1808-choralMore than any other musician before Wagner, Beethoven exemplified the idea of composer as spiritual leader, the artist as visionary genius who compels the support of performers, teachers and historians to realize his dreams and ideas.

Beethoven is an approachable genius, though. His achievements are leavened and humanized by his vulnerability, his awkwardness bordering on misanthropy and his loneliness. Through the insights we garner from his letters and notebooks we are witness to his very human struggles with friends, family and colleagues, to his frantic rewriting and experimentation with his own work.

With few exceptions, every note of Beethoven’s oeuvre feels like something is at stake. To be involved in a performance of his work sometimes seems, in a small way, like sharing in his struggles. As much as any of his works, the Missa Solemnis — performed in Toronto on May 15 by the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir — exemplifies this phenomenon.

It’s generally accepted that Beethoven did not write sympathetically for voices. He was certainly not alone in this. In many instances Bach appeared to think of the voice as an instrument with a human being attached. Many of both composers’ solo and choral vocal lines, beautifully wrought, are only possible to execute faithfully as long as the singer does not have to breathe for minutes on end.

The choral section of Beethoven’s famous Ninth Symphony is a half-hour long vocal rollercoaster ride that taxes both the solo quartet and the choir with sustained high tessitura writing, dynamic extremes that require skilled vocal control, long instrumental-style passages with no room to breathe, all combined with the challenge of being heard over the wall of sound created by brass, winds, strings and tympani.

The Missa Solemnis is the same thing, multiplied by three.

It is the extreme nature of the vocal writing in the Missa Solemnis that makes it especially challenging. Beethoven’s cruelly high melodic lines and virtuosic instrumental writing were well beyond the capabilities of the players and singers of the time, and the first performance of the work (in Russia, 1824) was famously ragged. It was not published in its entirety until after his death.

But in writing music that outstripped the capabilities of the musicians of the time, Beethoven founded the idea of the composition as artistic and spiritual summit, to which musicians must aspire and strive. Wagner and Stravinsky would continue this tradition, forcing musicians to develop new technical prowess, matching their abilities to new sounds that the world had never experienced. The Italian verismo vocal training of the late 19th and early 20th centuries founded a tradition of vocal heft that could deliver the heaviness of sound required by late Beethoven composition and the music that followed in its wake.

The Missa Solemnis is infused with the same spirit as the Ninth Symphony and other late period Beethoven — a musical expression of faith locked in combat with doubt. Extremes of mood convey an almost desperate sense of Beethoven’s desire to connect to the world around him.

The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir is perhaps the only group in the region that can marshal the forces for such a mammoth work. A large-scale choir in the 19th century mode, the TMC is well equipped to be able to handle the technical elements of the work and to have a fighting chance to avoid being swamped by the orchestra. This is a massive undertaking for any ensemble and a chance to hear it live is not to be missed.

The Missa Solemnis is a kind of apotheosis of the European mass tradition, but innumerable other mass settings exist to cater to all tastes. A homegrown Canadian example that draws on one important strain in our history is the Celtic Mass for the Sea written by Scott MacMillan, a legendary folk musician from the East Coast. For their “Celtic Tide” concert on June 1 the VOCA Chorus has assembled a kind of Canadian Celtic supergroup, experienced and renowned players who bring their deep knowledge of Irish folk tradition to the music.

The VOCA Chorus, led by veteran conductor and pianist Jenny Crober, has made a specialty of combining classical works with folk and popular elements. Their Celtic-themed concerts have been increasing in popularity each year, and tickets for this current concert are reportedly in high demand.

Celtic Mass for the Sea was commissioned by the CBC in 1988 and has garnered many performances since then. The work blends the exuberant nature of Celtic rhythms with the resonance of the ancient mass text. Macmillan is planning to travel to Toronto to attend the performance and will give a pre-concert lecture on the work.

Further on the subject of modern Canadian works: I took part in a concert recently where the hapless ticket seller was quizzed about the nature of the music involved. The potential concert-goer wanted to make certain that whatever works were on the program would not be too “modern.” Assurances that the most modern composer of the evening died in 1986 were barely sufficient.

