One hundred years ago, World War I raged on the battlefields of Europe, across the Middle East, in Southeast Asia and in proxy battles the world over. This year, the generation coming of age has lived entirely in the new millennium. Their experience of war is drastically different from the textbooks and grainy history videos in Grade 9 and 10 classes. Their experience of war is that of insurgency in Afghanistan, invasion of Iraq, annexation of Crimea, the global war on terrorism, and irregular migration. The terms they hear are drones, airstrikes, cyberterrorism, IEDs and asymmetrical warfare. Long past are the stories of trenches, machine guns, Spitfires, barbed wire, tanks and mustard gas.

As new generations of musicians explore works of commemoration, the older histories and stories don’t fade, they evolve. This month, the Choral Scene explores how children’s choirs are marking Remembrance Day.

Elise BradleyThe 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month…

In 2014, Paul Cummins and Tom Piper’s Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red was a public arts installation entailing the placement of 888,246 poppies in the moat of the Tower of London; one handmade ceramic poppy for each of the British fallen in WWI. Elise Bradley, artistic director of the Toronto Children’s Chorus (TCC), remembers this particular exhibit well. Four years on, we are approaching the centenary of the Armistice – 11am, November 11, 1918. “As a teacher and as a musician, I felt it was important to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Armistice that led to the end of World War I,” Bradley shares. “In 2014, I had witnessed many stirring events which honoured the start of the War…but to me, it seemed even more important to mark the end of the War.”

Bradley was born in New Zealand. On November 11 at 7:30, she will be joined by a host of Canadian guests, including Lydia Adams and the Elmer Iseler Singers, along with Australian-born accompanist Lara Dodds-Eden, and Bob Chilcott from England. Bradley highlights the four Commonwealth nations represented: Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the UK – all allies during WWI. “It is vitally important that we know about our history – but sharing it through music adds a very personal and emotional dimension to our understanding.” The concert will present works from all four countries.

From her New Zealand home, Bradley brings a particular history based on her long experience with Maori peoples and culture. “A Maori battalion fought on the fields of Gallipoli,” she says. “Part of the concert will be performing a full kapa haka piece of welcome and dedication to those who have passed.” Bradley holds a unique honour, being bestowed by the Wehi whānau (Wehi family), to act as guardian of the musical legacy and tradition of Ngapo and Pimia Wehi. Only two people outside of the family have this honour, which Bradley holds dearly, having worked with the family for over 25 years. “Where I go, the music can go, but I cannot leave it behind,” she shares. “Part of the guardianship is to honour and respect the music including the performance aspect of the art and dance.”

From the UK, Bob Chilcott is prominently featured, conducting smaller works and his larger sacred works: Peace Mass and Canticles of Light. Canadian Andrew Balfour, of Cree descent, wrote the work Ambe, based on an Ojibway song gifted by Cory Campbell. Local Toronto Ismaili composer Hussein Janmohamed’s Rest for a Soul is also on the set list. The concert features the world premiere of three WWI popular songs in arrangements commissioned by the TCC from Stuart Calvert: It’s a Long Way to Tipperary, Keep the Home Fires Burning, and Keep Right on till the End of the Road. The Elmer Iseler Singers will also perform, including Healey Willan’s How they so softly rest. An unverified, but persistent folktale amongst the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir is that Willan wrote the song to commemorate members of the choir who died in WWI.

Bob ChilcottChilcott has a different historical context than those of us on this side of the ocean as well as being of a different generation. He shared some thoughts on the upcoming concert as well. “For most in my country, the two world wars are a fading memory,” he says, “but to visit the Normandy beaches, which many young people still do, or to look for the graves of family members in the First World War cemeteries in Belgium is still an aspect of our history that is truly alive for many and very important to them.” (Many Canadians still make similar pilgrimages to cemeteries around the battlefields Canadian soldiers fought on, but they are a great deal further from Canadian shores than the UK.)

“Music has a role to play in [commemoration] and it reminds us that there are many technical and emotional responses within music that express some very deep and essential elements of our humanity,” Chilcott continues. “Harmony, resolution, blend, balance and unity.” These are all words used by conductors to describe the musicality they are looking for. It is fitting that these are virtues extolled by artists to the wider world. Chilcott finishes with a strong sentiment: “Remembrance is so important in that it teaches us to honour those who believed that fundamentally, good is better than bad.”

