What is the definition of a successful musician? I thought about this last month after learning that local organist and singer Bruce Kirkpatrick Hill had passed away suddenly and unexpectedly. Word of Bruce’s passing spread very quickly throughout the Toronto choral community, and the shock that people felt had to do with his young age — he was only 49 — as well as with its suddenness. But at the funeral service, it was clear that the mixture of grief and respect that defined the event extended well beyond shock. As I walked home, I pondered why Bruce’s death — or rather, his life — had touched so many people.

Public recognition is the most obvious indication of success — a reputation draws people to attend a concert, purchase a recording, sign up for lessons. It’s usually (but not always) an indication of a standard of artistic achievement for audiences and musicians alike. Another category, less obvious but often more long-lasting, is the behind-the-scenes or just-out-of-the-spotlight professional who works steadily, but has little or no public profile. The majority of musicians fall into this group. A lot of the music that you love the most has been created by artists whose names you have never known.

A third category might be “community musician,” a term that can encompass both professionals and amateurs. A community musician can be defined as someone who loves their chosen art form, and devotes their talents and abilities to it with the best of their ability. Sometimes they are known outside their home region, but often they are not. Choral music is in great part driven by the work of talented and dedicated amateurs. This is, in part, because professional choral singing pays very badly — a subject for a future column — but just as significantly, because most choral singers are amateurs in the traditional sense of the word, lovers of the art from who have the drive to foster and maintain it.

Of course, these three categories of success intersect and divide into subsets and levels, and Bruce Kirkpatrick Hill certainly acquitted himself well in the first two areas described above. But at his funeral, and during the week leading up to it, it became clear that Bruce was a community musician of unusual success and achievement.

Some musicians seem to have a particular talent for simply being present. Without any fanfare, they make an impression, and you never forget them. Their assurance and professionalism thread through a musical community and help define that community in people’s minds. When they are gone, we feel their absence as a loss beyond their physical presence. Even for those of us who didn’t know him well, Bruce made this kind of impression. He was part of the bone and sinew of the Toronto choral scene. In a sense, his very presence seemed to evoke the solidity of the choral traditions that he loved.

Bruce’s funeral was held at the Anglican Church of St. Mary Magdalene. Every seat was full, and the rest of the overflow crowd stood at the back for the entire two hour service. When hymns were sung, the church reverberated with the sound of hundreds of trained singers falling naturally into four-part harmony. It was a choral sound unprecedented in the city, one that Bruce would have appreciated.

Ottawa conductor Matthew Larkin (leader of the Toronto-based Larkin Singers) led the St. Mary Magdalene church choir in a selection of anthems. After the final benediction, a mixture of the singers from the Exultate Choir, the church choir, and various choral colleagues and friends of Bruce’s, joined together to sing a beautiful setting of the Kontakion, a Byzantine liturgical text from the Eastern Orthordox Christian tradition, composed by Bruce’s wife, fellow choral director and composer Stephanie Martin.

If the above reads somewhat like a concert review, it is not because Bruce’s funeral was primarily an aesthetic event. Rather, it is that choral concerts are experiences rooted in community, and choral concert repertoire has its roots in these communal experiences — worship of a deity, celebration of the bounty of the earth, tribute to a beloved friend. To be a community musician within the choral tradition is to take part in an ancient activity that is as relevant and necessary to our lives now as it was hundreds, possibly thousands, of years ago.

12_choral_toronto-jewish-folk-choir-1926-fraihait_gezangs_farain_-_1926_-_full_size-aMoving to this month’s choral lineup: at this time of year, almost every choir in the region is presenting its final concert of the season, and there are many musical choices in the coming weeks. My recommendation: make sure you go to two or more concerts — one by your favourite group, and one or more given by a group that you have not yet heard. Travel to a part of the city or region that you haven’t visited, and get to know a group that comes from that community.

12_choral_ben_shek_-_80th_b-day_roast-_by_linda_l_-_jpg-400_Another community musician of note was Ben Shek, an expert in Yiddish culture, and one of the driving forces of the venerable Toronto Jewish Folk Choir. The TJFC will be giving a concert in honour of Ben, and other members of Toronto’s Jewish choral community, on June 3.

On the same night, the Penthelia Singers celebrate their 15th anniversary with a gala concert program of all-Canadian music, and a guest conducting appearance from Mary Legge, another great Toronto choral community musician.

