Let us take a moment to celebrate, or perhaps curse, the memory of misheard lyrics, the finding of which is great fun, and is one of the great time-wasting joys of the internet. Mishearing “breaking rocks in the hot sun” as “a grape skin rots in the hot sun” in the Clash’s I fought the Law’s is a good one. But the serene phrase from Psalm 23, “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,” heard as “Surely good Mrs Murphy shall follow me all the days of my life,” is my long-time personal favourite.

23_choral_kingjamesbibleIselers at the Distillery: The latter quote — the correct one, I mean — is from the King James Bible, a translation of various Christian and Hebrew scriptures, and was for centuries the central document through which these texts were disseminated in the English-speaking world. Truly beautiful though it is, it contains many inaccuracies and misreadings, particularly of Hebrew scripture, which have been corrected or re-translated by later scholars. But for those who grew up with the King James version, these reinterpretations often seem to lack richness and resonance. Never mind that any western translation of a several thousand year-old text from the Middle East is likely to miss the original point by a wide, almost unbridgeable inter-cultural gap; our fallible memories create orthodoxies that lead us to strongly resist the unfamiliar and new, especially when the old is so much more singable.

While one can challenge its accuracy, no one can deny the poetic majesty of the King James Bible, which has been a source of inspiration to many great composers. Various musical settings of King James-derived material can be enjoyed at a concert on 25 November by the Elmer Iseler Singers, titled “King James and Shakespeare.” (The birth of the King James Bible 400 years ago coincides with Shakespeare’s latter years.) The concert takes place in an unusual venue for the Iselers — the Young Centre for the Performing Arts in the Distillery District. Jazzmen Gene DiNovi and Dave Young guest and Soulpepper Theatre’s Albert Schulz narrates.

The Mendelssohn’s Brahms: Johannes Brahms was a composer with an acute sense of cultural memory. Conscious of his place in musical history, and highly respectful of his mentor Robert Schumann, he had a sense of responsibility towards understanding and furthering the musical traditions to which he was heir.

His famous feud with Wagner — or rather, the feud between fans and advocates of the two composers — centred around the question of memory. Wagner’s aesthetic demanded a sweeping away of the old, including old musical forms. Brahms felt that older forms could be imbued with new ideas.

Nowadays it is possible to hear elements of both innovation and musical tradition in Brahms. The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir presents an all-Brahms programme on November 9. The Alto Rhapsody and Deutsches Requiem are among Brahms’ greatest choral works, but the evening is notable for two lesser known works as well, Nänie and the Gesang der Parzen (Song of the Fates). Brahms’ choral works are imbued with his knowledge of baroque contrapuntal part-writing, and are consistently innovative in terms of timbres and techniques. They are notably more interesting than Wagner’s choral writing. Oops, was that my outside voice?

Incidentally, the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir is programming some intriguing choral read-throughs and conducting workshops in the weeks and months ahead. These are excellent resources for choral singers and conductors, and are well worth checking out. Go to the TMC’s website and look under “education and outreach.”

25th solstice: A choir’s own past can also be the occasion for celebration. On December 3, Jenny Crober’s East York Choir celebrates its 25th year of existence with “Winter Solstice,” a concert that includes a premiere of a work by veteran Canadian composer Stephen Hatfield. The EYC has always been open to folk and popular elements in choral music, and has consistently programmed works both substantive and entertaining.

And speaking of the solstice, the Christmas choral celebration, fast upon us, can be a particularly contentious arena. Often one hears the seasonal plea, in part a reaction to the commercialization of the holiday, to “keep Christ in Christmas.” And yet many of the most familiar tropes of Christmas — holly, trees, gifts, the midwinter date of the celebration — are borrowed and appropriated from pre-Christian pantheistic worship, popularly known as paganism.