The Toronto Children’s Chorus presents “We Remember” a concert commemorating the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day. Featured guests include the Toronto Youth Choir, Elmer Iseler Singers, and guest conductors Lydia Adams and Bob Chilcott. November 11, 7:30pm. George Weston Recital Hall, Toronto Centre for the Arts.

Charissa BaganWhen the old and the new meet

“I want my choristers to know that history matters,” shares Charissa Bagan, artistic director of the Bach Children’s Chorus. “And that we have great power as singing storytellers and artists because we can connect the past, present and future… Choir offers a wonderful way for children to interact with serious topics.” For Remembrance Day, the Bach Children’s Choir and the Bach Youth Chamber Choir present “Resonant Reflection” on November 10.

Choral performance is always meant to be educational. One should learn from every rehearsal, every concert, and leave changed in some way, even if very small. Children’s choirs have a unique place in the musical process, being equally education- and performance-based. Bagan understands the role she has to play in a complex concert like this: “When it comes to working with the choir on a particular song and the text highlights a significant and catastrophic event from the past such as the Holocaust, there is absolutely a responsibility for the conductor to make space in the preparation of the music for the choir to engage with the story,” she shares. “[We have] to consider all that is being expressed and the implications it has for the future.” The management skills necessary to balance this educational and narrative process can easily become unbalanced in the pursuit of performance-readiness. “It is so easy for rehearsal minutes to be consumed with simply learning and polishing the notes,” she says. “And yet choral performances can really only come alive when the singers know the story that they are collectively expressing and the reason for singing it in the first place.

“While War and Remembrance are overarching themes, the concert is designed as just that – a concert and not a ceremony,” says Bagan. There are works by many female Canadian composers on the program including Lydia Adams’ gentle and simple arrangement of In Flanders Fields, Eleanor Daley’s flowing rendition of An Irish Blessing, and Sarah Quartel’s focused, bright Lux aeterna, a sonic setting of Vancouver Island sky from her four-part Sanctum. Bagan has also found an arrangement of After the War with words and music by Canadian actor Paul Gross and David Keele. The song was made popular by local Toronto artist Sarah Slean in the 2008 WWI film, Passchendaele.

Like Chilcott, Bagan has some insights, as well, on the new generation: “It seems to me that young people are more likely to [be] educated by their families, friends and teachers, facing new, complex issues, which were oversimplified for us in the past.” Bagan sees their intelligence and compassion firsthand: “Their thoughts go to the people their own age who are affected by the devastation of war as well as human suffering in all forms, from residential schools to modern-day slavery to famine and injustice at local, national, and international levels. …They’re more aware of the importance of considering multiple perspectives, less likely to assume a Commonwealth allegiance, and are genuinely grappling with how to be peacemakers in their communities.” Music is a good place to start.

Bagan raises another aspect of conflict that is often lost in commemorations – refugees. “I know that some of our choristers’ families have personally sponsored refugees which brings such a different perspective on war and peace than my experiences as a child, listening to my grandfather tell stories about the war.” This contemporary reality is striking. The major conflicts may not be physically in our neighbourhoods, but in a diverse city like Toronto, you’re never far removed from someone who has personal experience of some conflict around the world.

“Resonant Reflection presents a wide range of styles of music with some weighty history, sincere conviction, as well as hope and happiness,” says Bagan. “It is a way of engaging with the past and gradually understanding it a little more with each passing year through reflection, poetry, songs and communal moments that stay with us.”

These children though, are contributing more than just their voices in the service of healing. Some of the proceeds from the concert will benefit the East End Refugee Committee Fund.

The Bach Children’s Chorus and Bach Chamber Youth Choir present “Resonant Reflection,” a benefit concert for the East End Refugee Committee Fund featuring songs of remembrance and winter seasonal music. November 10 at 7:30pm. St. John’s Norway Church, Toronto. 

CHORAL SCENE QUICK PICKS

NOV 3, 7:30PM:. The Guelph Chamber Choir presents “Haven: Music of Protection and Peace.” As the search for Gerald Neufeld’s replacement as artistic director continues, one of the contenders, Patrick Murray, takes the helm of the choir for this concert as part of the Passing the Baton: The Search for Our Next Conductor series. St George’s Anglican Church, Guelph.

NOV 8 AND NOV 10, 8PM: The Toronto Symphony Orchestra presents Benjamin Britten’s masterwork War Requiem. With soloists Tatiana Pavlovskaya, Toby Spence and Russell Braun, and the massed power of the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir and the Toronto Children’s Chorus. Bramwell Tovey takes the baton. Roy Thomson Hall.