12_marylegge__plan-b-image_and_penthelia-b_516324557_a72a18ed7a_zThe Tallis Choir performs “The Glory of the English Anthem” on May 5. This concert includes two genuine masterworks, Harris’s eight-part setting of Faire is the Hevene, and renaissance composer Thomas Tallis’s setting of the Lamentations of Jeremiah.

The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir’s final concert of the season (May 23) is a feast of choral riches: the Poulenc Gloria, Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms and William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast.

On June 9, just beyond the scope of this issue’s concert listings, Jenny Crober’s East York chorus re-christens itself the Voca Chorus of Toronto, with a performance of Paul Winter’s crowd-pleasing Missa Gaia. This work combines the sound of recorded animal voices with energetic gospel-derived music, and has been a hit since its premiere in 1982.

On May 4, the Upper Canada Choristers combine the famous Fauré Requiem with works by Venezuelan composer César Alejandro Carrillo. Interestingly, the choir has recently instituted a support program for boys with changing voices, to foster continued choral involvement for nascent baritones and tenors, and to promote to teenage boys a positive message for choral singing as an ongoing activity through adolescence and adulthood.

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

Would you like to experience “Total Vocal Pleasure” the likes of which you have never dreamed possible? You don’t have to be able to sing “O Mio Babbino Caro” or “Nessun Dorma.” You don’t have to join a classical ensemble and participate in the execution of intricate motets, cantatas or oratorios. You don’t need to know how to tune jazz vocal harmonies like diminished ninths and sharp elevenths.

rb_official_pr_for_choirTotal Vocal Pleasure may be achieved very simply, and anyone can do it. The secret: imitate Tom Waits singing “Feed the Birds” from Mary Poppins. Careful, though — this pastime is addictive, and after a few tries in the shower or the car, you will find yourself alarming people in checkout lines and buses, as you growl and croon about little birds and tuppence and saints and apostles looking down.

Why do singers move us so much? What is it about the voice that makes us respond? Why are the airwaves not filled with glamorous oboe or viola players? Well, aside from the fact that glamorous oboe and viola players do not actually exist, the voice is like no other instrument in its ability to inspire loyalty or antipathy, horror or love.

The phrase “the grain of the voice” gives us this month’s theme. It is the title of an essay by Roland Barthes, a French critic and theorist influential in academic circles and pretty much avoided everywhere else. “Grain” refers very generally to vocal timbre, but Barthes’ essay is a complex investigation into the subtle signals and hidden meanings that vocal timbre can convey.

Barthes’ ideas have been used in studies of popular music to explore the appeal of voices that are not stereotypically “beautiful,” when beautiful is understood to mean smooth and even — Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, Maria Callas, Shane MacGowan, Billie Holiday and Diamanda Galas, to name a few. These are voices with edges, rough spots, potholes and speedbumps.

In a non-operatic choral context, these types of voices are almost useless — there is no way to make them blend as choral voices must, though an entire choir of singers who sound like Bob Dylan has a certain appeal. Still, many choirs experiment with vocal timbres and techniques that lie outside a traditional Western classical music aesthetic, and, eschewing traditional or popular programming choices, commission and program unexpected and unusual repertoire.

The Aradia Ensemble’s May 3 concert, “The Grain of the Voice,” (a free COC noonhour Vocal Series concert) combines motets by Monteverdi and Gesualdo (the latter responsible for some of the most macabre Italian renaissance vocal works ever written) with guest choir Darbazi, a Toronto vocal ensemble specializing in music from the Eastern European Caucasus region of Georgia. Traditional Georgian music has a tuning system and timbral aesthetic utterly at odds with what most people understand to be a standard choral sound. Aradia’s conductor, Kevin Mallon, has composed a new work that will blend these ensembles together, uniting these apparently irreconcilable musical elements. Aradia presents a full-length version of the same concert May 5 at Glenn Gould Studio.

Two upcoming music festivals also explore varied vocal techniques. Contemporary music organization NUMUS is based out of Waterloo, and is pretty consistently ignored by Toronto music critics. This is a shame, because its programming is easily the match of any Toronto new music organization. NUMUS presents the Element Choir on May 5, with “new works for improvisational choir”. This alone ought to draw an intrigued audience, because improvisation, rare in classical circles, is almost unheard of in a choral context. Read more about NUMUS at www.numus.on.ca.

