If you, like me, are a once-active vocalist who took a break for an extended period of time, looking to rejoin a choir, or looking for a new choir to join, is daunting. A friend recently suggested that I could still audition for the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir (TMC) at the end of August for their upcoming season. My mind went into panic mode. I let out a quick “No!” – I mean, how could I possibly be ready for an audition with mere weeks to get my voice back into shape? And isn’t September too late to join a choir like that? Surely their plans for the coming season are firmly in place?

But it got me thinking, so I spoke to some choristers and reached out by email to the artistic teams of three different choirs in Toronto to ask about their audition requirements, and how far along they are in the behind-the-scenes preparation it takes to get a new choral seasons rolling in the fall.

Cantabile Chamber SingersLooking through WholeNote’s Canary pages to decide who to contact was a great reminder of the variety of choirs present in Toronto. Whether you prefer bigger groups, like the 65-voice ensemble of The Annex Singers, or the intimate setting of a smaller chamber ensemble, like 15 to 20-voice Cantabile Chamber Singers, or a community choir, like the 30 to 35-member Jubilate Singers, there truly is a choir out there for everyone. Many ensembles are open to people of diverse backgrounds, both musical and occupational. Singing can be solely a hobby; using music as a release. It can also be a gateway to a professional career in music. In any case, no one should feel discouraged from joining a choir if an interest in singing is present.

After the summer break, would September be too late to get in touch with any of these three choirs?

The response to my inquiries was encouraging: although holding auditions in different months in the year – May and September for the Cantabile Chamber Singers; June, August and January for The Annex Singers; June and September for the Jubilate Singers – all three ensembles welcome inquiries throughout the season.

So, the fact that it’s nearly September is no excuse! Now is as good a time as any. As for my question as to what new and existing choristers should keep in mind prior to making a commitment to a choir, the responses were unanimous: understanding the extent of the commitment so you can figure out how you will balance your own schedule is essential. As mentioned, choir members come from different backgrounds, and choirs themselves are different: the ability to balance work with rehearsals sufficiently to maintain a dedication to the choir is important. Choristers likely need to be able to commit to weekly rehearsals, make personal time to learn music, and set dates aside for performances. And depending on the choir, additional commitments may be expected for various workshops, sectionals, and choir retreats.

Behind the Concerts

Meanwhile, in these months prior to the start of the new music season, the choral scene is bustling with preparation, a lot of it unobserved by audiences and often even by choristers. Music needs to be selected, artists contacted, auditions arranged, venues booked, funding organized, and year-round administrative duties maintained. As the artistic team of The Annex Singers told me, music selection, for example, must sometimes be done as much as a year in advance.

The music community as an art is unlike the music entertainment industry. It is a labour of love, a conscientious drive to keep music as an art form alive. It is not easy. All three choirs mentioned here are led by women, all of them sharing the same determination; a determination to bring diversity to Toronto’s choral scene and to make choral music accessible to a large number of people.

Jubilate SingersI asked how specific works are selected for a music season. Cheryll Chung, artistic director of Cantabile, answered, “I usually have a running list of pieces that I want to perform. I’m always on the lookout for new repertoire – always researching, especially music written by living composers, and female composers who are local.” The music director of Jubilate, Isabel Bernaus, makes all programming decisions for their three-concert season, although she “usually consults with an informal program advisory group of choir members. Concert themes and individual works are outlined the previous January (in preparation for the arts council grant applications.)” Similarly, Maria Case, artistic director of The Annex Singers, creates the program for each concert well in advance, adding that the concerts usually centre on a theme.

With respect to collaborations with guest artists and/or ensembles, Jubilate makes their selections “depending on the music and program needs.” One example: inviting “a Spanish dance company to collaborate on a program of classical Spanish and flamenco music. […] The selection of collaborators is often dependent on the professional and personal connections of the music director (or, occasionally, of one of the choir members).”

In a like manner, The Annex Singers “match the instrument, style, and area of interest of [their] guest performers to the particular program.” They mentioned a tribute performance to Shakespeare where they welcomed guest harpsichordist, Cynthia Hiebert. They also “see supporting young artists as part of [their] responsibility within the choral community.”

As someone who previously worked behind the scenes in a choral organization, I am aware of how essential funding is to the advancement and scope of choirs. I asked if these choirs receive funding from any additional stakeholders outside of their members. As might be expected, their answers differed.

Chung shared that Cantabile hasn’t been successful with all of their grant applications, “except for the one [they] applied for with [their] composer-in-residence Laura Sgroi. It was a commissioning grant awarded by the Ontario Arts Council (OAC). [They therefore] rely solely on ticket sales and donations.”

The artistic team of The Annex Singers answered, “We receive advertising revenues from local business owners and merchants in the community who promote their services in our concert programs and provide donations to our raffles and silent auction throughout the concert season. We also receive financial support from donors within and outside the choir. Our audiences are aware of the costs of running a choir, and have proved loyal, responsive and generous to our fundraising campaigns. However, most of our revenue comes from membership fees and ticket sales.”

The Jubilate Singers have “the support of multi-year grants from the Toronto Arts Council. In some years [they] have been fortunate to receive a grant from the OAC. In addition, individual donors give some funding, and some businesses advertise in [their] programs.” I asked why arts funding is important to Jubilate. They answered, “Arts funding helps with expenses, especially for paying the honoraria to the music director and accompanist, as well as venue rental for rehearsals and concerts. This kind of funding also shows that the community at large respects our contribution and recognizes the importance of music in the life of the community.”