Yes, this happened. It’s common enough, really, so there’s no point in being all snobby about it. Many people actively fear contemporary music, and I’ll address that in depth in future columns. But folks, your friends, neighbours and colleagues are exploring new works in their various choirs every week. All of them, or at least most of them, make it back after rehearsal with their sanity intact. If they can do it, so can you. Here are a few concerts to consider this month.

This year’s celebrations of Ruth Watson Henderson’s 80th birthday continue with a concert of her works by the Oriana Women’s Choir on May 25. Read my appreciation of Watson Henderson’s work in my October 2012 column.

On May 4 and 5, Waterloo’s DaCapo Chamber Choir performs “Leonardo Dreams,” a concert featuring works by the ensemble’s conductor Leonard Enns, fellow Canadian Glenn Buhr and American Eric Whitacre, all of whom write very well for choir and whose works have enjoyed repeated success with audiences.

Enns’ and Watson Henderson’s works are also featured in a concert by Barrie’s Lyrica Chamber Choir on May 25, along with works by Healy, Estacio and Mozetich.

On May 24 and 25, another woman’s chorus, Etobicoke’s Harmony Singers, performs an all-Canadian program of popular works, with songs by k.d.lang, Joni Mitchell, Barenaked Ladies and Michael Bublé. On June 2 the VIVA! Youth Singers perform Dean Burry’s A Medieval Bestiary, which is a cantata specially written for children’s voices. Burry’s work is both well wrought and appealing, and ought to be a very good introduction to classically styled music theatre for children.

On the subject of youth choirs, I recently had the pleasure of doing some vocal coaching for the Bach Children’s Chorus. It was an education to watch conductor Linda Beaupré — as experienced a choral musician as we have in Toronto — work with the next generation of choral singers. Her Bach Chamber Youth Choir, performing on May 11 with the Bach Children’s Chorus, is a rare youth ensemble catering to mid- and older teens interested in choral singing.

Finally, a free concert: the Caribbean Chorale of Toronto performs at the Church of St. Stephen on May 5. 

Ben Stein is a Toronto tenor and theorbist. He ca e contacted at choralscene@thewholenote.com. Visit his website at www.benjaminstein.ca.

Choral Scene 1I’m writing this column on March 18, a year to the day after the unexpected passing of Bruce Kirkpatrick Hill, an event that affected many choral singers throughout the city (read my column about this here). In honour of a man who loved choral music and the choral community, I’m going to dispense with my usual rants and jokes and get right to as many concerts as possible.

Off the top, a nod to a concert that will be over before the magazine is out: The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir’s “Sacred Music Concert” takes place on Good Friday March 29. The concert includes Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli — likely the composer’s best known work — and Allegri’s Miserere. This composition from 17th century Italy is a haunting setting of the Latin translation of Psalm 51. Choral and plainchant passages alternate with a virtuosic solo quartet. As well, Canadian composer Timothy CorlisGod So Loved the World is premiered here. Based in Vancouver, Corlis is an experienced choral singer that has moved on to composition.

For those who like Handel’s oratorios (and like an alternative to that other minor work of his that always gets performed at Christmas), there are two opportunities to hear Solomon, a work written in 1748. It is full of inventive choral writing and has a number of beautiful solo arias. Oddly, both performances are taking place on the same weekend of April 20–21. Solomon is performed in Oakville by the Masterworks of Oakville Chorus & Orchestra and in Toronto by the Pax Christi Chorale.

Choral Scene 2More Handel in the form of odes, serenades and oratorio choruses can be heard performed by the virtuoso Tafelmusik Chamber Choir, May 1–5 and 7, in “A Handel Celebration.” This concert will be a terrific opportunity to hear the breadth of expression in Handel’s choral works.

For those who would like to hear some choral jazz and gospel this spring, on April 6, We Are One Jazz Choir performs in Beach United Church’s monthly series titled Beach Jazz & Reflection. This concert is funded in part by a freewill offering. On April 5 and 6 the York University Gospel Choir performs at the Ivan Fecan Theatre at York University.

Paul Halley’s Missa Gaia: Earth Mass is a popular work that has been performed many times since it was composed in 1982. To some degree Missa Gaia anticipated the focus on environmentalism that is now part of mainstream social and political discourse, and that has been made all the more urgent because of the increasing threat of global warming. The work is performed by the students of the Cardinal Carter Academy for the Arts on April 3 and 5.