NOV 17, 7:30PM AND NOV 18, 3PM: The Grand Philharmonic Chamber Singers present the Canadian premiere of Craig Hella Johnson’s masterpiece, Considering Matthew Shepard. 20 years have passed since Matt Shepard was beaten and left tied to a fence to die in rural Wyoming. His remains were recently interred at the National Cathedral in Washington DC in respect. Humanities Theatre, University of Waterloo, Waterloo.

Remember to look ahead into December for holiday music concert listings at thewholenote.com. Many performances will start to sell out by the time you get the December issue in your hands!

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

In this month’s column we have two arts organizations taking on Slavic traditions and history. Pax Christi Chorale presents “Slavic Devotion” and Vesnivka Choir leads a commemorative concert for the 85th anniversary of the Holodomor.

Members of Pax Christi ChoralePax Christi Chorale: Slavic Devotion

Inseparable from Slavic history is the relationship of Orthodox Christianity in the region. The traditions of Slavic Orthodoxy are distinct from those of Western Europe, with the sphere of influence having been Constantinople rather than Rome. In the deep ritual and spirituality of the Orthodoxy, we find many of the great Eastern European composers. Two are featured by artistic director David Bowser: Stravinsky’s A Symphony of Psalms; and Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise and All Night Vigil.

“Slavic Devotion’ refers to the spirited expression of sacred and secular Slavic music,” replies Bowser in response to a few of my questions. “We are presenting Russian, Ukrainian and Bulgarian music to demonstrate a rich variety and beauty in contrasting styles.”

This is not a religious concert in the typical spiritual sense. Bowser has assembled these works to display the rich musical history of Slavic music and the languages, which he describes as “beautifully fluid and melodic.”

“The Symphony of Psalms is the perfect musical pairing for Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil,” says Bowser. “They are both conventional works in some ways, but the bright spark of personality and unique genius shines through. Like Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky before him, Stravinsky rejected much of the Orthodox Church’s teachings and generally did not attend church in his adult life. But these composers found a unique musical voice to express their personal spiritual culture and artistic link to tradition.”

Many choral composers, while not overtly religious, have worked within the space of the spiritual. Of the grand choral works that one can name offhand, a good bunch of them are masses or requiems. “Just as there is no political statement in this program, there is no religious one either,” shares Bowser. “It’s about the impact of beautiful art and vocal vibration on the audience. We are performing sacred and secular works not to recreate their social function but to reveal their beauty in a new light.”

With a strong Ukrainian tradition in Toronto, there are many descendants and members of the diaspora who continue to shape and influence music. Pax Christi Chorale is joined by Natalya Gennadi, a popular presence in the Toronto opera scene. Gennadi and Bowser have collaborated before. He shares: “I have known Natalya for many years ever since she was a selected soloist in the Toronto Mozart Vocal Competition, now called the Toronto Mozart Master Class Series. She is a stunning singer with incredible technique and wonderfully expressive investment in the text.”

Gennadi made a name for herself as the lead in the Tapestry Opera production of the new opera Oksana G. in May 2017. A Russian language and literature specialist, Gennadi’s thorough comfort in the Russian and Ukrainian languages and tradition will be well-suited to this concert. For Bowser, this is a chance to work together again” “We have been looking for a project and her expertise in Russian and Ukrainian repertoire and language gave us an opportunity to highlight the great works from this part of the world,” he says.

Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise contains no actual words. The ethereal sounds on beautiful open vowels allow Gennadi to evoke, inspire and create a narrative of her own making through the music. Unlike instrumental music, which exists without consonants and vowels, the physical function of singing is usually a carefully articulated rhythmic roadmap of deftly shaped words. Allowing yourself the indulgence of experiencing gorgeous vocal lines free of the constraints of words has a universality of the effect that may surprise even the most experienced choral listener. Paired with the stunning All-Night Vigil, listeners will find themselves transfixed. “These are extraordinary works for the human voice,” says Bowser. “The synchronized vibration of 100 voices makes this experience all the more satisfying.

October 17 at 7:30pm and October 28 at 3pm. Pax Christi Chorale performs Slavic Devotion. With guest soprano Natalya Gennadi. Grace Church on-the-Hill.