Why should there be an interest in investing in choirs? And why should people in the community care to expand the choral scene? For a community choir like The Jubilate Singers, it’s because they “[occupy] a special niche, performing an eclectic range of world music that reflects the diversity of the greater Toronto region. … A small donation to a choir can make a big impact on the ability of that choir to present interesting and/or unusual music […] More generally, community choirs represent the ideal of amateur musicians who rehearse and perform for the love of singing. Whatever polish a choir may lack is made up for by the energy and dedication that its members bring to the music.”

Chung adds a similar sentiment, “I think people want to give back to the arts and support living musicians. Generally they see the value of live music and enjoy the diversity of our concerts.”

As for the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, I spoke briefly with a chorister I know, Chantelle Whiteside, who has been a TMC member, and is lamenting that, as TMC gets ready to celebrate their 125th anniversary, she won’t be able to make the commitment of time she knows she would have to, to be part of what promises to be a special year. “Being a part of Mendelssohn has been the most rewarding thing,” she says. “It’s a community, … meeting new friends who become your closest friends.” Many choral groups require a fee from members to survive; however, the experience earned and lasting relationships formed are ultimately priceless.

To inquire about any of the specific choirs mentioned above, please contact:

Jubilate Singers – info@jubilatesingers.ca; 416-223-7690

Cantabile Chamber Singers – cantabilechambersingers@gmail.com; 416-509-8122

The Annex Singers – joeidinger@gmail.com; 416-458-4434

The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir – admin@tmchoir.org; 416-598-0422

Or to delve into the myriad other opportunities out there, check out the current WholeNote Canary Pages under “Who’s Who?” at thewholenote.com.

It’s never too soon or too late!

CHORAL SCENE QUICK PICKS

SEP 28, 4PM: Bringing a Spanish and Latin flair to the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, the Toronto Operetta Theatre presents “Viva La Zarzuela.” Let the vocal talents of tenor Romulo Delgado and sopranos Ana Persijn Alarcon, Cristina Pisani and Olivia Maldonado, under the direction of Guillermo Silva-Marin transport you to Latin America and Spain.

SEP 29, 4PM: The Elmer Iseler Singers celebrate 40 years of the Festival of the Sound including the Toronto premiere of Eric Robertson’s The Sound – A Musical Evocation of Georgian Bay. James Campbell and the Penderecki String Quartet are among the guest artists performing at Eglinton-St. George’s United Church.

OCT 5 AND 6, 7:30PM: Enjoy the familiar, “I like to be in America!” with Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story in concert presented by Chorus Niagara and the Niagara Symphony Orchestra. Robert Markus, fresh from his recent performance as Evan Hansen in Dear Evan Hansen, takes the lead role as Tony; soprano Meher Pavri performs Maria. Tickets can be bought online and performances will take place at FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre, St. Catharines.

Menaka Swaminathan is a writer and chorister, currently based in Toronto. She can be reached via choralscene@thewholenote.com

Roomful of Teeth in Triptych (Eyes of One on Another). Photo (c) Maria BaranovaOn June 22 at 8pm, Luminato presents Triptych (Eyes of One on Another), a new multidisciplinary work composed by Bryce Dessner with libretto by Korde Arrington Tuttle, inspired by the controversial and revolutionary work of Robert Mapplethorpe; at the Sony Centre (soon to be Meridian Hall), Toronto.

A consistent throughline at Luminato has been introducing local audiences to the international array of interesting, challenging collisions of storytelling and performance. In this year’s festival we have this multidisciplinary work inspired by Robert Mapplethorpe’s art. His stark black and white photography, often focused upon unapologetic queerness in a striking visual way, here collides with an equally striking vocal ensemble called Roomful of Teeth. Hand-picked by Triptych composer Bryce Dessner to bring his score to life, Roomful of Teeth is not quite a choir, not quite a band, not quite what you’d think of for an eight-voice ensemble. Their number includes bass-baritone Dashon Burton, founder Brad Wells, and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Caroline Shaw.

Triptych’s subject is Robert Mapplethorpe himself. His photography of provocative people was challenged in American courts under obscenity laws in 1990. To this day, Mapplethorpe’s work is controversial, but his unique approach has left an indelible impact in the intersection of photography and viewer. The composer, Bryce Dessner is an accomplished orchestral writer but is mostly known for his work as guitarist in the American band, The National. Interestingly, he is a native of Cincinnati, the city where Mapplethorpe’s exhibit was shut down under obscenity laws. At the world premiere in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in March of 2019, Dessner and librettist Korde Arrington Tuttle participated in an hour-long talk with NPR’s Neda Ulaby. Their interview, available on Youtube, is a fascinating look into the creative process of collaboration and informed this month’s column.

“The images were always core to the work,” shares Dessner to Ulaby. “There are so many images that stand out … there are the images you can find which have been in exhibitions or on books or on their website and then there’s 1000 times that; his archives [in the Getty Institute] are extensive … [But] if he didn’t himself publish a photo, we’re technically not allowed to show it.” So for Dessner and Arrington Tuttle, they were able to see so much more than the public has, and this personal look has shaped Triptych.