On April 13 the Healey Willan Singers presentEspaña” a Latin-themed concert that includes music by Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos. Villa-Lobos was a brilliant composer who wrote music of both flamboyance and depth. This concert includes his Missa Sao Sabastiao, first performed in 1937. I’m not aware of any recent concerts of Villa-Lobos’ work, so this is a rare opportunity for Torontonians.

On April 20, the Cantores Celestes Women’s Choir presents a concert titled “The Circle of Days.” This includes Fauré’s Requiem, the premiere of Belarusian-American Sergey Khvoshchinsky’s setting of Dona Nobis Pacem, and David Hamilton’s The Circle of Days. The concert takes place at Runnymede United Church and is a fundraiser to help buy sewing machines and other materials for the Ituna community in Zambia.

If things seem a bit loud in Aurora on April 27, the “Aurora Choral Celebration” is probably the reason. I count at least five choirs that will be taking part in this event, which will undoubtedly be fun and lively, and an opportunity to hear many enthusiastic choral singers. Works include Handel’s Ye Boundless Realms of Joy (one of the composer’s Chandos Anthems, written for a church setting between 1717 and 1719) and All The Little Rivers by veteran Canadian composer and choral activist Larry Nickel.

This month provides two opportunities to hear Brahms’ renowned German Requiem. The Etobicoke Centennial Choir performs it on April 6 and the Achill Choral Society performs it on April 28 in Colgan.

Another late-Romantic setting of the Requiem text takes place on May 4, when Chorus Niagara performs the Verdi Requiem in St. Catharines. The opposite of an introspective setting like that of Brahms, this version when executed well is overwhelming, a sonic force of nature like an earthquake or volcano. The concert celebrates the occasion of Chorus Niagara’s 50th anniversary.

On May 5 the Echo Women’s Choir presents an eclectic program titled “Mouth Music” that includes The Road to Canterbury, by American composer Malcolm Dalglish, a setting of Chaucer’s Prologue to the Canterbury Tales, and William Westcott’s In the Almost Evening, a setting of lyrics by Canadian writer Joy Kogawa. Eastern European choral music is a specialty of this choir, and the concert includes songs from Bulgaria, Macedonia and the Republic of Georgia.

Often, the focus on large-scale religious works of the European classical canon can obscure the reality that composers also wrote music to celebrate the joys and pleasures of temporal love. On May 4 and 5 the Cantemus Singers’ “Love Songs,” a concert appropriate for spring, includes works by Josquin, Byrd, Janequin and Schütz. These composers are the backbone of the early music repertoire and this is a rare opportunity to hear their music performed live.

Having just given a lecture on making a living as a musician last month, I am more than usually aware of how difficult it can be to fund music making. Choirs are fighting hard for both audience share and the funds necessary to execute concerts, as ticket sales can never approach more than a fraction of performance expenses.

Two choirs are holding their own fundraisers. On April 6 the Amadeus Choir presents “A Celtic Celebration.” The event includes live and silent auctions. Lydia Adams, the choir’s conductor, also leads the Elmer Isler Singers and is a central figure in Canadian choral endeavour. On April 20 the Toronto Jewish Folk Choir hosts a fundraising concert of solos and songs titled “Sing Me a Song in Yiddish.”

Choral Scene 3Last but perhaps most urgently, Reaching Out Through Music program holds a benefit concert and silent auction on April 20, which includes the participation of the St. James Town Children’s Choir. Many of the families of St. James Town are struggling to provide basic care for themselves and their children. The Reaching Out Through Music was created to provide children with group and private music lessons. For young people in economic need music can be a focus for discipline, self-expression and hope. This is one of the most important areas of musical outreach in the city.

Finally, I would like an opportunity to write more extensively about the phenomenon of the show choir, and will do so at some point. This combination of singing and stage work may well be the future of choral music in North America. Show Choir Canada conducts its national championships on April 20 and 21 in the Queen Elizabeth Theatre at Exhibition place. This is an event that will be excellent for children and may be a way to inspire their interest in choral singing. 

Ben Stein is a Toronto tenor and theorbist. He can be contacted at choralscene@thewholenote.com Visit his website at www.benjaminstein.ca.