NUMUS is in part the creation of composer Glen Buhr, whose works bring an agreeable touch of humour to a contemporary music scene that is often whimsy-challenged. In a more sombre mood, however, is his Ritchot Mass, which was dedicated to Canadians who lost their homes in the 1997 flood of the Red River Valley in Manitoba. Hamilton’s John Laing Singers will perform this work, and others in “Dreams and Dances” on April 28.

The other vocal festival that lovers of vocal music really should not miss this month is SING! The Toronto Vocal Arts Festival at Harbourfront Centre from Friday April 13 to Sunday April 15.

This festival, curated with Harbourfront’s customarily polyvalent approach to programming, is a kind of snapshot of the diversity of vocal styles available to singers. The weekend will combine performances with workshops and masterclasses, the majority of which will be free of charge. The Canadian choirs participating are Elmer Iseler Singers, Lachan Jewish Chamber, Choir, the Allegria Choir, Darbazi and Cantores Celestes; jazz and pop vocal ensembles Countermeasure and the Nylons will be there as well. Guest groups will include the renowned Swingle Singers and the New York Voices, among others. For a schedule of the weekend’s events, see www.torontovocalarts­festival.com.

Moving beyond the column’s theme to other interesting concerts: although the phrase “arts and science” is commonly heard in university curricula, in reality these two areas are often stratified. British writer C.P. Snow coined the term “the two solitudes” in reference to the isolation that he saw between arts and science studies in both academia and general culture. His thesis, briefly, was that artists needed to understand more about science, if for no other reason than to understand the profound effect that science has had on culture in the past century.

Bridging the gap between these solitudes, at least for the duration of a concert program, is “Music of the Spheres: A Fusion of Music, Art and Science.” This April 21 concert commemorates the 20th anniversary of Canadian astronaut Roberta Bondar’s spaceflight. The concert features conductor Lydia Adams’ two principal ensembles, the Amadeus Choir and the Elmer Iseler Singers. For the occasion, Adams has composed music to a text by Bondar entitled, Light in the Darkness – The Earth Sings. Another Canadian piece on the program is Jason Jestadt’s And Yet it Moves, presumably a reference to the defiant (although likely mythical) quote from astronomer Galileo Galilei, after being forced to recant his assertion that the earth moved around the sun.

The inventive poetry of English clergyman George Herbert (1593–1633) has attracted many choral composers. Religious in theme and intent, Herbert’s work is introspective and intense, avoiding the dual traps of unreflective piety and facile celebration that often characterize sacred lyrics. Vaughan Williams’ Five Mystical Songs is one of the best known settings of Herbert’s poetry. The Larkin Singers perform this work on April 21, and conductor Matthew Larkin steps into a composer’s role with his own Herbert settings as well. The Larkin Singers, incidentally, is one of Toronto’s newer choral ensembles worth checking out — it boasts strong singers very committed to choral work, and programs interesting music.

Late composer Srul Irving Glick wrote many works for Canadian choirs, and on April 29 the Elora Festival Singers present Visions Through Darkness, a work that they commissioned from Glick in 1988. This composer had strong connections with choral ensembles, and it is good to see that his legacy continues to be fostered. For those who like to hear more of Glick’s music, a memorial concert devoted to his work will take place at Holy Blossom Temple on April 22. For information, see www.holyblossom.org.

The Pax Christi Chorale celebrates its 25th anniversary season on May 6 with a rare performance of Elgar’s The Kingdom. A choir with roots in the Canadian Mennonite choral tradition, the Pax Christi Chorale is a vital part of the local vocal scene, with solid programming and a commitment to generating new choral commissions. The Kingdom, just over a hundred years old, is a wonderful example of the grand, late romantic oratorio. The last time it was performed in Canada was over 25 years ago, and this concert is a rare opportunity to hear this work performed live.

In difficult economic times, it is tremendously important to remember that music lessons are a luxury that many families cannot afford. All over Toronto, there are musicians giving their time and expertise to help another generation foster their creativity and discipline through music. Reaching Out Through Music is an organization devoted to bringing music to the community of St. Jamestown in downtown Toronto. The choir of the Church of St. Simon-the-Apostle takes part in a fundraising concert for ROTM on April 28. Find out more at www.reachingoutthroughmusic.org.