“Mapplethorpe’s work gets deep into the heart of all kinds of issues around our identity and how we see one another,” continues Dessner. “The images are so powerful; and his art is so powerful in that way. The conflict within it is always unfolding.” Thirty years after the death of Mapplethorpe, there are still discussions around what art is, the lines of art and obscenity, and how to respond to it all. Many still call the work obscene and profane, but there is a persistent draw in the work that continues to make Mapplethorpe popular.

“I came to Mapplethorpe’s life and work in college... For me, it had something to do with how he saw,” shares Arrington Tuttle. “It had something to do with precision, it had something to do with an attempt at how to grasp at what he describes as perfection. But also a kind of transcendent beauty and a kind of love that might not look like love. It might not look like how I’m used to perceiving love or tenderness. There’s something about coming to terms with and spending time intimately with discomfort and placing myself in that discomfort … It was provocation that asked me and required my presence …the way Mapplethorpe is mixing the sacred and the profane and elevating images that some people might call pornographic but are actually great works of art.”

“There’s been intense discomfort and reckoning,” says Dessner. “Almost every day we’ll have a discussion or confront something new in terms of the bigger work of what this is. I think for me the piece has become the process of making the piece.” That process included working with Roomful and writing the music knowing it was going to be them performing it. In fact he can’t think of anyone other than Roomful performing the work. As it travels, so too does the ensemble.

“They’re really like a band, Roomful, they bring a kind of intent. They can’t just sing something, they have to know why they’re singing something.”

Roomful of Teeth as an ensemble name sounds crass and jarring., and their music can sound like that as well. There is a lot of sound and a lot of different techniques all being thrown at listeners at once. There is something dynamic about listening to a female voice sing in the style of Bulgarian women. It’s another feeling altogether to hear Tuvan throat singing droning away. Sometimes it is just plain weird to listen to –an example of “spending time intimately with discomfort” that Arrington Tuttle referred to. Roomful constantly seeks to find all the various ways that voices can make sound and confront you with them. The seductive sound of Sardinian cantu, for example, provides a fullness and constant envelope of sound much like a bagpipe. Higher tones can then play around on top of the solid bass provided by the style. Many of the singers in Roomful are composers; they understand the interplay that art has between presenting, listening, invoking, and creating. “They’ve been quite involved in shaping the work … it’s made the piece much stronger,” says Dessner.

Roomful’s intersection with Dressner and Mapplethorpe in Triptych (Eyes of One on Another) is just that – an intersection. It’s worth checking out, and it will also be interesting to see what lies next on their own path.

The State Choir LATVIJA in Moscow, 2015The 15th Latvian Song and Dance Festival

Latvian culture has a strong choral tradition of massive ensembles in summer festivals. Here in Canada, many Latvians have made indelible marks in the Canadian choral landscape. As part of the 15th Latvian Song and Dance Festival, the State Choir LATVIJA comes to Canada for the first time.

The Latvian Song and Dance Festival occurs every five years in Latvia. A distinguishing feature of the festival is the massed power of thousands of voices. These huge summer gatherings devoted to music are cultural gems in Latvia. The Toronto version of the festival includes choral, instrumental, and dance performances all centred around the significant contributions of Latvians to choral art.

In their concert of Latvian sacred music on July 4 at Trinity St. Paul’s Centre, State Choir LATVIJA performs a host of beautiful works written by Latvian composers including Canadians Imant Ramnish, George Juris Ķeniņš, Tālivaldis Ķeniņš, Arvīds Purvs and Ērika Yost. Raminsh’s stirring Ave Verum Corpus is a well-loved standard of Canadian choral programming. Ķeniņš’ work, Miss Brevis Latviensis was commissioned by the Choir and had its premiere in 2017 to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.

On July 5, the State Choir LATVIJA – now in its 77th season – comes to Koerner Hall, the grandest of spaces for this fine choir. Featuring music from Latvian-Canadian composers Jānis Kalniņš, Tālivaldis Ķeniņš and Imant Raminsh, the choir is joined by violinist Laura Zariņa, pianist Arthur Ozolins and members of the Canadian Opera Company Orchestra.

Finally, in keeping with the Latvian large choir tradition, on July 6 at 3pm, State Choir LATVIJA conductor Māris Sirmais will lead a Mass Choir Concert – an expected 800 choristers – in a program of all-Latvian composers at Mattamy Athletic Centre. 

CHORAL SCENE QUICK PICKS

JUN 13 TO 22: Asah Productions and Luminato present Obeah Opera. An a cappella, all-female cast explore the Salem witch trials in a work conceived, written and composed by Nicole Brooks. Tituba, a young Caribbean slave was the first woman accused in the trials. This is her story amidst the paranoia that gripped colonial Massachusetts between February 1692 and May 1693: at the Fleck Dance Theatre, Toronto.

JUN 19, 20, 22, 8PM AND JUN-23, 3PM: The Toronto Symphony Orchestra presents Carmina Burana conducted by Donald Runnicles. James Ehnes performs Korngold’s Violin Concerto to open the concert. For the signature work of the evening, Nichole Haslett, Sunnyboy Dladla and Norman Garrett anchor the solos. The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir will be joined by the Toronto Youth Choir and the Toronto Children’s Chorus in performing one of the greatest pieces in the choral canon. It may well be the biggest presentation of Carmina Burana Toronto has ever seen at Roy Thomson Hall.