1806 Choral SceneLast month I argued that classical music’s shift, from cultural pinnacle to just one of many multicultural entertainment options, was a good thing. But classical musicians who love, believe in and make a living from playing music that has to fight with increasing difficulty for listeners’ ears and market share, may feel differently. What are the challenges for these musicians in a new century?

One advocate for this tradition is veteran Canadian conductor Robert Cooper. And one possible solution to the question above is exemplified by Cooper’s work with the Orpheus Choir of Toronto.

A tireless musical dynamo, Cooper conducts Chorus Niagara and the Opera in Concert Chorus as well as the Orpheus Choir. A personal aside: he was the first conductor I sang for, in the Toronto Mendelssohn Youth Choir, the youth wing of Canada’s Toronto Mendelssohn Choir.

My prior experience of music centred around folk guitar and the Beatles, and my first encounter with choral music, from the Renaissance to the modern era, was both exciting and disorienting. But Cooper was an excellent choral ambassador for me and other young musicians. I remember being struck at the energy of this diminutive but authoritative figure who insisted on precision, focus and depth of engagement.

Cooper was also for many years the producer of CBC’s Choral Concert, along with host and fellow conductor Howard Dyck. Between them these musicians introduced the country to the world’s excellent choirs and promoted the work of Canada’s best ensembles.

Cooper celebrates his tenth anniversary as conductor or the Orpheus Choir this year. Asked about his work with Orpheus, he points out that the group is for hire as a recording ensemble and can handle pops and carol concerts — the meat and potatoes of any working ensemble. But Cooper has led the choir towards repertoire that he finds the most interesting — the lesser-known works of great composers and works by contemporary composers who are a modern extension of that tradition.

Modern choral composers have, for the most part, left behind the modernist experiments of the early to mid-20th century and are writing in idioms that extend the possibilities of tonal music, rather than eschew it. On March 22 the Orpheus Choir performs a double bill of two substantial but approachable modern works, English composer Howard Goodall’s Every Purpose Under the Heaven and young Latvian Ēriks EšenvaldsPassion and Resurrection.

Goodall has enjoyed a very successful career and is a well-known choral personality in Britain. His television lectures on music carry on the Bernsteinian tradition of using modern technology to educate new generations on music history. His music is instantly accessible, but challenging to execute well and stylishly.

This concert is the Canadian premiere of Every Purpose Under the Heaven, which was first performed in 2011 at Westminster Abbey. It was commissioned to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible, likely the most renowned translation of this text yet written. While later versions drew on more accurate scholarship, the King James is a cultural touchstone that has drawn and inspired musicians and writers for centuries.

The Ešenvalds  composition, Passion and Resurrection, is an intense work that blends tonal elements with turbulent rhythms and harmonies. Compared sometimes to the choral works of Arvo Pärt, it seems to sidestep elements of romantic and modernist musical gesture and combine instead elements of folk music, Northern European liturgical chant and an individual spiritual vision. The composer has often worked with the Latvian State Choir, considered to be one of the best choral ensembles in the world.

In a nod to the increasingly important role of theatre in choral presentation, and a welcome change from the dry-as-dust concert hall paradigm that we all endured last century, the Orpheus Choir’s rendition of Passion and Resurrection will use sound and lighting design to heighten and enhance the music making. And as an added bonus, the composer himself will also be travelling to Toronto to attend the event and give a lecture about his work.

Concerts to note: This is the time of year that concerts often take place on Good Friday and include requiems and masses. Church choirs often marshall their forces for appealing and interesting concerts, many of which have free admission or very reasonable ticket prices. Please have a look in the listings to see what is being offered. Some unusual concerts of note:

The Hart House Singers perform Dvořák’s Mass in D on March 17. Admission is free and food donations to the U of T Foodbank are welcome.

On March 19, the touring Grinnell Singers, from Ohio’s Grinnell College, presents a concert that includes A Bluegrass Mass. I’ve never heard this work, but I love it already. This concert is also free, and takes place at the Franciscan Church of St. Bonaventure in Toronto.

Does Toronto hold special appeal to Ohioans? Ohio’s Avon Lake High School Chorale also performs a free concert at Kingston Road United Church on March 22.