One might reasonably argue that many of the apparently non-religious aspects of Christmas that are often deplored — the saturnalia of gift-giving, decoration, parties and indulgence in food and drink — have actually returned Christmas to its pre-Christian roots, a mid-winter solstice celebration of companionship and warmth in the midst of cold and darkness. Muse on this when next you hear the great carol, The Holly and the Ivy, redolent with pagan imagery.

The above is only one of many great carols, and one of the delights of this time of year is the chance to indulge in many concerts and hear the many and varied approaches to carols, songs and extended Christmas-themed works. I am told that a measure of eggnog can add to this delight, though this column takes no responsibility for the health or safety of those who over-indulge in either carols or festive drinks.

Finally, some upcoming seasonal concerts of note

The Kyiv Chamber Choir, on tour of Canada from the Ukraine, sings in Waterloo, St. Catherines and Toronto between November 25 and 27.

The Mohawk College Community Choir includes Saint-Saëns’ Christmas Oratorio in a concert on December 3.

On the same night, Cantores Celestes performs Canadian choral icon Derek Holman’s Sir Christemas in a concert that benefits, in part, the Assaulted Women’s Helpline.

24_choral_paul_halleyIn Guelph on November 26, the Guelph Chamber Choir performsVoices of Light: An Advent Festival of Music and Poetry,” including English-born Canadian Paul Halley’s Voices of Light and works by American choral composers Daniel Pinkham and Eric Whitacre.

I am always advocating for Benjamin Britten’s St. Nicholas to evolve into a seasonal favourite on par with Messiah, Christmas Oratorio, etc. The Pax Christi Chorale performs this wonderful work on December 3 and 4.

Also on December 3, the Toronto Choral Society performs in a Scarborough Philharmonic Orchestra concert with the intriguing title of “Howard Cable’s Cowboy Christmas.” Composer Cable, a genuine Canadian institution, hosts and conducts.

For those who are not quite ready to embrace the winter choral season in all its frosty exuberance, Isabel Bernaus’ Jubilate Singers performsMusic of the Mediterranean” on November 26. A concert that focuses on music from warmer climes might be just the thing to feed the spirit as the cold weather descends and the autumn recedes into memory?

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

Conversations among musicians centre around familiar subjects — the low rate of pay, the perfidiousness of conductors/sopranos/arts granting organizations, the difficulty of finding an accountant who truly understands that artists can’t be constrained by things like HST collection.

After these topics have been exhausted, one can always liven things up by tossing in a verbal grenade about musical education. State firmly that “piano is a lousy first instrument for children” or “dance is more important to musicality than sight-reading” and then stand back and watch the pedagogical fur fly.

Education, after all, is our attempt to define and shape the future of music, to retrieve from the past what we feel we want to bequeath to those who will come after. When memory is at stake, feelings always run high. The more we persist in assigning to varied musical styles and techniques the pointless designations of “good” and “bad” rather than “appropriate, useful and pleasurable in different contexts and for different people,” the more widely and obstreporously opinions vary as to what constitutes the best musical education for children.

Choral education is both a dynamic field of musical training and a battleground for conflicting ideologies. The paradigm that prizes ensemble, sight-reading, pitch accuracy, blend and purity of tone is both well-established and absolutely necessary. Fostering of this model needs constant attention in a world that chronically under-funds school music programs and views music as a frill rather than a central aspect of cultural literacy.

But improvisation, which was an integral part of a “classical” musician’s skill set well into the 19th century, tends to be given short shrift. To be sure, improvisation is difficult to integrate into a choral context, in which ensemble uniformity and fidelity to the printed score are paramount. But it is also neglected because classically trained conductors and piano/vocal coaches often have no idea how to do it themselves, and are ill-equipped to give children the careful attention that this skill needs to be properly developed. A well-rounded musician needs many varied skills, and it’s important to be receptive to not only different types of music, but the different education systems which foster these musics.

Happily, the GTA is home to many excellent children’s choirs, with dedicated choral musicians striving to pass on their traditions and skills. Here are a few of them.