JUN 23, 8PM: The closing event of Luminato 2019, Maada’ookii Songlines, composed by Cris Derksen, will bring together the power of over 200 performers, including almost a dozen choirs, plus soloists and instrumentalists, in a free performance meant to bridge the time between evening and night; at Harbourfront Centre.

JUL 19, 7:30PM: The Festival of the Sound’s Opening Gala features the Elmer Iseler Singers. With a host of guests including soprano Mary Lou Fallis; narrator Colin Fox; the Penderecki String Quartet; and instrumentalists Guy Few, Suzanne Shulman, James Campbell, Beverley Johnston, and Bob Mills. A huge assortment of choral excerpts mark and evoke performances from the 40-year history of the Festival. Excerpts include Handel’s Messiah, Bach’s Mass in B Minor, Carmina Burana, Mozart’s Requiem, and the world premiere of The Sound: A Musical Evocation of Georgian Bay by Eric Robertson and Gary Michael Dault. Lots of other musical experiences can be found throughout the festival. Stockey Centre, Parry Sound.

AUG 17 TO 25: Wellington Water Week is a celebration of the water in the idyllic Price Edward County community of Wellington. Husband-and-wife duo Johannes Debus, COC music director, and Elissa Lee, violinist, curate the musical offerings for the celebration, including August 17, at 5:30pm, Opus 8 presenting an a cappella program of folk songs titled “How Can I Keep from Singin’?” at Wellington United Church, and, on August 23 at 6pm, Debus and singer/songwriter Sarah Slean presenting SING!, a crowd-sourced mass choir event. The two will co-direct songs for everyone to participate in; also at Wellington United Church.

Follow Brian on Twitter @bfchang Send info/media/tips to choralscene@thewholenote.com.

Suba Sankaran (left) and Dylan BellIn March, Suba Sankaran and Dylan Bell led a choral workshop as part of the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir’s Singsation Saturday program. In the church basement of Calvin Presbyterian Church, the duo led about 100 people in exploring their voices. No sheet music, no instruments. Nothing but the power of the a cappella, human voice.

Sankaran and Bell are partners in music and life and perform under the name FreePlay Duo. Together, they have spearheaded and led the annual Sing! Toronto Vocal Arts Festival for nine years. We exchanged questions and answers by email. “Our musical goals are to excite, to inspire, to teach, to entertain, and most importantly, to demonstrate that the human voice has infinite possibilities,” they wrote.

“The human voice is an amazing instrument,” they continued. “And group singing is such an amazing feeling of community. You might ask yourself, why do you need to sing? The answer is very simple: people have always needed to sing together. It’s part of who we are as human beings, it’s a natural impulse, and it shows us that we can work together in large numbers, in harmony.”

Sankaran and Bell have curated a festival that demands participation and offers experience, providing a host of opportunities to sing, listen or both. For those who want to get into the thick of things, “the Mass Choir event is a unique opportunity created by SING! to reach out to the community, give them a voice, an opportunity to work with a professional singer, performer and educator, and the chance to strut their stuff on stage,” they say. Kurt Sampson who is leading the mass choir performance is known for his work in Cadence, a Toronto-based a cappella quartet. Sampson is the anchoring bass in that ensemble and his athletic vocal percussion is part of their signature sound. Participants who choose to perform in the mass choir event will have much to look forward to.

“Once you register, you will be given the music (ahead of time), and then on Sunday, May 26 – the day of the event – you will be guided by Kurt… He will conduct workshops, get in-depth with the mass choir songs, provide micro-clinics with some of the local ensembles who opt to also have a performance spot that evening, and then all will culminate in a concert that features some participating vocal ensembles, the mass choir singers, as well as a performance by Cadence. You do not have to be part of a choir to enjoy this experience. If you are a singer who wants to find a choir in the moment, this is your chance!”

This type of opportunity to participate is a hallmark of the Sing! experience. In an interview last year with The WholeNote, Sankaran shared her love of being able to travel and network with a cappella singers around the world, a vibrant community all over the world focused on the human voice. But a Toronto staycation has much to offer too. “There are a few generations of people who have come up as singers,” Sankaran says. “We really are an a cappella family. One example is Debbie Fleming – founder of award-winning group, Hampton Avenue, who has been singing in the business and has been an advocate for a cappella for several decades.” Fleming will be the recipient of the Slaight Music SING! Toronto Legacy Award this year.

“As well, many collegiate a cappella groups have been formed over the past few decades and have paved a path. Wibi A Cappella from York University (where both Dylan and I cut our teeth as conductors, arrangers and composers) is an example of the longest running, independent collegiate a cappella groups in Canada.” Wibi, who will perform as part of Art Battle during the festival, celebrated their 30th anniversary in 2018!

Sankaran and Bell hope people are challenged by the breadth [of musical experiences] being presented. There is a huge range of international performing artists: Mzansi from South Africa presenting their Nelson Mandela tribute, Vocal Sampling from Cuba, The Swingles from the UK, and Jo Wallfisch (UK/US). “With this in mind, we hope to open not just voices, and ears, but minds and hearts as well. We tend to aim high with this festival, and so we hope to maintain our standards by bringing the best of the best that a cappella has to offer from around the world, and especially continue to feature our local treasures.”