Two other benefit concerts of note: on April 6 the Cantabile Chorale of York Region performs to raise funds for social services in York Region; April 12 the Guelph Youth Singers team up with Les Jeunes Chanteurs d’Acadie to raise money for Bracelet of Hope charity, a group that provides medical care to HIV/AIDS patients in Africa.

The Tallis Choir performs “The Glory of the English Anthem” on May 5. I will write about this concert in more detail next month.

Two final notes regarding members of the Toronto choral community: choirmaster and organist Douglas Bodle has directed, coached and inspired several generations of singers in this city. He celebrates 40 years of directorship at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church on April 27, with an archival CD launch and notable guest soloists, some of them past members of the St. Andrew’s choir.

Lastly, some tragic late-breaking news: Toronto choral director, organist and singer Bruce Kirkpatrick Hill passed away suddenly and unexpectedly as this column was going to press. Bruce was a well-known and well-loved member of Toronto’s choral scene, and our thoughts are with his family and friends. Read a tribute to Bruce on page 63.


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

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

It may be partially true that with age comes wisdom. But it is certainly true that with age comes the inability to remember what one went down to the basement to retrieve. Upstairs you trudge again, retracing your steps until your memory is sufficiently jogged — oh right, duct tape — and you are ready to make the frustrating second trip. Perhaps what often passes for wisdom is in fact a mellow, philosophical acceptance of how many extra journeys for duct tape (or garbage bags or whatever) age and failing memory now require.

20_CHORAL__20_Liszt_and_his_studentsMyself, I’m finding that with age comes immaturity. Jokes that made me sneer with contempt in my high-minded teen years now make me snicker and guffaw. I look forward to the ongoing dismantlement of my critical faculties, until seeing Bugs Bunny in drag and Wile E. Coyote repeatedly plummeting into a chasm sends me to the floor, helpless with laughter. But time, memory and the way in which both elements change perception seem to be the themes of a number of this month’s concerts.

On March 3 the Guelph Chamber Choir presents “Remember … Places, people and songs you love.” With the concert’s repertoire focussed around folk songs, spirituals, Broadway show tunes and cabaret songs, audience members will doubtless find themselves recalling specific occasions tied by memory to some specific song.

Toronto’s Bell’Arte Singers have presented a whole series of linked concerts this year (for the complete series see bellartesingers.ca) that evoke this sense of introspection. Their latest March 3 concert, “Classical: Ways of Seeing,” features music by Bach, Barber, Mozart and Brahms, among others. Treating the music almost like visual works of art, this choir asks its audience to not only listen but to ponder the question of what constitutes beauty, balance and classicism.

Another concert evoking a bygone era is the Victoria Scholars’ “The Romantic Gentleman,” on March 4. Here, the audience is reminded not to lose sight of the things that may fall by the wayside in our charge towards modernity. Comprising works by Brahms, Elgar, Gounod, Rossini, Grieg and others, this concert conjures a time of frock coats and muttonchop whiskers, of codes of honour and high-minded behaviour. The title of this concert also raises a difficult, extra-musical question: what standard defines a “romantic gentleman” in the 21st century? Is our new “RG” the man who discreetly refrains from posting on Facebook or Twitter pictures of himself passed out beside a beer bong (merely texting them instead to his closest friends)? Standards have changed, of course. But perhaps attendance at this particular concert should be mandatory for men 25 and under.

21_CHORAL_Allan-Bevan_composer_447One of English literature’s most poignant evocations of the pangs of memory and the challenges of time and age is Shakespeare’s The Tempest. The playwright’s last play, it contains some of his most powerful poetry, and with lines like “in the dark backward and absym of time,” is generally thought, in part, to be a meditation on the currents and sorrows of Shakespeare’s own life. Chorus Niagara (in pan-Canadian partnership with the Richard Eaton Singers, who work out of Edmonton, and the Vancouver Bach Choir) has commissioned Canadian composer Allan Bevan to create No Mortal Business. This new work takes as its premise the idea that The Tempest (and other earlier works of Shakespeare) were indeed windows into the playwright’s preoccupation with religion, politics, aging and art. Orpheus Choir and Chorus Niagara will combine to make up a 160-voice ensemble to present the work on March 4.