Linda Beaupré’s Bach Children’s Chorus, founded in 1987 and based in east Toronto, has become a fine resource for the education of young singers. On October 1, the BCC performs “Angels in Song” in Barrie’s excellent autumn music festival, Colours of Music. The concert includes the premiere of a new composition by Eleanor Daley, who is composer-in-residence for the choir.

On October 29 The Toronto Children’s Chorus presents a concert entitled “Mysterious Moments” at Timothy Eaton Memorial Church. This concert also includes a new work by a Toronto composer Larysa Kuzmenko, titled Behold the Night.

The Aurora Opera Company Children’s Chorus performs a concert of Broadway and Celtic music in Newmarket on October 15.

choral_karen_schuessler_singersAnd let’s not forget the extent to which hearing adults sing can also be part of a well-rounded child’s musical education: on October 16 in London, for example, the Karen Schuessler Singers presents “Lions, Tigers and Kids,” an “interactive concert for children with songs from the barnyard and jungle.”

The themes of memory and education are not however solely directed at the young. They come to the fore in two concerts which take as their subject the events of the Second World War. One generation after another shoulders the mantle of passing on to the next, at whatever age the listener is ready to learn, knowledge of both the beauty and the savagery of the past, in the hopes that it is the former quality that will predominate in the future.

In recent years, the Orpheus Choir of Toronto has been establishing itself as an inventive programmer of new and little-known works. On October 25 they join the University of Toronto MacMillan Singers, Hamilton Children’s Choir and the Opera Canada Symphony to present the Toronto premiere of I Believe: A Holocaust Oratorio for Today, by Manitoba composer Zane Zalis. First performed by the Winnipeg Symphony, this work uses the stories of Holocaust survivors as the basis for a 90 minute, 12 movement work.

On October 16, the Canadian Men’s Chorus presents “Honour: Love and Remembrance,” a concert that illuminates and pays tribute to the experience of the Canadian military, past and present. This ensemble, just over a year old, must be one of the newest choral groups on the scene. The concert includes the premiere of a work by Hamilton composer/conductor John Laing.

One of the more tiresome aspects of musical education has been the “Great Man” myths that have distorted our knowledge of the great composers. Our perception of Mozart’s professional struggles and untimely death in Vienna has been rendered that much more poignant by, among other things, the subsequent demonization of his colleague and rival, Antonio Salieri. But the evil character created by Russian poet Alexander Pushkin and mythologized by British playwright Peter Shaffer in Amadeus (a brilliant play, later made into a terrible movie by Milos Forman), is an utter work of fiction, one that bears no resemblance to the solidly professional Viennese musician who also happened to teach composition to Schubert, Beethoven and Liszt.

Listeners can judge for themselves if Salieri’s evil reputation is convincingly refuted in a performance of his Mass in D major by the Pax Christi Chorale on October 23. The concert also includes works by Mozart.

Ben Stein is a Toronto tenor and theorbist. He can be contacted at choralscene@thewholenote.com.

choral_royal_couple_singingSurveying the first group of concerts out of the gate this fall, I notice that three of them have a royal theme.

Considering the degree to which Western choral music is intertwined with the history of European royalty, this kind of theme might be considered obvious, even uninventive. But the degree to which pretty much the entire world raptly followed the latest House of Windsor wedding last April (followed by the new couple’s tour of Canada) gives these concerts an added resonance. It makes us enjoy anew not only the thoroughly inventive music of the master composers that found employment at royal courts, but raises questions as to what the meaning of royalty is at the beginning of a new century.

For some, the very existence of a British royal family is worse than an anachronism in a democratic world — it is an insult to the idea of human equality, a desecration to the memory of the legions of innocent people that perished over the centuries through royal exploitation, neglect, intrigue and war. To others, it is a fun diversion, well worth the generous stipend paid to the royal family. Canadian writer Robertson Davies saw modern royalty in archetypical terms — a connection to a collective past that combines historical reality with myth and legend.