Freeplay, featuring Sankaran and Bell, are themselves one such local treasure. They will perform as opening act for Vocal Sampling. “They are an amazing a cappella sextet from Cuba,” Sankaran and Bell write, “emulating the sounds of a hot Cuban orchestra, without an instrument in sight. They have been our heroes for such a long time and we’re so honoured to share the stage with them, for both workshops and a concert on Sunday, June 2 at Lula Lounge.”

Bell and Sankaran hope also to delve more deeply into multi-disciplinary shows, like this festival’s Songs and Stories of Migration, that bring different art forms together but also provoke thought and really in-depth chances for complex conversations carried through the medium of musical storytelling in a wide range of forms and styles. Toronto’s own Pressgang Mutiny, who sing sea shanties are one such group. Shanties are often associated with a fantastical history of what life at sea was like in the days of pirates. But for sailors and passengers throughout history, boats of cargo and people have been meeting places for cultures, stories, commerce, and also war. These nautical meeting places have a history and Pressgang Mutiny breathe life into these shanties, minus the swashbuckling.

A cappella vocal music also opens doors into diverse cultures. You’ll hear the sounds of the Eastern Mediterranean instantly when Turkwaz takes the stage. This quartet of women explores the sounds and myriad stories of Greece, Turkey, the Balkans and more, the evocative power of their voices in a diverse set of styles folding the listener into the pages of beloved story after story. After all, “singing is storytelling through song, and there are so many compelling stories to tell!”

Last year, Sing! was part of the massive Fringe Festival in the Scottish city of Edinburgh. “We’ve been building inroads with our affiliate festivals, like Sing! Montreal, Sing! Texas, and Sing! Edinburgh,” share Sankaran and Bell, “We hope to continue to spread the word and joy of Sing! Around the globe.” 

Some highlights of Sing! The Toronto Vocal Arts Festival, May 24 to June 2

MAY 24, 8:30PM: Sing! Mandela Celebration with Mzansi. A musical celebration of Nelson Mandela with a cross-cutting extravaganza of sounds and styles. Young People’s Theatre, Toronto.

MAY 26, 7:30PM: The Mass Choir comes together under Kurt Sampson of Cadence. Come for the concert or join in the choir itself earlier in the day. This will be a signature festival event. Young People’s Theatre, Toronto.

MAY 28, 8:30PM: Sing! Songs & Stories of Migration featuring a host of artists and histories. Ariel Balevi with Persian folklore; Pressgang Mutiny with sea shanties; Turkwaz with Arabic, Greek and Turkish heritage; Sage Tyrtle blending stories and fairy tales; Joanna Wallfisch with looped storytelling; and Dan Yashinsky and his extraordinary tales of travels. A new feature on the docket for Sing! and bound to excite your heart and ears. Hugh’s Room Live, Toronto.

JUN 1, 8PM: SoundCrowd: Dance Party! Why should dance parties only be reserved for instruments? Scott Pietrangelo leads this a cappella powerhouse of a choir with 70 voices strong. The Opera House, Toronto.

Vocal Sampling performs at Lula Lounge June 2JUN 2, 7:30PM: Sing! Cuban Fantasies with Vocal Sampling and Freeplay. Steamy music highly likely, tropical heat not guaranteed. Lula Lounge, Toronto.

Jewish Music Week, MAY 26 TO June 2

Another musical arts festival runs over the last week of May. Jewish Music Week presents the ninth year of guests, local and international, featuring a host of fantastic music influenced, created and/or performed by Jewish artists, with significant highlights for aficionados of vocal and choral music.

MAY 29, 12PM: The Yonge Guns Quartet host a midday concert at Princess Margaret. Part of the hospital’s “Music in the Atrium” program, these award-winning four men have been singing barbershop together since high school. Princess Margaret Cancer Centre Atrium, Seventh Floor, Toronto.

MAY 29, 7:30PM: Three Famed Cantors, One Voice. American cantors from three of New York City’s Jewish congregations make their Canadian debut. Featuring a host of styles and sacred works, these three tenors combine their voices under music director Robbie Grunwald. Holy Blossom Temple, Toronto.

JUN 1, 10:15PM: Community Melaveh Malka. Marking Shabbat with an evening performance; three choirs will perform. Featuring Shir Harmony, the Toronto Jewish Male Choir and the Toronto Jewish Chorus. Beth David B’nai Israel Beth Am, Toronto.

JUN 2, 3:30PM: The Sawuti African Children’s Choir performs as part of their Canada tour, ongoing since January. These seven children and five adults from East Africa are sponsored by the Evangelical Christian organization, Seven Wells Ministries and the Jewish cross-religious organization, Return Ministries. St Andrew’s Church, (Simcoe and King), Toronto.

Follow Brian on Twitter @bfchang Send info/media/tips to choralscene@thewholenote.com.

VOCA Chorus of Toronto. Photo by Jim CrawfordFall workshop: Once in the fall and once in the spring, artistic director Jenny Crober brings in an artist to work with the VOCA Chorus of Toronto in an intensive workshop. Matthew Emery was the clinician for the fall, working on his song Still Colours, Velvet Shoes. At the very end Crober asked, “Do you mind if we take a little peek at Sing your Song? Would you mind telling them something about who you’ve dedicated this to and why?” Emery agreed and spent the time explaining his reason for writing this song – to honour one of his musical mentors, Ken Fleet, when Fleet retired from Amabile. (Fleet has been living with dementia for many years now.)