21_CHORAL_Robert-Cooper-conductsTwo local choirs, on the other hand, embrace and celebrate the passage of time this month. The Toronto Classical Singers, directed by their founder, Jurgen Petrenko, celebrate their 20th anniversary. I have sung on several occasions with this rambunctious and friendly group of singers, and it is a pleasure to salute them at this time. On March 4 they perform Vivaldi’s Gloria and Schubert’s Mass in G.

Tafelmusik Chamber Choir celebrates its 30th anniversary with a series of concerts from March 27 to April 1. Full disclosure: I have also sung with this ensemble and have accompanied student vocalists and instrumentalists on lute and theorbo at the Tafelmusik Baroque Summer Institute. Setting these connections aside, I can state with confidence that TCC is one of the top choral ensembles in the city and possibly in all of Canada. This group has been part of the continuing story of the resurgence of pre-1750 music — a sprawling, international dialogue between scholars, performers and audiences that has revived and uncovered a multicultural wealth of previously forgotten composers and compositions.

The Tafelmusik Orchestra, of which the choir is an offshoot, has been a leader in this ongoing area of discovery. For these concerts, The TCC has commissioned a new piece by Canadian composer James Rolfe, and will also perform works by Purcell, Rameau, Handel, Poulenc and Saint-Saëns.

Anniversaries define the passage of time; so do annual events. Outside of the Jewish community, one of the lesser known holidays is Purim, a real children’s party centred around costumes, games and food. Purim commemorates the story of Queen Esther, one of the great mythic tales of Jewish pride and independence. The Toronto Jewish Folk Choir performs songs in Yiddish, Hebrew, Russian and English at its March 1 “Purim Concert.”

Memory is what helps define tradition — what we remember of the past shapes our present and future. Canada is a young country filled with immigrants, and for many it is the histories and art forms of our ancestral countries that often define us. At the same time, Canadian composers are hard at work creating a repertoire that they hope will help define us anew. Choirs performing concerts that include Canadian works are the Vespera Choir, March 29, the Echo Women’s Choir, March 31, and the aptly named Canadian Singers, who perform in Markham on March 4.

Finally, the choral requiem form, often valedictory in nature, is well represented this month. Fauré’s Requiem, a particularly tender and introspective setting, is performed by two different choirs: Oriana Women’s Choir on March 3 and the Church of St. Nicholas Birchcliffe, March 30. Another requiem setting by a French composer, Maurice Duruflé, can be heard from the Voices Chamber Choir on March 31. The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir performs Vaughan Williams’s Mass in G and Martin’s Mass for Double Choir on Good Friday, April 6. On the same evening the Metropolitan Festival Choir performs Bach’s Mass in B Minor, and the Georgian Bay Concert Choir performs Mozart’s Requiem in D Minor. Canadian composer Eleanor Daley’s excellent Requiem is presented by Mississauga Festival Choir on March 31.

(Venue change - Voices' 31 March concert is now being held at Church of St. Martin in-the-Fields.)

To sum up, this month’s concerts, built around memory and the passage of time, enjoin us to respect the past, so that we may better understand the present and prepare for the future. At least, I think they do. I’d better check my notes …

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

If i had to pick one musical scale to take with me to a desert island, and the only choice was between an elegantly crafted Schoenbergian twelve-tone row and a plain old blues scale, I’d quickly grab the blues scale before they tossed me off the ship.

The noble musical experiments of Schoenberg and other modernist composers were enormously influential within academic and concert circles. But while these august types were busy out-moderning each other, blues and other African-derived musical styles — jazz, rhythm and blues, and hiphop, to name only several — colonized the world, holding sway in a manner akin to the complete cultural dominance of Italian music in Europe from the 16th to the 18th centuries.

February is Black History Month, and this column is going to depart from its usual listings format to explore this phenomenon in some depth. Black History Month was originally conceived as a week-long celebration encompassing the February birth dates of American abolitionist Frederick Douglass and president Abraham Lincoln. In modern times it has become an occasion for the people of the African diaspora to celebrate their history of struggle and triumph, and their formidable achievements.

One of these achievements is the degree to which African-derived techniques are part of the DNA of popular music. When yet another well-scrubbed American Idol contestant launches into a showy fusillade of vocal melismas, they are echoing (but rarely surpassing) the vocal work of Stevie Wonder. (Also a notable composer, Wonder’s work is so innovative that it has barely been picked up by anyone, but that is another story). Any good professional bass player builds on the nimble, inventive lines of genius Motown bassist James Jamerson. Fletcher Henderson’s swing orchestra arrangements are the Well-Tempered Clavier of jazz orchestra studies. In a musical sense, every month is Black History Month, whether we consciously perceive it or not.