What does this mean in terms of music? The English royal court was a fecund ground for composers and performers well into the 18th century. The resurgence that began with Elgar and culminated with Britten continues strongly with the work of Tavener. A strong argument can also be made against the received wisdom that British music died in the 19th century; modern church musicians continue to find value in the choral works of Parry and Stanford.

On September 16 Kevin Mallon’s Aradia Ensemble will perform “Music of the English Chapels Royal,” with verse anthems by Locke, Humfrey and Purcell, among others. Verse anthems are a particular sub-species of choral composition in which full choruses alternate with solo passages. English composers of the Reformation found both contemplative and dramatic elements inherent in this form and the challenge for choirs is to execute them in a manner which avoids the monochromatic sound that is the bane of church music performance.

The Cantemus Singers is a relatively new Toronto choir, conducted by Michael Erdman. They specialize in secular music of the Renaissance, though for their “Rule Britannia” concert on September 24 and 25 they will be performing sacred works by Taverner and Gibbons as well as secular music by familiar Elizabethan composers. They will also be performing rounds by Purcell, fun and rowdy works that are most enjoyable in a live setting.

From September 21 to 25, Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir perform “Music Fit for a King.” This concert takes a pan-national approach to regality, showcasing music that was part of the French court of Louis XIV and the Viennese court of Emperor Leopold I, as well as the music of Purcell and that of Frederick the Great, who wrote at a time when we prized royalty for their artistic talent rather than their polo skills or their shapeliness in a bikini.

One historical source reports that Frederick the Great received a standing ovation from the audience every time a composition of his was performed. This seems entirely plausible to me. What critic would dare risk royal censure by remaining seated? Still, the source in which I found this information is a comic book published in the 1970s, so I can’t vouch for its accuracy with complete certainty.

As the makeup of Canadian society changes and our connection to our British Commonwealth past becomes increasingly remote, will we see less of concerts with a royal theme? In the meantime, what explains our ongoing fascination with the recent royal marriage? Was it simply part of our People Magazine-fueled general preoccupation with those we consider rare and glamorous? Or, watching the union of what may be our future king and queen, did we enact a connection with our ancestors — peasants, for the vast majority of us — that approached something primal and ancient?

choral_robertsondavies_-_photo_by_greg_tjepkemaLet the last word in this first column of autumn 2011 belong to the Canadian writer mentioned above who was by no means uncritical of either royalty or privilege, but who also had a keen eye for the hypocrisy that can underpin even the best of modern egalitarian intentions. In High Spirits, his wonderful, humorous collection of ghost stories, Robertson Davies describes a meeting between himself and the spirit of one of the current English queen’s most illustrious ancestors:

“I am a democrat. All my family have been persons of peasant origin, who have wrung a meagre sufficiency from a harsh world by the labour of their hands. I acknowledge no one my superior on grounds of a more fortunate destiny, a favoured birth. I did what any such man would do when confronted by Queen Victoria; I fell immediately to my knees.”

Ben Stein is a Toronto tenor and theorbist. He can be contacted at choralscene@thewholenote.com.

The last two WholeNote columns I wrote examined some general aspects of choirs and the practice of choral singing, a topic that did not meet with unanimous approval. A friend who can be relied on never to mince words said something to the tune of, “Can’t you just tell us what concerts are going on? All this navel-gazing about the meaning of choral singing is kind of self-indulgent.”

My first thought was that this comment was completely unjust. But just to make sure that I had not overreacted to reasonable criticism, I resolved to sternly inspect my actions and motivations. Hewing to a strict schedule, I spent every evening of the following week sitting on the back deck, drinking wine or coffee depending on my whim, moodily watching the sunset, writing about my feelings in my journal and listening to my favourite music.