On March 23 the Mohawk College Community Choir performs works by two late 19th century European organist/composers: Maurice Duruflé’s very appealing Requiem and Josef Rheinberger’s setting of the Stabat Mater. The Metropolitan Festival Choir also performs the Duruflé work on Good Friday, March 29.

For those who would like to further explore French choral repertoire, the Victoria Scholars Men’s Choral Ensemble performs “The French Connection”on March 3, with music by Caplet, Debussy, Fauré, and Poulenc.

On March 5 the Toronto Children’s Chorus takes part in “Fujii Percussion and Voices,” an event presented by Soundstreams. This concert sounds fascinating. Canadian musicians team up with the virtuoso Fujii family of Japan to perform modern works by Canadian and Japanese composers. The Fujii family are percussionists who specialize in the sanukite, a mallet instrument fabricated from an unusual volcanic stone located in the Sanuki region of Japan. 

Ben Stein is a Toronto tenor and theorbist. He can be contacted at choralscene@thewholenote.com. Visit his website at www.benjaminstein.ca.

In december 2012 a photo essay appeared in the New York Times showing the destruction of a piano abandoned on a New York sidewalk. A series of successive photos told a putatively moving story, accompanied by music sombre and dramatic by turns, in which the piano was stared at, played idly by passersby and ultimately destroyed and carted away.

choralscene  schola magdalenaWhat was more illuminating than the photos themselves were the comments posted online as the essay travelled over the internet. A number could be paraphrased as “What a sad comment on the current state of the arts, as the piano is trashed just like the culture.” The mixture of ruefulness and self-satisfaction was galling.

In art and everywhere else, the good old days were never good, folks. Culture is always in flux, and time alters our view of art that is initially considered trashy or meretricious — like Shakespeare, Delta blues or cable television — into something elevated and timeless. Anyone nostalgic for an Elysian epoch in which classical culture was ascendant throughout the West and there was a piano, a violin and a Beethoven score in every humble home, simply hasn’t read any history.

In 2009 American music historian Elijah Wald published How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music. Once you get past the misleadingly quarrel-picking title (good for generating a bit of buzz, anyhow), this book has many excellent insights about how we listen to music, and how our perception of it evolves over time.

Wald makes the point that the ability to record music irrevocably changed our experience of it. John Phillip Sousa coined the term “canned music,” and felt that recorded music would degrade people’s ability to create it themselves. In many ways he was correct. Wald states: “virtually all dancing is now commonly done to recordings.” Singing of lullabies at home and at religious services, two areas in which live music still functions, can easily be replaced with recorded music.

At the same time, Wald observes that we now have instant access to “the finest artists, alive or dead, who have ever been recorded anywhere in the world, and we can hear it whenever we want, wherever we go, in whatever order and whatever volume we please.” This has given modern musicians “a breadth of experience and created a wealth of fusions that would have been unimaginable” in the past. From the point of view of cross-cultural awareness and opportunity, you could argue that the good old days are right now. Let us look at the stylistic mixture of several concerts coming up in the next few weeks.

TCC on the move: Perhaps I am not especially sympathetic to pianos, abandoned or otherwise, because I regard them as such a poor instrument on which to introduce young children to music. When asked by parents about the advisability of beginner piano lessons, I usually start ranting about the dangers of subjecting children’s formative musical experiences to the piano’s complicated key mechanism and rigid tuning system. If the parents are still listening after an hour, I finish with a diatribe about singing and movement’s centrality to the development of musical skill.

My apologies, piano teachers. But what better support can I offer for these heretical notions than the excellent Toronto Children’s Chorus, which is helping raise the next generation of singers and choral conductors. They combine music and movement as they perform “Dance All Around the World” on February 23.

Sondheim Vivace: American musical theatre icon Stephen Sondheim’s brilliant scores are a resource that more choirs should explore. Choral versions of musical theatre songs lean towards the classic composers or the mid-20th century, or the juggernaut mega-musicals of the 1980s. Sondheim’s work is searching and complex, witty and sardonic, and a good choral performance of it can be rewarding for both audience and singers. Conductor and singer Linda Eyman is responsible for a busy pocket of Toronto music making — she conducts four separate choirs and maintains a private singing studio as well. One of her ensembles, Vivace Vox performsSondheim! Sondheim!”on February 24, including selections from Company, Into the Woods, Follies and Sweeney Todd, among others.