“I first met Ken Fleet as a young singer in the Amabile Choirs of London, Canada,” Emery shared by email with The WholeNote. “My first memory of him was thinking “Wow he is so tall, will I ever be that tall?” (Fleet stood six feet five inches. Those who have met Emery in person can attest that yes, he did get to be almost as tall).

“I was a young boy in Grade 4 or 5 at the time,” Emery continues. “It was his presence and influence from singing with Amabile that led me to attend Medway High School where Ken taught music for nearly 30 years. Ken was one of the early mentors I had in composition. He was always encouraging me to write. He also introduced me to the music of Stephen Chatman who I later studied with at UBC.”

The story was impactful for the choir. Crober is reminded “when you look out at the choristers and you see their faces soften; some tears in the eyes. It’s obvious when you hear Matthew speak, the fondness he has for Ken.” That fondness is felt by Crober too, who studied music with Fleet at Western University. “We were at Western together,” she shared. “He was three years ahead of me. And everyone knew who he was, partly because he was very tall, but he was a gentle giant. An extraordinarily lovely human being, a wonderful person.”

“The refrain used in this song is built on the text ‘sing your song’ which is taken from a short documentary about Ken,” shares Emery. “His wish in life was that no matter what “just sing your song” – a beautiful image to be yourself and to be proud of who you are.” For Crober, that message “means get to the heart of it, right now. Get right into it. Don’t waste time. Just do it. In a gentle and supportive way.” The choir has loved learning and singing the song.

“The song uses a verse-chorus type framework to increase its accessibility,” shares Emery. “Ken worked with musicians of all levels, so I wanted to honour that philosophy in some way. There are phrases where the voices enter in canon, a metaphor for life. After the contrapuntal middle passage, the voices join in unity on the text “come home, come home.” This is intentional, to suggest that through grief, strife – anything – music is our refuge.”

“The song has to be very active, very positive, very buoyant,” says Crober. “It really is bubbly. But not flip. There’s nothing flippant or trivial about it … It’s jubilant and tender at the same time. It’s a really lovely piece.”

Emery put significant thought into creating this outcome. “I wanted to create a poignant work,” he said. “The meaning is deeply felt, but kept light-hearted with the syncopated melodies and pulsing piano gestures. To me, I am reminded of the lessons Ken taught me about life and the values he passed on when I hear the song. He was always full of joy and generosity. I tried to capture his genuine full spirit in the work.” The notion that music can bring us “home” – a perfect image to end a concert celebrating a beloved conductor and mentor to thousands of singers.”

Matthew Emery and Jenny CroberUpcoming concert: The signature work of VOCA’s upcoming April 27 concert is the Paul Winter Missa Gaia/Earth Mass. “It has been a while since we last did the Missa Gaia/Earth Mass,” says Crober. “We did it in 2012, when the East York Choir first became the VOCA Chorus of Toronto. This was the first performance of the choir under our new name.” Crober didn’t revisit the piece until two years ago when she had to step in at the last minute to conduct it for the Achill Choral Society in Orangeville. She admits, “I had kind of forgotten how much I loved the piece.” The revisiting is the reason for the “II” added to the concert title – “Earth, Seas & Sky.”

Joining the choir is vocalist Alana Bridgewater who has done the Missa Gaia on several occasions. “I’ve known about her a long time so it’s just a joy to finally be able to work with her,” says Crober. “We’re also doing three pieces by Paul Halley: Freedom Trilogy, Sound Over All Waters and The Rain Is Over and Gone. Alana will be really featured in some of these as well. There’s a moment in the third movement of the Missa Gaia, for example, the Beatitudes. It starts off slow and contemplative and by the end it’s a rocking gospel choir. Alana’s a powerhouse.”

Andrew BalfourSpring workshop: At the end of March, the choir had its spring workshop with Andrew Balfour. (The choir has been learning his piece Ambe for their upcoming concert.) “The first time I heard the piece we were at Podium 2018 in Newfoundland,” says Crober. “It was being performed by Chronos Vocal Ensemble from Edmonton. It was so hypnotic and driving and compelling and powerful and beautifully sung. The minute it was done, I marked in my program ‘Do this!’” Crober approached Balfour later during that conference. She booked him for the VOCA spring clinic this year, so the choir would have a chance to workshop the song directly with Balfour.

Going through the experience of Balfour’s thought process and listening to him give life and meaning to the music he’s written was important. Recently, the Indigenous Performing Arts Alliance (IPAA), of which Balfour is a part, released a statement on Indigenous Musical Sovereignty. The statement is an invitation to participate in the full experience of the music created by Indigenous peoples while simultaneously acknowledging that much of what has passed for Indigenous music or Indigenous themes by outsiders has been traumatizing. The statement asks hard questions of presenters who seek to perform Indigenous music: “to non-Indigenous composers who seek to tell ‘Indigenous-inspired’ works: be honest with yourself and ask why you feel compelled to tell this story and whether you are the right person to do so.”

The statement acknowledges that there is a place for non-Indigenous musicians in partnership, but there is an added weight and depth of responsibility that Indigenous creators have to their communities. To do this work well, the IPAA says, “We seek to hold ourselves to the highest ethical standards of Indigenous community engagement, and request that our collaborators in the Canadian music community work to the same level of accountability.”

