out there, check out the current WholeNote Canary Pages under “Who’s Who?” at thewholenote.com.

It’s never too soon or too late!

CHORAL SCENE QUICK PICKS

SEP 28, 4PM: Bringing a Spanish and Latin flair to the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, the Toronto Operetta Theatre presents “Viva La Zarzuela.” Let the vocal talents of tenor Romulo Delgado and sopranos Ana Persijn Alarcon, Cristina Pisani and Olivia Maldonado, under the direction of Guillermo Silva-Marin transport you to Latin America and Spain.

SEP 29, 4PM: The Elmer Iseler Singers celebrate 40 years of the Festival of the Sound including the Toronto premiere of Eric Robertson’s The Sound – A Musical Evocation of Georgian Bay. James Campbell and the Penderecki String Quartet are among the guest artists performing at Eglinton-St. George’s United Church.

OCT 5 AND 6, 7:30PM: Enjoy the familiar, “I like to be in America!” with Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story in concert presented by Chorus Niagara and the Niagara Symphony Orchestra. Robert Markus, fresh from his recent performance as Evan Hansen in Dear Evan Hansen, takes the lead role as Tony; soprano Meher Pavri performs Maria. Tickets can be bought online and performances will take place at FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre, St. Catharines.

Menaka Swaminathan is a writer and chorister, currently based in Toronto. She can be reached via choralscene@thewholenote.com

Roomful of Teeth in Triptych (Eyes of One on Another). Photo (c) Maria BaranovaOn June 22 at 8pm, Luminato presents Triptych (Eyes of One on Another), a new multidisciplinary work composed by Bryce Dessner with libretto by Korde Arrington Tuttle, inspired by the controversial and revolutionary work of Robert Mapplethorpe; at the Sony Centre (soon to be Meridian Hall), Toronto.

A consistent throughline at Luminato has been introducing local audiences to the international array of interesting, challenging collisions of storytelling and performance. In this year’s festival we have this multidisciplinary work inspired by Robert Mapplethorpe’s art. His stark black and white photography, often focused upon unapologetic queerness in a striking visual way, here collides with an equally striking vocal ensemble called Roomful of Teeth. Hand-picked by Triptych composer Bryce Dessner to bring his score to life, Roomful of Teeth is not quite a choir, not quite a band, not quite what you’d think of for an eight-voice ensemble. Their number includes bass-baritone Dashon Burton, founder Brad Wells, and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Caroline Shaw.

Triptych’s subject is Robert Mapplethorpe himself. His photography of provocative people was challenged in American courts under obscenity laws in 1990. To this day, Mapplethorpe’s work is controversial, but his unique approach has left an indelible impact in the intersection of photography and viewer. The composer, Bryce Dessner is an accomplished orchestral writer but is mostly known for his work as guitarist in the American band, The National. Interestingly, he is a native of Cincinnati, the city where Mapplethorpe’s exhibit was shut down under obscenity laws. At the world premiere in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in March of 2019, Dessner and librettist Korde Arrington Tuttle participated in an hour-long talk with NPR’s Neda Ulaby. Their interview, available on Youtube, is a fascinating look into the creative process of collaboration and informed this month’s column.

“The images were always core to the work,” shares Dessner to Ulaby. “There are so many images that stand out … there are the images you can find which have been in exhibitions or on books or on their website and then there’s 1000 times that; his archives [in the Getty Institute] are extensive … [But] if he didn’t himself publish a photo, we’re technically not allowed to show it.” So for Dessner and Arrington Tuttle, they were able to see so much more than the public has, and this personal look has shaped Triptych.

“Mapplethorpe’s work gets deep into the heart of all kinds of issues around our identity and how we see one another,” continues Dessner. “The images are so powerful; and his art is so powerful in that way. The conflict within it is always unfolding.” Thirty years after the death of Mapplethorpe, there are still discussions around what art is, the lines of art and obscenity, and how to respond to it all. Many still call the work obscene and profane, but there is a persistent draw in the work that continues to make Mapplethorpe popular.

“I came to Mapplethorpe’s life and work in college... For me, it had something to do with how he saw,” shares Arrington Tuttle. “It had something to do with precision, it had something to do with an attempt at how to grasp at what he describes as perfection. But also a kind of transcendent beauty and a kind of love that might not look like love. It might not look like how I’m used to perceiving love or tenderness. There’s something about coming to terms with and spending time intimately with discomfort and placing myself in that discomfort … It was provocation that asked me and required my presence …the way Mapplethorpe is mixing the sacred and the profane and elevating images that some people might call pornographic but are actually great works of art.”

“There’s been intense discomfort and reckoning,” says Dessner. “Almost every day we’ll have a discussion or confront something new in terms of the bigger work of what this is. I think for me the piece has become the process of making the piece.” That process included working with Roomful and writing the music knowing it was going to be them performing it. In fact he can’t think of anyone other than Roomful performing the work. As it travels, so too does the ensemble.

“They’re really like a band, Roomful, they bring a kind of intent. They can’t just sing something, they have to know why they’re singing something.”