Bell’Arte’s 25th: Toronto’s Bell’Arte Singershas drawn many excellent Toronto singers into its ranks. They celebrate a quarter century of work with their “25th Anniversary Concert: Memories and Reflections” on March 2.

Gesualdo Sinister: In an art form that does not lack for odd characters, Italian Renaissance composer Carlo Gesualdo is one of the oddest and most sinister figures in history. The title of the Tallis Choir’s March 2 concert, “Gesualdo: Murderer & Musician,” states the case straightforwardly. I won’t relate the shocking story here. Instead, attend the concert to find out more, and don’t cheat by resorting to an online check. Gesualdo’s music is always worth hearing live — its anarchic harmonic shifts and haunting word painting are a high point of Renaissance madrigal writing. Some of his work sounds uncannily like some of the choral compositions of 20th century Austrian composer Ernst Krenek, and many modernist composers were drawn to his madrigals .

Rossini Solenelle (times two): Toronto audiences have a rare opportunity to hear Rossini’s Petite Messe Solenelle not once, but twice. The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir performs the work on February 9, and the Toronto Classical Singers sing it on March 3. The work was written in 1864, four years before the famed opera composer’s death. It is an engaging piece, first performed with a quirky piano and harmonium accompaniment. Rossini orchestrated it later on. Fans of bel cantoItalian vocal style will find much to love, especially the tenor solo showstopper, “Domine Deus.”

Magdalena goes modern: Schola Magdalena is a chamber ensemble of women’s voices, conducted by choral multi-tasker Stephanie Martin. Usually focused on early music , they make a foray into modern works in a concert sponsored by NUMUS, a very good contemporary music organization based out of Waterloo. This concert takes place on February 7 in Waterloo and again at the Church of St. Mary Magdalene in Toronto.

These are only a few of the excellent concert choices available in the coming weeks — please check out the listings and find out about the many other excellent choirs around. 

Ben Stein is a Toronto tenor and theorbist. He can be contacted at choralscene@thewholenote.com. Visit his website at benjaminstein.ca.

Asked to identify the true meaning of Christmas, those of us who look to the Grinch and Ebenezer Scrooge for spiritual guidance and inspiration might come up with a list that included traffic jams, grumpy people lined up at cash registers, un-spiked eggnog, Christmas cards=writer’s cramp, Christmas presents=credit card bills, snow=slush/shovelling/chiropractor fees.

choral scene john rutter photo credit jennifer bauer.Confronted with Tiny Tim, Cindy Lou Who and a few sad puppies in Santa hats, we might grudgingly acknowledge that somewhere in the midst of the chaos there is a chance to connect with family and friends and maybe do the odd bit of singing as well.

Choral musicians would likely add favourite composers, songs, oratorios and operas to the Christmas mix. The name of English composer and arranger John Rutter would show up on a few top ten lists — or on a few “to be avoided whenever possible” lists, because Rutter can be a polarizing name, especially as pertains to Christmas music.

Rutter’s original Christmas carols and carol arrangements have been a regular part of choral concerts since at least the 1970s, when his composition and recording work at Cambridge began to attract attention. While his academic background has led to work as a fine editor of choral music, it is his compositions that have made him an instantly recognizable name in choral circles.

For many people, Rutter’s work is synonymous with Christmas singing, and works like “Candlelight Carol” and “Star Carol” are compositions fit to stand alongside other famous and familiar seasonal songs. Others deem his music saccharine and sentimental, relentlessly middle of the road like Dunstan Ramsey’s description of himself as a reliable dinner guest in Robertson Davies’ Fifth Business: classy, heavily varnished, and offensive to no one.

My own opinion of Rutter’s work probably leans closer to the latter category. I find that his over-busy arrangements of carols often obscure the strength and simplicity of the old tunes and his musical tropes and lyrical sentiments usually leave me unmoved. But any derision I might have felt for this composer disappeared after seeing his musical skills in action firsthand.