Vesnivka ChoirVesnivka Commemorates the Holodomor

Under the iron fist of Stalin’s Soviet Russia, millions of Ukrainians died from government-sponsored famine, neglect and isolation during peacetime. Restricting people from escaping famine-stricken communities, imposing total government control of food production, confiscating food and restricting community access to it, the Soviet government created the conditions for famine and millions died.

Writing together, artistic director Halyna Kondracki and executive member Lesia Komorowsky responded to a few of my inquiries about the commemorative concert. Chorister Valentina Kuryliw also provided comments. Their knowledge and gracious sharing of history show a connection and thoughtfulness bridging the important acts of memory, religion and music.

In 2003 and 2008, the choir commemorated the 70th and 75th Holodomor anniversaries, respectively. As Kondracki and Komorowsky share: “It is important to keep the memory of this event alive so that future generations learn about it and understand what can happen under the rule of tyranny and media censorship.”

(Compare the frightening reality of our current world in the genocide of Yazidis, the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingyas, and the targeting of women and children by Boko Haram in Nigeria. Many of the horrors we wish would stay in the past continue forward into our present and future.)

Of the Holodomor, Kuryliw notes that for Ukrainians who survived, “No one was allowed to mourn for these people. It was forbidden to mention the famine in Soviet Ukraine for generations. The memory of it was erased from history under the Communists.” As Kuryliw notes, Ukrainians are particularly sensitive to the annexation of Crimea, properly Ukrainian territory, by Russia. For those still in the Ukraine and for the diaspora, remembering events like the Holodomor is “a testimony of the resilience to survive despite starvation, deportations and executions – all attempts to destroy [us].”

Music has been a way to keep many of those traditions alive. “Music is an integral part of Ukrainian culture and, in particular, a strong choral tradition,” say Kondracki and Komorosky. “From the very beginning when Ukrainian pioneers came to Canada, they organized in order to keep their cultural traditions alive in the diaspora. In almost every Ukrainian-Canadian community throughout Canada you will find choirs, bands, orchestras and dance groups. The Ukrainian community in and around the GTA has long been a strong bastion of Ukrainian culture with its many community and church choirs.”

It is no accident that Vesnivka is celebrating its 53rd year of music making.

For this commemoration, Kondracki has programmed an entirely Ukrainian concert. Many Ukrainian composers have written works to commemorate the Holodomor. Evhen Stankovych’s Requiem will be performed as well as Hanna Havryletz’s My God, why have You abandoned me? The late Ukrainian-Canadian composer Zenoby Lawryshyn’s Tryptych: In Memoriam to the Victims of Holodomor will also be performed. Lawryshyn was a dear friend of the choir and created many works for Vesnivka over the years. And treasured local Ukrainian-Canadian composer Larysa Kuzmenko’s Voice of Hope will be performed with soprano solo by Antonina Ermolenko accompanied by the Gryphon Trio.

Recognizing the Slavic Orthodoxy is inseparable from the Ukrainian-Canadian experience. Sacred music composer Roman Hurko is of Ukrainian Canadian descent. Educated at the University of Toronto and Yale University, his speciality has been composing for the Byzantine Rite, still the major form used by Slavic Orthodoxy. The historical rootedness of his composing was brought forth in his major work Requiem/Panachyda, written to commemorate another Ukrainian historical moment – the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl. The choirs will sing Eternal Memory, an excerpt from the Requiem.

This commemorative concert fits into the musical tradition of the community who have long marked important moments with music. “In addition to previous concerts commemorating Holodomor,” Kondracki and Komorosky write, “Vesnivka Choir has spearheaded or taken part in four concerts commemorating the Chernobyl disaster. Following the Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine in 1986, many Ukrainian musicians in Canada and abroad wrote music, including requiems, commemorating this event. Other commemorative concerts have included remembering the Ukrainian Army of WWI, the arrival of Ukrainian pioneers in Canada, the 100th anniversary of Ukraine’s independence in 1918, and several concerts in tribute to various Ukrainian composers and literary figures.”

The church continues to be an important part of the Ukrainian-Canadian tradition and Vesnivka continues that work. And never far form their work is the Orthodox Rite. At their religious home of St Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic Church, Vesnivka bring forth all the history and memory of what it means to be Ukrainian and Canadian.

On October 21, 2018, Vesnivka will join other dignitaries and guests at the unveiling of the Toronto memorial to the victims of the Holodomor. Led by the Toronto Ukrainian Association, the new memorial will stand just north of the Princess Gates to Exhibition Place.

