Choral singing is generally considered to be fun and pleasurable. But often an encounter with a modern choral work – in which fun and pleasure may not necessarily be the composer’s primary goal – can feel like a child’s encounter with a disagreeable vegetable. “Why do conductors give us weird music to struggle through when we’re supposed to be having a good time? I’m paying choir dues for this?” On this subject, I am always struck by the range in attitudes among conductors, composers, singers and choral audiences.

Composers must by their very nature be champions of new music, and their desire to connect with either audience or singers may well be secondary to their drive to define an individual musical identity. Conductors must when programming strike a balance between the popular an profitable, and the adventuresome but potentially alienating. If they are lucky, they will have an organization that allows them some artistic license. In general, whatever their personal musical preferences, conductors have a sense of responsibility to work in tandem with living composers to bring new works into being.

Singers are usually the first people to create the sounds that the composer has imagined, and their response is often a visceral one: “This is difficult – I don’t like it.” Or perhaps, “This speaks to me, although it is unfamiliar.” Often a singer’s judgment of the music stems from this very subjective first encounter, and may or may not render an unfair verdict on the actual quality of the music itself.

marjan-mozetichAudiences as a rule have made their feelings known regarding much new music, and the problem that choral groups encounter when debuting new works is the one that has in many ways defined musical life in the previous century: the disconnect between modern composers and modern audiences. Still, composers tend to write more conservatively for choirs than they might for chamber ensembles, soloists or orchestras. And the liturgical background of a great deal of choral music tends to foster an audience-friendly aesthetic. A new composition that connects with an audience is a wonderful thing, and a good premiere can be an exciting experience for both audiences and musicians alike. There are a number of premieres and concerts featuring living composers coming up in the next few weeks that we can certainly hope will fit this paradigm.

The Cantabile Choirs of Kingston have become a choral juggernaut in that region, with seven different choirs and 300 voices performing separately and in tandem throughout the season. Their November 6 concert, “Silk Road,” features the premiere of a new composition by Slovenian-Canadian Marjan Mozetich. (The Cantabile artistic director, Mark Sirett, has his own premiere of a piece for choir, brass and organ that will be presented by the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir as part of their December 8 “Festival of Carols.”)

Cantabile Chorale of York Region’s November 14 concert features a setting of the Requiem mass by Welsh composer Karl Jenkins. Jenkins comes at composition from a jazz background and, like many modern composers, is as likely to draw from world-music influences as from European compositional techniques. His music is tuneful and has some of the hard-won simplicity of the compositions of Carl Orff.

The Mississauga Festival Choir performs Jonathan Willcocks’s An English Christmas as part of their December 4 concert. Willcocks is the son of Sir David Willcocks, whose Carols for Choirs has been a mainstay of Christmas choral singing for decades. His son has carved out his own impressive career as a conductor and composer, as well. Hamilton’s John Laing also combines conducting and composing. His operetta St. George and the Dragon is performed by the John Laing singers November 6 in Guelph and November 7 in St. Catharines.

The Nathaniel Dett Chorale’s Indigo Christmas (December 15 and 18) features works by three African American composers: Glenn Burleigh, Adolphus Hailstorks and Margaret Allison Bonds. These are likely Canadian premieres, although the NDC website isn’t clear about this. The most intriguing-sounding work is Bonds’ The Ballad of the Brown King, with settings of poetry by the great American writer Langston Hughes.

Premieres and performances of unfamiliar works give concertgoers the chance to help define for future audiences which pieces will become part of a regular concert tradition. This is an ongoing process – and works that were once unfamiliar but are now well known include Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms and Ramirez’s Missa Criolla (York University Concert Choir, November 23), Fauré’s Requiem (Amadeus Choir, November 6) and Britten’s St. Nicholas (Orillia’s Cellar Singers, November 6).

We are also heading into Messiah season, with a plethora of choices to satisfy Handelian addictions. In The WholeNote’s listings, you’ll find dozens of performances: small-ensemble Messiahs, opulent thousand-voice Messiahs – just about everything but Justin Bieber’s Messiah, or Messiah as interpreted by competing Led Zeppelin tribute bands.