Some years ago I sang for a choir that was recording some of Rutter’s works and Rutter himself came to conduct. Towards the end of the sessions and after one particularly gruelling day of recording, we broke for dinner, the tired singers spilling out onto the street. As I was leaving, I noticed that Rutter was bent over the piano, scribbling intently on a piece of manuscript paper. As I left, I said a word to him about the day’s endeavours, and he muttered a distracted reply.

When we returned for the evening session, he presented the singers with copies of a hymn that he had written while everyone else had been on break. While its derivations were obvious — its melodic contour and structure echoed a couple of well-known English Anglican hymns — it was a solid composition, fully realized, arranged and ready to record, written in under an hour.

Since then, any time I’ve heard negative comments about Rutter I’ve remembered that example of professionalism, technique and inspiration. Whether one responds to his aesthetic or not, no one can deny the deep craft imbedded in his music. Any composer or arranger who denigrates it might set themselves the comparable challenge of writing an appealing melody, effective vocal arrangement and straightforward, heartfelt lyrics, even without a 60-minute time limit. It’s much more difficult to do well than it might appear.

Rutter: Here are some (but by no means all) upcoming concerts that include works by Rutter.

On December 1 the Guelph Youth Singers perform “Winter Song,” a concert that includesRutter’s Brother Heinrich’s Christmas. The Mississauga Festival Choir performs Rutter’s Magnificat on the same day.

On December 7 and 8 the Sound Investment Community Choir perform “A Christmas Gift,” a concert that includes Rutter’s Gloria. They are joined by the Trillium Brass Quintet. Markham’s Village Voices perform this piece on December 1, Toronto Beach Chorale performs it on December 9

On December 7 the Upper Canada Choristers’ “Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day”features Rutter’s The Reluctant Dragon, a Christmas fable based on a story by Kenneth Grahame (of The Wind in the Willows fame).

And other concerts that will provide you with a Rutter fix include:

Vivace Vox’s “Songs of Light” and the Guelph Chamber Choir’s “Carols for Christmas” (both on December 2.) On December 16, Toronto’s Church of Saint Simon-the-Apostle has their familiar “Nine Lessons and Carols”service. Other carol services and concerts are going on all over the region, so please look at the listings for the many available options.

Lyrica Chamber Choir of Barrie’s December 8 concert, “Let All Mortal Flesh,” features works by Rutter and Norwegian-American composer Ola Gjeilo, whose accessible work has become popular in the USA, but is relatively new to this part of the world.

20 joan-adult true-north-brassAnd not: I am happy to note concerts by two choral ensembles that had previously flown under my radar. The Kokoro Singers, founded in 2004, perform concerts in Ancaster and Guelph on December 8 and 9. The Volunge Lithuanian Choir, founded in 2006, performs a free concert on December 9.

On December 15, the Nine Sparrows Arts Foundation hosts “City Carol Sing” in support of food banks across Canada. The concert features several excellent ensembles — the Larkin Singers and the True North Brass among them — as well as a chance to hear renowned tenor Richard Margison and his daughter Lauren Margison, a notable singer in her own right.

2013 concerts to watch for: Conductor and keyboardist Philip Fournier is making a name for himself as a purveyor of early music in Toronto. A concert of music by Praetorius, Sweelinck, Couperin, Perotin (one of the earliest known composers of the European canon) and Palestrina takes place on January 12 at the elegant The Oratory of St. Philip Neri on King Street West.

The Elora Festival Singers perform the famous unfinished Mozart D Minor Requiem, K626, on January 20, for a concert and lunch event in Elora.

An opportunity to hear the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir takes place on January 26, at the Choral Conductors’ Symposium concert. This event is part of the TMC’s choral development program, in which upcoming conductors get a chance to work with a large professional ensemble. It is a terrific opportunity for young conductors who often find themselves bribing friends, family and viola players to muster enough of the requisite four sections to fill a living room. The event is free to the public, and takes place at Yorkminster Park Baptist Church in Toronto.

On February 3 the Shevchenko Musical Ensemble gives a concert that will include Serbian and Ukranian folk songs.

On the same evening, different choral ensembles from the University of Toronto join together to perform Beethoven’s Mass in C and Brahms’ haunting Nänie.

Ben Stein is a Toronto tenor and theorbist. He can be contacted at choralscene@thewholenote.com. Visit his website at benjaminstein.ca.

Back to top