For a number of different reasons, I find myself sitting here preoccupied with the old question “How many angels can dance on the point of a needle?” The origins of the question are nearly as debatable as the various answers to it. What delights me is that the debate assumes that there are angels. And, equally delightful, that they can dance!
What got me thinking about this? One thing was that someone asked me “How many potential choristers will be reading WholeNote’s May Canary Pages?” I found myself trying to come up with a total, based on last year’s Canary Pages. How many choirs? How many singers already in each? So, that’s about 12,000. But what about lapsed choristers ready to take the plunge again? And what if each of them has just one friend, who had never been in a choir, but inspired by association finds themselves suddenly seized by a secret powerful longing… .
So this is where thinking about angels helps. Angels don’t dance because they can. Angels dance because they must. And that’s how it is, sooner or later, with singing.
It’s a good time of year to spur that awareness. This round of ecstatic singing begins for many in April with sacred works relating to the Christian calendar. The Amadeus’ Choir’s St. John Passion (Apr. 4); The St. Matthew Passion (Tafelmusik April 2-8, Georgetown Bach Chorale Apr 10, Grand Philharmonic Choir Apr.10); a singalong Messiah (Armour Heights Presbyterian, April 10); Music at Metropolitan’s “All Creation Wept” (also April 10 - which is Good Friday); Pax Christi’s Bach Mass in B minor (April 25), and The Amadeus Choir’s performance of the Rutter Gloria (May 2).
And sacred does not necessarily mean “old”: as evidenced by the Jazz Mass: there’s one by Steve Dobrogosz (Annex Singers, April 25) and another by David Mott (called CREATION) which will be performed along with Paul Winter’s Missa Gaia (Mississauga Choral Society, May 3). So many of our choirs have spring concerts that are celebrations of one kind or another. Examples of this: Elmer Iseler Singers 30th anniversary celebration on April 17; the John Laing Singers’ April 25 Majesty of Spring; Orpheus Choir’s Choral Countdown on May 9; Toronto Mendelssohn’s anniversary celebration “Passion Has a Voice” (May 9).
And there’s more. The Upper Canada Choristers offer us The Armed Man: A Mass For Peace, multimedia work by Welsh composer Karl Jenkins (May 1). The evening marks its first Canadian performance with video (a feature of its world premiere and other subsequent performances), a muezzin’s call to prayer within a Mass setting, quotes from both Palestrina and Brazilian drum rhythms in the Kyrie, and a children’s choir. Guy Wilson, who selected the texts, comments, “What better way both to look back and reflect as we leave behind the most war-torn and destructive century in human history, and to look ahead with hope and commit ourselves to a new and more peaceful millennium?” Eglinton St. George also performs this work on May 8.
The greatest culmination of this impulse to, metaphorically, dance on the point of a needle, is choirs joining with other choirs. The April 24th concert at RTH is a case in point: the visiting Kyiv Chamber Choir performing with Vesnivka, the Elmer Iseler Singers, and St Michaels Choir School.
It’s spring, and the spirit that moves people to sing is in the air.
I recently received a letter about a documentary film called “The Singing Revolution”, about hundreds of thousands of Estonians who gathered to sing publicly songs they were forbidden to sing, between 1986 and 1991, in an effort to end decades of Soviet occupation. Singing fuelled a non-violent revolution. This included what began in 1988 as spontaneous mass night-singing demonstrations at the Tallinn Song Festival Grounds, home of the “Laulupidu” , an Estonian song festival that happens every five years, and which will take place in July of this year. I hear there were something like 185,000 people gathered there to sing in 2004. That’s a lot of potential choristers!
I don’t know if “Singing Revolution” will make it as one of the movies at “Movies Embracing Music”, WholeNote’s June 24th, choral-themed film night. (The plan is to give you, our readers, a say in what movies get presented that night. Stay tuned (to the website, and to the May magazine).
So how many Canaries can sing on the point of a needle? If the “point of the needle” in this case is a pinnacle of musical delight (such as the one created and arrived at by massed human voices singing beautiful music together) the answer is that the answer remains to be seen.