Benjamin Stein is a tenor and theorbist. He can be contacted at

Setting the Mass” (composing music for the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus/Benedictus and Agnus Dei) has for centuries been a central task for Western composers. The result is generally considered to be a window into heart of the composer in question, and a signal example of their piety and devotion. A public performance of a Mass is a way for people engaged in worship to pray, mourn, celebrate and in general to commune with others in praise of an elliptical, elusive, but deeply felt presence that is commonly known as God.

Or is it? Who or what do you worship when you hear a musical setting of the Mass text? Do you even worship at all?

These days, when a Mass-setting by a famous composer is as likely to be heard in a concert setting as in a church, how does a worshipful attitude manifest itself? Does one venerate the conductor? The composer (easy to venerate, since they are most likely to be dead)? Does one revere the sonic phenomenon of the very music itself, and the sensitivity and skill of the musicians involved? Perhaps we celebrate the familiarity of the experience – another night out in the company of the Verdi Requiem, or the yearly pilgrimage to a performance of Mozart’s famous D minor setting.

To what degree are concert-goers especially concerned with the ostensible object of all the musico-devotional fuss – the Christian God? If you happen to come from a non-Christian faith tradition, or profess to atheism or agnosticism – as many people filling a concert hall might well do – do you simply ignore the devotional texts and concentrate instead the music? In doing so, are you inescapably engaged in some kind of blasphemous process that’s likely to get you in trouble with your in-laws?

It’s probably safe to say that a concert performance of a Mass is neither a religious rite nor an exercise in group conversion. But there is unquestionably a qualitative difference between the above event and a symphonic concert or evening of chamber music: a sense of occasion and ritual, an echo of ancient paths newly trod. Even when neither concert-goer nor composer is especially devout – Rachmaninoff was not known for his piety, though a performance of his All Night Vigil might convince you otherwise – both the texts and the music continue to draw our fascination.

The concert Mass is really a phenomenon of the 19th century onward, and there are several examples of this kind of setting in the weeks ahead.

Fauré’s beloved Requiem setting had its premiere in the Paris church at which he was music director from 1896-1905. But it has continued to live in the concert hall, and it’s a very inviting piece for people of all backgrounds. Its delicate transparency and serenity have always seemed to me to evoke a dreamlike, pre-Christian world of classical balance and reserve. The Pax Christi Chorale perform it on October 24, along with music by English composer S.S. Wesley (2010 marks the 200th anniversary of Wesley’s birth).

On November 5 and 6, Kitchener’s Da Capo Chamber Choir teams up with the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony in a concert of music by Schubert and Schumann. The choral part of the evening is Schubert’s Mass No.2 in G. Schubert wrote six masses, and this setting was written in 1815, when the composer was 18 years old. Structurally, the Mass in G is clearly indebted to Mozart and the Austro-German Mass tradition of the 18th century. But this setting also has the Schubertian quality of deceptive simplicity, a sweet credulousness that at first masks and then reveals a deep core of emotion. The concert also features Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony, an unfortunate name for a work that conveys a complete mastery of symphonic form, and never feels truly unfinished at all – as does, for instance, Mozart’s renowned but (it has to be said) sketchy D Minor Requiem.

p26Murray Shafer is most likely Canada’s pre-eminent composer, and Arvo Pärt is surely the most popular living composer currently setting sacred texts. Hampered with a kind of composer’s block in the 1960s, Pärt actually found creative inspiration in settings of sacred texts from medieval and renaissance eras. Pärt’s large-scale compositions are perfect examples of sacred works that have lived and breathed most often in concert spaces, often for audiences far removed geographically and philosophically from the Slavonic church traditions from which he draws his texts. On November 7, Soundstreams Canada assembles 180 singers from their University Voices programme, conducted by Tõnu Kaljuste, in a concert of works by these two composers, “The Mystical Worlds of Pärt and Schafer.”