At the end of the week I was absolutely certain there could be no possible justification for characterizing as indulgent someone as rigorous, self-denying and ascetic as myself. So, the final question of this tripartite series, in this last WholeNote column before the fall season begins, is this: What gives a choir its particular identity?

Choirs can define themselves by the era and musical repertoire, making their specialty baroque or contemporary music. Most choirs sing diverse repertoire, and in a crowded choral market, it is challenging for choirs to find a way to stand out from the crowd in a manner that will attract an audience. As our knowledge of the performance practices of earlier eras has increased, the “one size fits all” choir that sings repertoire from five centuries is becoming a thing of the past.

Some choirs build themselves around music associated with a particular culture or region of the world. The greater Toronto area is likely the most diversely multicultural region of Canada, and the culture of the area is enriched by those who come and bring a bit of their home country’s musical practices with them. Such groups often strive to strike a balance between being exemplars and proponents of past traditions, and exploring the way in which new influences can challenge and reshape those traditions. The Heritage Singers were formed in 1977 by Grace Carter-Henry Lyons, who came to Canada from Jamaica. Its members hail from diverse parts of Africa and the Caribbean. They will be singing at Harbourfront on July 31.

21Cross-cultural influences can give a choir its identity, as in the case of the Philippine Madrigal Singers. Hailing from the Pacific Rim and based out of the University of the Philippines, they sing diverse music but have made their specialty the European renaissance madrigal and have been hugely successful in Europe. They perform in Toronto on July 13. Incidentally, they perform their concerts seated — my kind of choir.

Often, groups are assembled for the express purpose of putting on a discreet performance. This summer is the first and, hopefully, inaugural year of the BlackCreek Summer Music Festival. Out of whole cloth, the festival has had to assemble a chorus for its concert performances. In the spring, the emails went out advertising work opportunities for choral singers. In this kind of situation, it is really the conductor that must pull together the group, quickly giving it an identity and aesthetic in a short rehearsal period. Listeners can judge whether or not this has been achieved at an August 27 performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No.9, with the great London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Lorin Maazel.

Other festival performances this summer include the Arcady Singers performing Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana at the Boris Brott Festival on August 18, The Elmer Isler Singers at the Festival of the Sound (in Parry Sound) on August 6, and numerous concerts by the Elora Festival Singers during the Elora Festival, which runs July 8–31.

Choirs are often defined by (and sometimes named for) their conductor, such as the aforementioned Elmer Iseler Singers, and more recently, the relatively new Larkin Singers. One conductor whose presence is likely to be strongly felt in coming years is the new head of choral conducting at the University of Toronto, Hilary Apfelstadt. Originally from Nova Scotia, she has worked for years in the United States, at Ohio State University, and has guest conducted all over the world. She is this year’s conductor for the Ontario Youth Choir, an ever-changing group of young singers that assembles each summer to learn choral skills and give concerts. They will be performing on August 28 in Toronto.

Not so incidentally, Choirs Ontario, which coordinates the OYC program, celebrates its 40th anniversary with a gala reception and dinner after this concert. Choirs Ontario has been a staunch supporter of all the diverse choral groups of this region and it is a pleasure to congratulate them on 40 years of choral activism and advocacy.

Ben Stein is a Toronto tenor and theorbist. He can be contacted at choralscene@thewholenote.com.

Last issue I explored some of the reasons that people join choirs, focusing on such things as improving musical skills and singing great choral works. For many, the community aspect of group singing is of equal importance to music. If one is looking for a pastime, hobby, diversion, or social activity, group singing can fulfill all these needs.

But one can also see choral singing as a metaphor for the kind of cooperation that is necessary to make the world function. Each (vocal) part fulfills its particular role, according to its nature and ability. Some aspects of the group are more noticeable than others – altos tend to get buried in the mix – but each part is crucial to making up the whole, and the good quality of the choir is dependent on each section being able to make a healthy, secure and blended sound.