For Crober, through the opportunity to learn directly from Balfour, the choir will have a better chance to bring life to his musical offering while respecting its Indigenous nature.

See all of this in action in “Earth, Sea & Sky II” presented by VOCA Chorus of Toronto under artistic director Jenny Crober featuring guest artists Alana Bridgewater (vocalist); Colleen Allen (saxaphone); Shawn Grenke (organ); Roberto Occhipinti (bass); Mark Kelso (drums); and Juan Carlos Medrano (percussion). April 27, 7:30pm. Eastminster United Church, Toronto. 

CHORAL SCENE QUICK PICKS

APR 17, 18 AND 20, 8PM: The Toronto Symphony Orchestra is joined by the Amadeus Choir and the Elmer Iseler Singers for the superlative Mahler Symphony No.2 “Resurrection.” A stunning masterpiece of choral music caps off this transformative symphony. Under the baton of Spanish conductor Juanjo Mena, the iconic organ of Roy Thomson Hall shall shake thee to thy bones with the full force and power of orchestra and choirs blended together in a way that only Mahler could. With three options to catch these performances, do it! Roy Thomson Hall, Toronto.

APR 19, 7:30PM: The Grand Philharmonic Choir performs Bach’s St. Matthew Passion joined by the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony Orchestra and a stellar line up of soloists: Isaiah Bell, Daniel Okulitch, Esteli Gomez and Allyson McHardy. Centre in the Square, Kitchener.

Cheryll ChungAPR 27, 4PM: Reaching Out Through Music presents “Spring Breezes.” ROTM provides free music education to children in the St. James Town community. Their hallmark is the Choral Program run by Cheryll Chung. Their Spring fundraising concert features Asitha Tennekoon. With a varied programme, this event will help ensure that the program can continue to provide accessible music education for future generations. Grace Church, Toronto, 383 Jarvis St.

Follow Brian on Twitter @bfchang. Send info/media/tips to choralscene@thewholenote.com.

Nashke miziwe bi-bepeshaabang ishpiming giizhigong.
Look everywhere how streaks of light appear above in the sky in the heavens.
Miziwe… Everywhere…

-Barbara Croall

odawa composer barbara croallOn March 31, Pax Christi Chorale premieres Barbara Croall’s Ojibwe Odawa oratorio, Miziwe…(Everywhere…). As far as the creative team knows, this is the first time that the choral tradition of oratorio and the language of Ojibwe Odawa will have been united, as Pax Christi, under artistic director David Bowser, bring to life to the stories, musical evocations and spirit that Barbara Croall embodies in her new oratorio.

Croall is Odawa First Nations from Manitoulin Island. Her music education includes degrees and diplomas from the Musikhochschule (Munich), the Royal Conservatory of Music and the University of Toronto. Croall’s extensive repertoire includes many settings of music for solo vocal, ensemble vocal, chamber, orchestral, theatre, film and more.

“I think the complete picture [of Croall’s depth] is really important,” says Bowser in an interview with The WholeNote. “It’s no small task to write a full oratorio for choir, orchestra, and soloists. The quality of the music is exceptional.” The entire oratorio will be performed in Odawa. “It will have surtitles in English and French,” continues Bowser. “The story is one that involves characters who are animals, wind, sun, different elements and creatures.” The choir evokes different aspects and elements of the world through Croall’s composition.

“I always aim for a connectivity between the human and non-human aspects of life as intertwined,” explains Barbara Croall in a written project description of Miziwe… given to The WholeNote. In it she describes the work’s “expansive use of vocal and instrumental techniques and expressive/meaningful breathing in various ways [to] extend beyond merely human notions of sound, to include sounds that we hear in nature.” Some of those sounds include one of Croall’s signature instruments, the pipigwan, a traditional cedar, wooden flute. Bowser is particularly enamoured with the timbre of the flute, a depth of sound not easily matched in similar instruments. Miziwe… includes Croall on the pipigwan as well as a vocalist.

Pax Christi ChoraleOratorio as an art form requires a a major assembly of musical forces including vocalists and instrumentalists, and Pax Christi Chorale –  an advanced 100-voice ensemble, particularly known for its focus on oratorios – fits the bill. Joining them will be mezzo-soprano Krisztina Szabó, baritone Justin Welsh, singer and dancer Rod Nettagog and the Toronto Mozart Players, particularly known for its annual Toronto Mozart Master Class Series, which for 2018/2019 featured soprano Nathalie Paulin and first prize-winner Jennifer Routhier, and of which Bowser is also the artistic director.

What unifies this particular oratorio is the essence of shared spirit. These are not sacred or religious texts or stories, though. “I never use ceremonial or sacred material in my music,” writes Croall. “Most often, the basis of a piece of music I create will be a song of my own – often influenced or inspired by sounds I hear in my time spent outdoors within nature in remote areas … this reflects my own personal need to feel interconnected with the rhythms and flow of life within nature.” The oratorio evokes and shares in the message Croall has composed, focusing on the “manidoo” – “the spirit essence, mystery, spiritual energy and life force, … “a continuity of life of all forms that can be known as ‘spirit’.”

Bowser treasures the composition he’s been entrusted and the larger context it both comes from and participates in. “Barbara wanted to create something that was more unifying and more uplifting and hopeful. And the common element is the sense of spirit that we all have together. It’s a story that ends with some sense of resolution. It’s so interesting to me that in so much oratorio there’s a moral. Here, it’s really about finding a connection. There’s no sense of imposed morality. It’s observation and the sense that we’re all connected through all these elements, and risk, and danger, and opportunity, and release and forgiveness.”