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra and Toronto Mendelssohn Choir’s performance of Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass on November 10 and 11 is a highlight of this season. I can’t recall a recent date in which it was performed in this area. Janáček writes in an idiom that blends both erudition and a rhythmic, sensuous appeal, and his Glagolitic Mass has proved as enduringly popular to audiences everywhere as his operas have become. The unusual name of the Mass (the English translation morphs the beautiful Czech Mša glagolskaja into a strange cross between a ominous-sounding geological landform and mouthwash) refers to Glagolitsa, the oldest known Slavic alphabet. Janáček, enchanted by the sound of the language, assembled rather chaotic translations of the Mass texts, delighting concert-goers, infuriating linguistic scholars, and providing headaches for generations of choral singers accustomed to nice, safe languages like French, Italian, German, and good old Church of England Latin. Janáček’s work takes place as part of a potentially riotous concert that includes Tchaikovsky’s Marche Slav Op. 31, Prokofiev’s bumptious Lieutenant Kijé Suite, and a new work by Czech composer Krystof Maratka.

Consult The WholeNote’s listings for more choral concerts taking place over the next few weeks.

Benjamin Stein is a tenor and theorbist. He can be contacted at:


What do a Medieval mystic, Santa Claus and Elvis Presley have in common? They are the centerpieces of contrasting concerts in Southern Ontario this July and August. Stylistic extremes are quite common in any healthy choral scene, but in the summer, when many choirs are on hiatus, the relative paucity of concerts makes the contrasts even more noticeable.

p20The Elora Festival (July 9-August 1) has as its centerpiece the excellent Elora Festival Singers, who are performing a range of music from works by Beethoven, Vivaldi and Handel to a Broadway concert with the great Jackie Richardson as soloist. But if I had to pick one concert to go to during the festival, I would opt for their performance of Benjamin Britten’s oratorio St. Nicholas, on July 25.

Britten is hardly a neglected composer, but I have always been curious as to why his St. Nicholas isn’t performed more often. Written in 1948, it shows all the poise and dash of the young composer of Peter Grimes, combined with the genuine friendliness towards the audience – not an especially widespread attitude in 20th-century composers – of The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. The subject of the work is of course the Medieval bishop who was the source for the modern Santa Claus, and with Christmas concert attendance often being the economic anchor for many choral groups, I would have thought that this clearly seasonal work could do well against more familiar seasonal offerings by Handel, Bach, Monteverdi and others.

One possible explanation for St. Nicholas’s relative rarity in concert is its unusual scoring. Written in celebration of the centenary of the English boy’s school Lancing College, Britten made use of the school’s comprehensive musical resources to score the piece for tenor soloist, an adult mixed choir, a children’s choir, two pianos, organ, percussion and strings. To quote a character in Robertson Davies’s A Mixture of Frailties, it is “just the size to be neglected.” He might have been referring to St. Nicholas.

Britten’s conception of St. Nicholas himself is filled with nuance. Outwardly powerful, stern yet benign, the true character of the bishop is one of doubt and conflict. This powerful tenor role alternates between quiet soliloquies and fiery sermons, while the choral movements encompass childlike playfulness, pageantry, savage cannibalism, a wonderful depiction of a storm at sea and finally Nicholas’s death and ascent into sainthood. It is a rare treat to hear this work in concert, especially this time of year.

The Medieval mystic mentioned above is Hildegard of Bingen, and her music is the focus of a concert on August 8 given by Schola Magdalena, a five-voice ensemble of female singers based out of Toronto’s Church of St. Mary Magdalene. Hildegard was a medieval polymath of almost Leonardian scope, and recent researches into both early music and the work of female composers has brought her work, neglected for centuries, into new focus.

Medieval scholars often struggle with lost or incomplete sources in their attempts to shine a light on the past. They have been lucky with Hildegard, who left behind a clear legacy of songs, poems, books and letters that gives us insight both into the times in which she lived and the mind of an individual artist. Performers of her music have found a richness of invention, in which melody can be made to illuminate and enhance the meaning of the text in a way that can be challenging with even the most beautiful chant.