Classical musical studies largely continue to ignore African-derived musical techniques, leaving graduating students unequipped to deal with large areas of musical endeavor and employment. It is as if drama students were taught to execute Shakespeare, Racine and classical Greek drama, but were sheltered from Beckett, television and film. Classical vocal students grapple with the demands of 20th century vocal writing — often absurdly ill-wrought for the voice — but are given no thorough stylistic understanding of jazz or blues.

It is in this area that choirs have been something of a vanguard. Choral groups often have to be stylistically diverse, and classical choirs have been executing choral arrangements of spirituals since the beginning of the last century. Singing African-derived music with European technique and aesthetic remains a trap, but choral directors are increasingly applying performance practice techniques to this music, doing the listening, research and technical practice that leads to more authentic and appropriate performances.

25_choral_book_of_negroes_tpbToronto’s Nathaniel Dett Chorale, founded in 1998 by Brainerd Blyden-Taylor, has provided strong leadership in this area. Named for an African-Canadian, Drummondville composer who made his career in the USA, the NDC has consistently programmed interesting and unusual works. On February 14 they team up with writer Lawrence Hill for “Voices of the Diaspora: The Book of Negroes.”

The concert is named for Hill’s book, which is named, in turn, for an actual document created in 1783. The Book of Negroes was a list of 3000 African slaves, evacuated by the British from the USA to Nova Scotia, which was still a British dominion. Hill blends historical incident with a wrenching story of a slave family trying to stay together in the midst of political tumult and violence.

The Book of Negroes has been an international success for Hill, who will read excerpts from the novel, interspersed with music from the NDC. Works by Dett himself will be featured, along with music by Haitian composer Sydney Guillaume and Canadian composer Brian Tate. Jazz pianist Joe Sealy will also perform excerpts from his celebrated Africville Suite, that pays tribute to the African Nova Scotians of Africville, who contended with prejudice and neglect until the final destruction of their community and forced eviction of its residents in the mid-1960s.

Hill’s and Sealy’s involvement in this concert highlights another problematic issue, which is the degree to which Canadian art must fight for space in Canada. Sharing a common language and history, our cultural landscape is swamped by our American neighbour, and while most musicians (and film-goers and politicians) yield willingly to the artistic tidal wave, it is always heartening to see Canadian artists carve out a space for their own ideas and dreams.

(A personal note: In grade 9 English, my daughter, along with too many other Ontario high school students, is currently being subjected to Alabama-born writer Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. This book — the literary equivalent of warm milk and cookies for self-congratulating American progressives of a bygone era — should have been retired from our curriculum years ago. Lawrence Hill’s trenchant thoughts on the subject can be read here: www.thestar.com/article/684933.)

Hill’s The Book of Negroes — fiction informed by ground-breaking research — puts him in the fine Canadian tradition of Pierre Berton, who wrote history with the sweep and dash of good fiction. As Berton did, Hill is “shining a little light” to help his fellow Canadians understand more about themselves.

Other concerts of interest on the horizon:

On February 23, the Orpheus Choir of Toronto performs a free noontime concert at Roy Thomson Hall in a concert series that is one of the hidden gems of the Toronto choral scene.

On February 24 and 25, the Soweto Gospel Choir visits the city. Check out this clip:

On February 25, the Scarborough Philharmonic Orchestra teams up with the Toronto Choral Society to perform Brahms’ Requiem and Schubert’s Eighth Symphony, the “Unfinished.”

On March 3, the Jubilate Singers perform an all-Argentinian programme: tango composer Astor Piazzolla, Carlos Guastavino and others. The concert will also feature tango dancers from Club Milonga, accompanied by the Tango Fresco ensemble.

Also on March 3, the Toronto Chamber Choir performs “Gibbons: Canticles & Cries.” Orlando Gibbons was one of the greatest composers of the English Renaissance. Not to be missed!