October 28, 5pm. Vesnivka and the Toronto Ukrainian Male Chamber Choir present “Commemorating Holodomor.” With special guests the Elmer Iseler Singers, the Gryphon Trio and soprano Antonina Ermolenko. Runnymede United Church, Toronto. 

CHORAL SCENE QUICK PICKS

OCT 10, 7:30PM: Chorus Niagara presents Brahms’ great work: Ein Deutsches Requiem (A German Requiem). With the Avanti Orchestra and soloists. Chorus Niagara, under Bob Cooper, is a fantastic ensemble bringing fine choral music to the Niagara region. FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre, St Catharines.

OCT 27, 7:30PM: The Orpheus Choir of Toronto performs the music to the 1924 silent film Peter Pan. This is a new film undertaking for the choir and will prove to be an exciting addition to the oft-performed Phantom of the Opera. Eglinton St. Georges United Church.

NOV 4, 4PM: The Amadeus Choir presents “The Great War: A Commemoration.” Featuring Gabriel Faure’s Requiem and joined by guests, the Eglinton St. George’s Choir and soloists. This is an earlier option for those looking to catch commemorations for Remembrance Day. Eglinton St .George’s United Church.

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

Lucas Harris. Photo by Scarlet O'Neill.All it takes is one person with initiative and a few friends to start a choir.” The speaker is Lucas Harris, current artistic director of the Toronto Chamber Choir (TCC). The person he is talking about is Annegret Wright whose initiative it was, five decades ago, to get the TCC started. Not many arts organizations can sustain themselves for decades, and 50 years is a remarkable feat, requiring not just loyalty to an organization’s founder but also the ability to change. Harris is now at the helm, taking the TCC into its golden jubilee, but “[past conductors],Elizabeth Anderson, Mark Vuorinen and David Fallis are all heroes of mine,” says Harris, “and I’m honoured to feature them in this concert.” Together on September 29, the combined forces of these impressive artistic leaders should make the start of the TCC’s 50th anniversary season a celebration to remember.

Harris reaches me by email, providing a glimpse into how the choir retains its awareness of its history. The choir’s archivist, Sharon Adamson, has kept meticulous records, he explains. These include “the choir’s complete membership history, every concert performed, every venue rented, every work sung, every soloist/section lead/instrumentalist hired over the choir’s entire history.” He gives me statistics that can be drawn from the archival work: 177 concert programs, 1500 works performed, 418 members across the decades, 357 instrumentalists hired, and five artistic directors. Impressive.

The work for this concert began last season, and the programming reflects Harris’s awareness of its past. He has programmed “hits by the choir’s all-time favorite composers, including Monteverdi, Purcell, Bach, Britten and more,” he says. There’s even a chorus from Schütz’s Musikalische Exequien (Funeral Music) that was in the very first TCC concert. Other homages include Fallis leading Healey Willan’s three Marian motets. Elizabeth Anderson, a frequent guest conductor of the choir, began rehearsing the concert in March. Harris describes her as “a seasoned church musician with amazing ears (and perfect pitch) and is brilliant at firing up the group to learn music quickly.” As they head back to rehearsals, they’ve already got a head start.

“Because it’s a best of/greatest hits… it’s a lot of repertoire we already know. We started last season when we had some down time,” shares David Barber, a longtime singer in the choir. Barber has also created a new work for the choir, Gaudeamus, adding something new to the mix. It is meant to feel old, though, and fits right into the mix of the flavours that make up the typical repertoire of the choir. “It starts with the Introit of the Gregorian chant and actually goes through the history of the music that this choir sings, all in about five minutes,” continues Barber. He describes the song as including flavours and techniques akin to Machaut, Tudor, Byrd, Tallis, Purcell and much more. This combination of the old and the new fits well for the choir. It’s a unique value proposition that TCC offers that other choirs don’t. Barber describes the versatility: “We’re one of the few choirs that specializes in early music, with a bridge to the contemporary when we can find a connection. Certainly, it’s been a speciality of this choir.”

Harris has further thoughts on the longevity of the choir and what it has to offer. “I think that the most important factor keeping our music-making fresh is the enormous amount of repertoire there is to explore … even just within Baroque and Renaissance music,” says Harris. Much can be said about the bridging of the old and the new in creative ways.

