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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Honorary Mention

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

A choir for you!

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

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

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

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