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

The modern holiday that we understand as Christmas is a construct that arises from many different sources: a combination of pre-Christian winter solstice iconography; appropriated and re-interpreted prophetic Hebrew texts; various writers’ telling and retelling of the life and deeds of the mysterious, charismatic public speaker and teacher Joshua Ben Joseph (later more familiarly known as Jesus Christ); and the sung and spoken sacred texts of hundreds of millions of Christians around the world.

choralthe_storycaravanfarmphoto-timmathesonComplicating the “modern” Christmas still further is the North American figure of Santa Claus, a benevolent gift-giver very loosely based on the third century Greek bishop Nicholas of Myra. Mercurial, harsh and irascible, the historical Saint Nick would have been a poor front-man for the vendors desperate to lure us to the shopping malls. He’d have been more likely to smite busy shoppers than to invite their children to sit upon his knee, wish list in hand.

It is not hard to imagine both Joshua and Nicholas together in some extra-worldly sphere, watching our frantic salterello of cards, gifts, parties and food with bemusement and despair in varied measure.

In the midst of this singular historical stew, music holds a special place in Christmas celebration. For many the pleasures of hearing and singing seasonal songs and carols is a welcome antidote to Christmas’ confused blend of commercialism, celebration, spirituality and dogma. The marvels and portents that accompany the birth of Christ reflect our joy, fear and incomprehension when confronted with one of the two most primal aspects of life–its beginning. Christmas music at its best combines joy with contemplation, the earth-bound with the marvellous.

The performative nature of Christmas concerts makes them simultaneous celebrations of, and comments on, the phenomenon of Christmas. Below are some concerts of note for the coming season.

On December 10, the Tallis Choir recreates a Christmas Eve mass as it would have been heard in Quebec in 1725. The concert includes Charpentier’s Messe de Minuit and carols by baroque composers from Quebec and France.

Between December 13 and 30, Theatre Columbus reinterprets the Nativity story, in an outdoor theatre presentation at the historic Evergreen Brick Works. The audience is advised to dress warmly. Theatre Columbus is a creative workshop of a theatre company, and this version of the Nativity story clearly falls refreshingly into the irreverent/revisionist category. A different choir will provide musical accompaniment for every performance.

The Magnificat, or the Song of Mary, is a text taken from the Gospel of Luke. It is an attempt to see the events of the Nativity from Mary’s point of view. Women who have experienced giving birth in difficult circumstances might have their own opinions about how well it succeeds. In any case, it has been set by many composers, and on December 8, English visitors, the Tallis Scholars, one of the world’s eminent chamber choirs, will be performing several of these diverse settings. Toronto Choral Society also looks to Europe, if somewhat further east, performing “An Eastern European Christmas” on December 14. As well as including Eastern European carols, the concert provides an opportunity to hear a Franz Liszt setting of the mass text, the Missa Choralis.

Two great writers, Dylan Thomas and Charles Dickens, wrote very differently enchanting commentaries on the nature of Christmas. Thomas’ A Child’s Christmas in Wales is rooted in the real and physical, the tangible sensory understanding of a special event seen through the primal senses of a child: All the Christmases roll down toward the two-tongued sea, like a cold and headlong moon bundling down the sky that was our street; and they stop at the rim of the ice-edged fish-freezing waves, and I plunge my hands in the snow and bring out whatever I can find

Dickens’ A Christmas Carol combined his central theme of the struggle between greed and charity with a vastly entertaining ghost story that has made the character of Ebenezer Scrooge almost as significant as Santa in the complex modern North American Christmas iconography.

Two choirs combine music with each of these literary works:

Annex Singers combine A Child’s Christmas in Wales with works by Sweelinck, Joubert, Walton and Lauridsen on December 10. Then on December 18, Guelph’s Dublin Street United Church includes the work in “A Victorian Christmas,” with the Trillium Brass as guests. For those whose appetite for Welsh-ness is not satisfied by Dylan Thomas alone, the Toronto Welsh Male Voice Choir performs “A Welsh Christmas” on December 7 and 11.

Generosity is the theme of A Christmas Carol, which appears in two upcoming benefit performances. On December 4 the Nathaniel Dett Chorale teams up with the Choir of St. Timothy’s Anglican Church to sing in support of the Senior’s Health Centre of the North York General Hospital. On the same night, the Runnymede United Church Choir performs their Dickens-themed concert, which includes an appearance by tenor Ben Heppner, in support of the The Stop Community Food Centre.

Special church pageants and carol services are also an integral part of this season. The Church of the Holy Trinity’s nativity pageant, a popular draw, runs between December 9 and 24. Eglinton St. George United Church’s December 11 carol service includes Benjamin Britten’s iconic Ceremony of Carols. Peruse the choral listings for other carol concerts — you will find inventive musical choices and choral groups that you might have previously missed.