Still, music making is not an inherently democratic activity. The choir-as-society metaphor becomes more problematic when it is applied to the conductor, whose role is most regularly that of a benevolent dictator. But the conductor’s rule often only applies to the music making alone, while the larger power structure of the choir organization usually resides in a volunteer board of directors.

A dictatorial or abusive conductor may be tolerated for a time if they are getting an exceptional sound from the choir, but ultimately choral singers prefer to be treated well when making music, and know that musical excellence and courtesy in rehearsal are not mutually exclusive.

Any arts group has to negotiate the tension between focusing on the fun of the performance and maintaining a healthy culture of regular rehearsal. This mirrors the societal tug-of-war between rewarding achievement (tax breaks, incentives, high salaries) and looking after the mundane but necessary aspects of everyday life (roads, education, a social safety net).

p20_chattanoogaboyschoir1Many choirs use music to fundraise and to champion causes. Two fundraising concerts of interest take place this month. On June 11, the Chattanooga Boys Choir sings works by Purcell, Schubert, Bach and Rutter to raise funds to help with the maintenance of the Casavant organ at Our Lady of Sorrows Catholic Church. On June 16, the Coro San Marco – a local choir that specializes in Italian repertoire – is performing a concert of opera arias and choruses, in support of Japanese earthquake relief.

Composers themselves can also directly address social concerns through their compositions. Paul Winter’s Missa Gaia/Earth Mass has become a choral favourite since its premiere recording first appeared in 1982. It uses the Mass text only as a jumping off point for settings of other lyrics including poetry and hymns that take the health of the earth as their focus.

p21_schuessler_singersThe Karen Schuessler Singers were founded in 1993, and they work out of London. They have a strong reputation for crafting inventive seasons and commissioning new works. They have made their own performance tradition of the Missa Gaia, and have been performing it since 1994. This year’s performance, on June 4, will include displays by Salthaven Wildlife Rehabilitation and Education Centre. Salthaven’s focus is on the rescue and rehabilitation of sick, displaced, injured and orphaned wildlife. They also do local education and outreach to raise environmental awareness.

Mozart’s Mass settings have become compositions for the ages, but at the time of their writing Mozart was as mired in politics as any working artisan. He wrote the majority of his mass settings in Salzburg, under the patronage of Archbishop Colloredo. Mozart was held to strict structural controls regarding both the style of music and length of composition that he was expected to produce. He disliked the autocratic style of the Archbishop, and wrote scathingly contemptuous letters to his father about the musicians for whom he was forced to write. For all that they were composed under arduous conditions, his Salzburg masses remain consistently popular. They are never less than professional, and all of them have moments of both inventiveness and insight. The Voices Choir performs Mozart’s 1779 “Coronation” Mass on June 25.

Politics is inherent in the traditional British Proms concert, in which ethnic pride is celebrated and satirized at the same time. No conductor does this better than Bramwell Tovey, who leads the TSO’s “Last Night of the Proms” with the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, on June 21 and 22.

Some other events of interest during the summer months:

The excellent choir of the Church of St. Mary Magdalene has a Friday concert series on June 3, 10 and 17, featuring Mass settings by Victoria, Guerrero and Palestrina.

Further into the summer, the Elora Festival Singers perform several choral concerts each week of the the Elora Festival. Of particular interest is the July 21 performance of famed composer Arvo Pärt’s Passio, an intense setting of the Passion story. I can’t remember the last time (if ever) that this piece was performed in this area – this is a good opportunity to hear it live.

Finally, Choirs Ontario is a valuable resource that is perhaps less known to choral audiences than it is to choral organizations. It both fosters and coordinates choral opportunities for young singers, and is an important resource for the province’s choirs. The organization’s website (www.choirsontario.org) is worth checking out for a number of workshops and choral camps taking place between June and August.

Ben Stein is a Toronto tenor and theorbist. He can be contacted at choralscene@thewholenote.com.

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