From a Medieval cleric to a modern composer’s take on a Medieval saint, to the proverbial King of Rock and Roll may seem like a unlikely leap – especially in a choral context. But Elvis Presley was a deeply religious man, who loved singing gospel music as a vocal warm-up prior to giving concerts, and whose earliest musical influences were the choirs and quartets that he heard attending church as a young child. On August 20 Hamilton’s Brott Festival Choir and National Academy Orchestra will perform Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, in good classical fashion. But on August 4 the orchestra is joined by a Gospel choir to perform Elvis: The Way it Was with vocalist Stephen Kabakos. Though the concert will likely focus on Presley’s pop songs, anyone familiar with Presley’s gospel singing can hear clearly the degree to which a song like “Suspicious Minds” draws on that influence.

Performing popular music in a choral context is much trickier than it might seem. Ease with syncopated rhythms is an essential part of the performance of popular music, and classically trained musicians can struggle to free themselves from the straightjacket of notated music, in which syncopation is often difficult to convey convincingly and idiomatically. An awareness of the backbeat (accents on two and four in a 4/4 measure) needs to inform the performance at all times, and often singers must re-jig their vocal style as well. A legato vocal line that serves Handel and Mozart is usually too heavy and rhythmically undifferentiated for popular music.

I predict that even choirs mostly accustomed to classical repertoire will begin to delve with increasing frequency into the world of popular music. The challenge for choirs and choral directors will be to recognize that good execution of popular music takes skills that classical training has neglected, and adjust and even re-train accordingly. The term “performance practice” is often applied to early music: equal care and respect is needed in the area of popular and vernacular music as well.

p21Some last notes. The Elmer Iseler Singers perform on July 11 at Westben, and at Parry Sound’s Festival of the Sound on July 30 and August 8. The 2010 Ontario Youth Choir, directed this year by Iwan Edwards appear from 27-29 August, in London, Orillia and Toronto respectively. And in a final Gospel context, at Toronto’s Fringe Theatre Festival (June 30-July 11), the play “Maurice Carter’s Innocence” will feature a Gospel choir onstage, helping to illuminate and tell the true story of a miscarriage of justice that led to one man’s wrongful imprisonment, and of the determination of those who fought for his release.

Benjamin Stein is a tenor and theorbist. He can be contacted at:



p25aI’ve been writing the “Choral Scene” column for The WholeNote since last fall – and my short time writing this column leads me to the happy conclusion that our local choral music scene is thriving and inventive.

To be sure, the final concerts of the season attest to the liveliness and diversity of the choral scene. For instance, on June 2, the Toronto Choral Society performs The Resting Place of Pioneers, an interesting programme that combines music and story to illuminate the journeys and exploits of the first settlers of Toronto. The centerpiece of the concert is Toronto composer Eleanor Daley’s tuneful and appealing setting of the Requiem text. In Newmarket on 5 June, the Blue Bridge Festival Choir and Orchestra perform two relatively rare choral pieces, Weber’s Mass in E flat and Vaughan Williams’s Serenade to Music. And on July 1, First Nation’s group the Ahkwesasne Women Singers will be singing at the Queen’s Quay Toronto Music Garden, combining traditional Mohawk songs with a new work by distinguished Canadian-Odawa composer Barbara Croall.

Four more concerts demonstrate the breadth of current choral activity. On June 2, the St. Thomas’s Anglican Church choir performs music to celebrate Canadian composer and music director Walter MacNutt, who served at St Thomas’s from 1954-1977. Toronto’s Jubilate Singers celebrate their 40th anniversary with a concert on June 5. On June 13 the Headwaters Concert Choir sings Inspiration, a fundraising concert for First Nations’ children in Ontario. And the Niagara Vocal Ensemble perform the intriguingly titled Night Music – A Women’s Voice in Stratford on June 28.

One of the hidden bargains of the early summer are the free concerts given as part of the Tafelmusik Baroque Summer Institute. Combining Tafelmusik musicians with the up-and-coming talents who attend the Institute, concerts run on June 7, 12 16 and 19. Prior to this, Tafelmusik will be closing its run of Handel’s sprawling Israel in Egypt on June 1. This massive work has some of Handel’s most dramatic and inventive choruses, and is in fact more choir-heavy than the more famous Messiah. Those looking for a Handel chorus fix to tide them over for the summer need look no further.