Roomful of Teeth as an ensemble name sounds crass and jarring., and their music can sound like that as well. There is a lot of sound and a lot of different techniques all being thrown at listeners at once. There is something dynamic about listening to a female voice sing in the style of Bulgarian women. It’s another feeling altogether to hear Tuvan throat singing droning away. Sometimes it is just plain weird to listen to –an example of “spending time intimately with discomfort” that Arrington Tuttle referred to. Roomful constantly seeks to find all the various ways that voices can make sound and confront you with them. The seductive sound of Sardinian cantu, for example, provides a fullness and constant envelope of sound much like a bagpipe. Higher tones can then play around on top of the solid bass provided by the style. Many of the singers in Roomful are composers; they understand the interplay that art has between presenting, listening, invoking, and creating. “They’ve been quite involved in shaping the work … it’s made the piece much stronger,” says Dessner.

Roomful’s intersection with Dressner and Mapplethorpe in Triptych (Eyes of One on Another) is just that – an intersection. It’s worth checking out, and it will also be interesting to see what lies next on their own path.

The State Choir LATVIJA in Moscow, 2015The 15th Latvian Song and Dance Festival

Latvian culture has a strong choral tradition of massive ensembles in summer festivals. Here in Canada, many Latvians have made indelible marks in the Canadian choral landscape. As part of the 15th Latvian Song and Dance Festival, the State Choir LATVIJA comes to Canada for the first time.

The Latvian Song and Dance Festival occurs every five years in Latvia. A distinguishing feature of the festival is the massed power of thousands of voices. These huge summer gatherings devoted to music are cultural gems in Latvia. The Toronto version of the festival includes choral, instrumental, and dance performances all centred around the significant contributions of Latvians to choral art.

In their concert of Latvian sacred music on July 4 at Trinity St. Paul’s Centre, State Choir LATVIJA performs a host of beautiful works written by Latvian composers including Canadians Imant Ramnish, George Juris Ķeniņš, Tālivaldis Ķeniņš, Arvīds Purvs and Ērika Yost. Raminsh’s stirring Ave Verum Corpus is a well-loved standard of Canadian choral programming. Ķeniņš’ work, Miss Brevis Latviensis was commissioned by the Choir and had its premiere in 2017 to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.

On July 5, the State Choir LATVIJA – now in its 77th season – comes to Koerner Hall, the grandest of spaces for this fine choir. Featuring music from Latvian-Canadian composers Jānis Kalniņš, Tālivaldis Ķeniņš and Imant Raminsh, the choir is joined by violinist Laura Zariņa, pianist Arthur Ozolins and members of the Canadian Opera Company Orchestra.

Finally, in keeping with the Latvian large choir tradition, on July 6 at 3pm, State Choir LATVIJA conductor Māris Sirmais will lead a Mass Choir Concert – an expected 800 choristers – in a program of all-Latvian composers at Mattamy Athletic Centre. 

CHORAL SCENE QUICK PICKS

JUN 13 TO 22: Asah Productions and Luminato present Obeah Opera. An a cappella, all-female cast explore the Salem witch trials in a work conceived, written and composed by Nicole Brooks. Tituba, a young Caribbean slave was the first woman accused in the trials. This is her story amidst the paranoia that gripped colonial Massachusetts between February 1692 and May 1693: at the Fleck Dance Theatre, Toronto.

JUN 19, 20, 22, 8PM AND JUN-23, 3PM: The Toronto Symphony Orchestra presents Carmina Burana conducted by Donald Runnicles. James Ehnes performs Korngold’s Violin Concerto to open the concert. For the signature work of the evening, Nichole Haslett, Sunnyboy Dladla and Norman Garrett anchor the solos. The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir will be joined by the Toronto Youth Choir and the Toronto Children’s Chorus in performing one of the greatest pieces in the choral canon. It may well be the biggest presentation of Carmina Burana Toronto has ever seen at Roy Thomson Hall.

JUN 23, 8PM: The closing event of Luminato 2019, Maada’ookii Songlines, composed by Cris Derksen, will bring together the power of over 200 performers, including almost a dozen choirs, plus soloists and instrumentalists, in a free performance meant to bridge the time between evening and night; at Harbourfront Centre.

JUL 19, 7:30PM: The Festival of the Sound’s Opening Gala features the Elmer Iseler Singers. With a host of guests including soprano Mary Lou Fallis; narrator Colin Fox; the Penderecki String Quartet; and instrumentalists Guy Few, Suzanne Shulman, James Campbell, Beverley Johnston, and Bob Mills. A huge assortment of choral excerpts mark and evoke performances from the 40-year history of the Festival. Excerpts include Handel’s Messiah, Bach’s Mass in B Minor, Carmina Burana, Mozart’s Requiem, and the world premiere of The Sound: A Musical Evocation of Georgian Bay by Eric Robertson and Gary Michael Dault. Lots of other musical experiences can be found throughout the festival. Stockey Centre, Parry Sound.

AUG 17 TO 25: Wellington Water Week is a celebration of the water in the idyllic Price Edward County community of Wellington. Husband-and-wife duo Johannes Debus, COC music director, and Elissa Lee, violinist, curate the musical offerings for the celebration, including August 17, at 5:30pm, Opus 8 presenting an a cappella program of folk songs titled “How Can I Keep from Singin’?” at Wellington United Church, and, on August 23 at 6pm, Debus and singer/songwriter Sarah Slean presenting SING!, a crowd-sourced mass choir event. The two will co-direct songs for everyone to participate in; also at Wellington United Church.

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