In her writing, Croall describes the work as “focusing toward the light … to always consider hope and continuity as the neverending thread of life.” In her approach, Croall’s generosity of spirit reaches beyond just her musical composition. The work of bringing the work to life in a meaningful way with each musician requires more than just a few reads through vocal lines in rehearsal. Something more was required for this particular project, and Bowser and the choir have had to adjust.

To help facilitate this, Croall has welcomed the choir into the world she has created. “The whole choir went out to Crawford Lake in November,” shares Bowser. “[Barbara] did a lot of talking about the traditional, historical, and also modern practices of different First Nations.” The choir was responsive to the learning, and Bowser was pleased: “It’s really exciting to see people opening their eyes and their ears and their hearts.”

“It’s a full relationship we’re engaging in,” says Bowser. In scale and scope, oratorio is to the choral music tradition what opera is to music theatre. Pax Christi, Bowser and Croall have all risen to the challenge of building a full relationship as the one way to ensure the best chance of success – guiding the work to a truer performance where artists, direction and composer align.

Croall has been generously present in the rehearsal process, making herself available in the teaching and the learning. “Barbara is coming to all the rehearsals, teaching us Odawa,” says Bowser. “She’s telling us about the stories and the characters and the imagery and the traditional practices and ways.”

In this process of breathing Miziwe… itself to life, the very joining of all these musical forces together starts to embody the notion of Croall’s “spirit” and her hope for the work  – that in the coming together, Pax Christi Chorale and Miziwe… will “uplift” us all.

On March 31 at 3pm, Pax Christi Chorale presents Miziwe… a world-premiere oratorio composed by Barbara Croall. Featuring Krisztina Szabó, Justin Welsh, Rod Nettagog, Barbara Croall, and the Toronto Mozart Players conducted by David Bowser. Performed in Ojibwe Odawa with surtitles at Koerner Hall, Toronto.

CHORAL SCENE QUICK PICKS

MAR 8, 7:30PM: Orpheus Choir of Toronto presents “Raising Her Voice: Celebrating the Choral Art,” in celebration of International Women’s Day. Artistic director Bob Cooper has partnered with Diaspora Dialogues to commission four new musical compositions, enhancing the female contribution to choral music in Canada. Diaspora Dialogues is an intercultural bridge that supports a community of diverse writers with multiple programs. In this exchange, Diaspora Dialogue authors Yaya Yao, Priscilla Uppal, Shadi Eskandani, and Phoebe Wang were paired with composers Katerina Gimon, Christine Donkin, Anika-France Forget and Tawnie Olson, respectively, for four new commissions by Orpheus. Grace Church on-the-Hill, Toronto.

Charles Daniels. Photo by Annelies van der VegtMAR 9, 7:30PM: The University of Toronto Faculty of Music presents Handel’s oratorio Israel in Egypt. The concert features Daniel Taylor and Jeanne Lamon at the helm of the U of T Theatre of Early Music Choir, Schola Cantorum, and Baroque instrumentalists, Collegium Musicum. Joining them will be members of Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and tenor Charles Daniels. Handel’s oratorios, of which there are many, are often dominated by Messiah. This is a chance to see some of his other great work. In the expert hands of a period interpretation, you can be sure of a fantastic period performance of Handel’s work. St Patrick’s Church, Toronto.

MAR 21 TO 23, 7:30PM & MAR 24, 3:30PM: Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir, five soloists and members of the Toronto Children’s Chorus all meet to present the Bach St. Matthew Passion. Last year, Tafelmusik presented the Mass in B Minor to great acclaim. Baritone Tyler Duncan, featured last year, returns to sing in the St Matthew Passion under maestro Masaaki Suzuki. Suzuki is one of the most renowned interpreters of Bach’s works and has never conducted Tafelmusik. This is one not to miss. With several performances to choose from, early music and Bach fans should hurry and get tickets. Carry a friend while you’re at it! Jeanne Lamon Hall, Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre, Toronto.

Cheryll Chung. Photo by Richard Jonathan ChungMAR 22, 7:30PM: Cantabile Chamber Singers present “Social Justice,” a program that conductor Cheryll Chung calls “an eclectic mix of contemporary works that speak to justice and equity in the world.” The works to be performed include a premiere of Unheard: Voice of the Children, for mixed media and choir by Laura Sgroi. Other great Canadians featured include Matthew Emery and Saman Shahi. All the works touch “on issues such as the environment, the #MeToo movement as well as serenity, eternity, and hope,” shares Chung. Church of the Redeemer, Toronto.

MAR 30, 4PM: Exultate Chamber Singers present “When We Were Young.” Artistic director Mark Ramsay has gathered the Chorus Niagara Children’s Choir and their artistic director, Amanda Nelli, in this “celebration of joy and youth.” Featuring John Rutter’s Mass of the Children with its blending of William Blake poetry and different mass traditions. Other music includes music from Timothy Corlis, Ēriks Ešenvalds, Eric Whitacre and more. St Thomas’s Anglican Church, Toronto.

Follow Brian on Twitter @bfchang Send info/media/tips to choralscene@thewholenote.com.

 

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