Those who prefer their choral music to come from religious sources and “serious” composers may turn their noses up at concerts that draw upon music from areas such as music theatre, film and television. But as anyone who has tried can attest, singing popular music well is a good deal harder than it may appear, and the work of a classically trained musician truly comfortable in popular styles is both rare and a pleasure to experience. In this crossover vein, the Choralairs of North York perform a free pops concert at Earl Bales Park Community Centre, and Toronto’s East York Choir presents a programme of opera and music theatre (both on June 6). As well, Burlington’s Harlequin Singers perform “Here Comes Broadway” on June 4-6, and Barrie’s Bravado! Show Choir performs “Reel Music” on June 11-12.

On the classical end, Bach’s Magnificat in D is performed on June 5 by the St. Anne’s Concert Choir and Orchestra, with all concert proceeds going to help repair the historic and unique St. Anne’s Parish. The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir and Toronto Symphony Orchestra perform Beethoven’s beloved Symphony No. 9 on 16-17 June. The two groups also collaborate the next night for “Scheherazade,” a Russian-themed programme of Khachaturian, Rimsky-Korsakov and Ravel. The Victoria Scholars perform “Choral Explorations” on June 2, as part of the Canadian Opera Company’s vocal series, and aficionados of British choral music can attend a “Concert of 20th Century Sacred Music” by the visiting Choir of St. Chad’s College, (University of Durham) at Toronto’s Church of St. Mary Magdalene on June 11.

June brings the opportunity to hear a new oratorio, the Dark Star Requiem, written by young Toronto-based composer Andrew Staniland. Tackling the twenty-five-year modern history of the AIDS epidemic, the Elmer Iseler Singers, Gryphon Trio and four vocal soloists perform this work on June 11-12 as part of the Luminato Festival. As well, three youth choir concerts take place this season, all on June 5: the Mississauga Children’s Choir presents “Eine Kleine Jazz Musik”; the Guelph Youth Singers present “Whistle While You Work,” songs of carpenters, clowns, goatherds, sailors and pirates; and the St. Mary’s Children’s Choir presents “It’s a Grand Night For Singing.”

Finally, on 14 June, the Cantabile Chorale of York Region performs “Strawberries and Song 2010,” with strawberries and ice cream, raffles and more. Any choral concert that includes strawberries gets my vote! Happy singing and concertgoing to all during the summer months.

Benjamin Stein is a tenor and theorbist. He can be contacted at:

p13aAtruism: technology shapes culture. One could argue that we are less the children of Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Bessie Smith and the Beatles than we are of Thomas Edison, Scott de Martinville and Charles Cros, and their progeny, the anonymous technicians who developed digital sound in the 1970s.

And yet the things that influence musicians most deeply remain unchanged. No recording matches the excitement of a masterful live performance. No online musical forum or resource replaces the one-on-one human connection between teacher and student through which musical ideas are most essentially conveyed.

We envy, admire and emulate musicians of renown. But we retain a special love for our teachers and mentors, who have touched us in way that a concert or recording never can. Agrade school music teacher, a private instructor, a conservatory lecturer; sometimes stronger as teachers than performers; sometimes well known, often not. It is they that give each of us the tools to add our unique voice to the music.

By all accounts, Deral Johnson was one such teacher. He taught choral music for 20 years at the University of Western Ontario, and after his death, March 24 this year, tributes from the musicians he touched poured in to The WholeNote and other forums. An expatriate American, Johnson taught in Texas and Colorado before moving to London in 1969. He threw himself into the Canadian music scene with a zeal and enthusiasm for which he became renowned, championing the music of Schafer, Cabena and Telfer, and training many distinguished Canadian musicians, including conductor and producer Robert Cooper, and University of Toronto voice professor Darryl Edwards.