In the multicultural GTA, some choirs acknowledge and explore the mid-winter festivals that take place in non-Christian cultures, such as Hindu Diwali, the African-American Kwanzaa and Chanukah, the Hebrew festival of lights and gifts.

On December 14 the Toronto Jewish Folk Choir’s free “Chanukah Concert Live” includes songs in Yiddish, Hebrew, Ladino and English. North York’s Alexander Singers and Players combine Christmas and Chanukah music at “A Festive Concert” on December 10.

Hart House Singers and Echo Women’s Choir present interesting programmes of world music on December 4 and 11 respectively. These types of concerts are a welcome antidote to the seasonal saturation of familiar songs and carols that, while beautiful, lose some of their appeal after the 1000th hearing.

And of course, no December choral column would be complete without a mention of what has become Christmas’ most emblematic choral work, Handel’s Messiah.

So there, I’ve mentioned it. Let’s move on now. It’s always interesting to investigate the varied programmes that choirs messiah choose during the Christmas season. Drawing on the vast repertoire Messiah of music from different times and locations Messiah allows choirs MESSIAH to create unusual MESSIAH MESSIAH.

Oh, all right. Can’t you Handelians take a joke? It’s a great composition. I love it! So quit spamming my website and hacking my documents. I promise to venerate Handel’s Messiah until the end of my days. And tell that strange alto from Kitchener she can take down her aria recording, Ben is Despised, from YouTube.

Part of the fun of hearing such a well-known work is experiencing the varied interpretations that different soloists, conductors and choirs come up with. Increasingly, musicians are bringing a creative disrespect to this piece, toying with orchestration, interpretation and even improvisatory aspects of it, to keep it fresh and interesting. Yet a simple, straightforward performance, well executed, allows the brilliance of its construction to shine through as well. My recommendation is to attend a Messiah performance by a choir unfamiliar to you. So many groups are performing this work — take the opportunity to acquaint yourself with a choir that you have not yet seen perform, and expand your knowledge of the GTA choral scene. We have even appended a handy “Messiah QuickPicks” to this column (see next page) to guide you in your search.

16-17_optional-extra_benheppne_colourrFinally, one final concert reminds us that even Christmas’ familiar calendar date is not an agreed-upon fact. On January 8 the Vesnivka Choir and Toronto Ukrainian Male Chamber Choir present “A Ukrainian Christmas Concert.” Eastern European Christmas culture can be wonderfully rich and mystical, and is a link to Christianity’s oldest roots. Could it be that this concert — presented at a time at which the rest of us are glumly contemplating our credit card statements — is the only one here that would have made any kind of cultural sense to the historical Saint Nicholas?

Christmas can be a very difficult time for people, as they attempt to reconcile the Apollonian ideal of the holiday with life’s often disappointing realities. But as I hope I’ve made clear above, a monolithic Christmas tradition does not in fact exist, and never did. Accordingly, we are free to define this holiday in a way that makes sense to each of us. Relieved of the obligation to enact an ideal version of Christmas, one can instead pick and choose, discard and redefine — as history itself has done — which elements combine together to create your own understanding of the season.

LOOKING AHEAD TO JANUARY: After the December revels comes the new year’s hangover. The only solution, of course, is musical “hair of the dog” — i.e. more sybaritic choral excess. The January and February concerts mentioned below can feed this entirely healthy addiction.

Between January 18 and 22, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra performs Mozart’s d minor Requiem, his final, unfinished work before his untimely death.

Brahms then takes over on February 4. Two concerts to choose from are a concert by the Larkin Singers that includes Brahms’ Liebeslieder Walzer, and Kitchener’s Grand Philharmonic Choir performing Brahms’ Ein Deutsches Requiem and Arvo Pärt’s Credo and Cantus in Memoriam.

Finally, on February 2 and 3, Soundstreams presents the Amadeus Choir and Elmer Iseler Singers in an intriguing presentation of The Sealed Angel by Rodion Shchedrin. Shchedrin is a living piece of history, a Russian composer who lived through the Soviet era and who continues to work today. The staged performance includes the participation of ProArteDanza dance company.

He can be contacted at choralscene@thewholenote.com. Visit his website at http://benjaminstein.ca/.

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