Choral conductors who studied with Johnson include Michael Bloss, Lynn Janes, Jenny Crober, Ken Fleet and Carol Ratzlaff, all of whom direct choirs in and around Southern Ontario. Many of his former students speak glowingly of his combination of humour, rigour, kindness and passion. Margaret Thibideau, a former choral conductor, writes, “There was nothing quite like singing Gospel with Deral – it was fun, uplifting, and all I can say is that I have never had the privilege of finding anyone who even comes close to his high standards of musicianship or excellence.” Johnson will be missed both by those who knew him personally and those who felt his influence.

Meanwhile, the choral scene that Johnson helped develop and foster is in good form this spring. For instance, Robert Cooper’s Orpheus Choir performs the rarely heard Handel Oratorio Athalia on May 8, in a concert that showcases their Sedgwick Scholars (up-and-coming vocal talents who both sing in the choir and handle the solos). It is a mentoring programme now in its 20th year.

p14_viva_youth_singers_530And Carol Ratzlaff’s Annex-based Viva! Youth Singers have a 10th anniversary celebration concert, May 16. The concert features commissioned new works by composers James Rolfe and Juliet Palmer, as well as a musical by Leslie Arden. With singers from 4 to 25 and a wide range of choirs to choose from (including one for parents!), the choir’s proud lineage is clear.

The number of choral concerts at this time of the year is astounding, and sorting through them a fascinating task.

For one, thing, this appears to be the spring of the “crossover” programme. Concerts including a mixture of Broadway, opera and cabaret music are being given by the Toronto Sinfonietta (May 1), Alexander Singers and Players (May 6-7), the East York Choir (June 6), the Harlequin Singers (June 4-6), and the Oriana Women’s Choir, in a programme centred around the music of George Gershwin (May 8). Concerts focusing on the beloved music of Gilbert and Sullivan are given by Chorus Niagara (May 15-16) and the Etobicoke Centennial Choir (May 28-29).

There are also many concerts of works from the classical canon. On May 2 the Toronto Classical Singers sing an all-Mozart concert. On May 8 the Burlington Civic Chorale does the same, in a programme that includes two masses as well as rarer Mozart choral works. On the same evening the Peterborough Singers sing Mendelssohn’s majestic Elijah, and Kitchener’s Grand Philharmonic Choir sing the Verdi Requiem. The Durham Philharmonic Choir’s May 15 concert include’s excerpts from Hadyn’s Creation, and on the same evening Orchestra London and Philharmonic Choir perform Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis.

From May 28-30 the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony, Grand Philharmonic Choir and Children’s Chorus perform that perennial favourite, Orff’s Carmina Burana. Three concerts featuring works by Bach are given by Orchestra London and Chamber Choir (May 5), Toronto Chamber Choir (May 16) and the St. Anne’s Concert Choir and Orchestra (June 5), in a benefit concert towards repairs for the St. Anne’s Parish. On May 1 the Tallis Choir focuses on the music of Purcell and his contemporaries, and on June 06 Unionville Symphonia and Chorus sing the Duruflé Requiem and the Haydn Te Deum.

And there are several of choices for modern and folk-based mass settings as well. The Amadeus Choir’s concert on May 15 includes Ramirez’s Misa Criolla and Toronto composer Sid Robinovitch’s Canciones por las Americas. The Toronto Beach Chorale’s May 2 concert includes Paul Winter’s Missa Gaia. Other multicultural offerings include a concert by the University of Toronto Gospel Choir (May 1), Plamen Ukrainian Women’s Vocal Ensemble (May 2), the Victoria Scholars’ “Postcard from Around the World” (June 6), the Toronto Jewish Folk Choir’s 84th annual spring concert (May 30) and the Nathaniel Dett Chorale’s “And Still We Sing,” featuring the steel pan work Legacy, in a programme focusing on music of the Caribbean islands (May 26 and 29).

That’s not all! In this magazine, and on our website, you’ll find many promising mixed end-of-season programmes by a wide variety of choirs. See The WholeNote’s listings for more choral events.

Benjamin Stein is a tenor and theorbist. He can be contacted at:

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