Under Harris’s leadership, the ensemble is embracing some innovative programming. With a modernization of the “Kaffeemusik” format, the choir’s Sunday afternoon performances have taken on a new life with multimedia, narrators and actors. The goal is “to explore something broader than just the music … to add historical and/or social context to the music,” shares Harris. He’s excited about previous forays into Eastern European and Scandinavian music, and a special focus on female composers prior to Clara Schumann.

“We’re also partnering with more diverse artists in order to explore beyond our usual repertoire,” he continues. The list of upcoming guests is impressive and exciting. The Nathaniel Dett Chorale, soprano/conductor Teri Dunn, tenor Charles Daniels, musicologists, and even First Nations language specialists are part of the plans. Harris continues to look both to the old and the new in programming. “There is still so much more music out there to explore … I’m keenly aware of this every time I visit a good music library and just pull volumes of music off the shelves. Even after two decades of specializing in early music, I humbly realize that I have only experienced the tip of an iceberg,” he says.

The rest of the season will include many more collaborations and explorations of new and challenging programs. For now though, it’s a chance for the ensemble to take 50 years of history and have a great time. “The goal is to bring the TCC family together and celebrate its history,” says Harris. “It is really about celebrating the TCC’s extended family by bringing together as many former members, directors, soloists/section leads and other friends.” It’s a big family too, with over 400 members from seasons past and 17 years of an apprentice program with the Rosedale School for the Arts. Alumni of the choir have been invited to join in the program, and will beef up some of the performances in the second half of the concert. “Even more than the music itself, I’m looking forward to this as a community event,” says Harris. “It will be a gathering of people whose love of early music caused them to be connected to this extraordinary organization at some point in their lives.”

Fifty years ago, all it took was a few friends around Annegret Wright (far left) to start a new choir.Fifty years ago, all it took was a few friends around Annegret Wright to start a new choir. 177 concert programs and 1500 works performed later, the Toronto Chamber Choir begins its 50th anniversary season in fine style and esteemed company – with the prospect of much more ahead.

The Toronto Chamber Choir presents “Music & Friendship” September 29 at 8pm at Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre, Toronto. See more about upcoming performances of the Toronto Chamber Choir at torontochamberchoir.ca.

Honorary Mention

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra opens its season with a rarely heard choral presentation of Fantasy on Shakespeare’s The Tempest from Lélio, or The Return to Life by Hector Berlioz. The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir joins the TSO under interim artistic director Sir Andrew Davis. September 20 and 22 at 8pm; September 21 at 7:30pm. Roy Thomson Hall, Toronto.

A choir for you!

At the start of every season I always encourage readers to get out there and join. Whether you sing or not, there’s a choir for you in this city. The WholeNote maintains a database of choirs across the region known as the Canary Pages – available on thewholenote.com under the “Who’s Who” tab. Here are just some of the many options:

Accessible Community – City Choir
Adult Female – Penthelia Singers
Adult Male – Forte - Toronto Gay Men’s Chorus
Barbershop – Toronto Northern Lights
Casual – Choir! Choir! Choir!
Chamber Choir – Exultate Chamber Singers
Contemporary – That Choir
Early Music – Toronto Chamber Choir
East York – VOCA Chorus of Toronto
Etobicoke – Etobicoke Centennial Choir
Everyone – Univox
Gospel – Toronto Mass Choir
Inclusive – Singing Out!
Mississauga – Mississauga Festival Choir
Opera – Toronto City Opera Chorus
Richmond Hill – Chorus York
Rock – newchoir
Scarborough – Ruckus: the UTSC Alumni and Community Choir
Social Justice – Echo Women’s Choir
Youth (Mississauga) – Resonance Youth Choir (See Mississauga Festival Choir)
Youth (Toronto) – Toronto Youth Choir

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

The month of May is one of fully ripened choral fruit. At the end of the season for many choirs, these are the signature concerts for many ensembles and in some cases, farewells. I’ve provided some in-depth interviews and insights into a handful of concerts. Check out the Choral Canary Pages and learn about choirs in your area – and check out the listings for a more extensive list of concerts this month.

The Tallis Choir Celebrates 40 years: Rise Up my Love!

The Tallis Choir concludes their 40th anniversary season. Artistic director Peter Mahon spoke to The WholeNote about what to expect: “As we wrap up our 40th anniversary season, we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the death of Healey Willan and we offer a belated salute to our nation at the tail end of the 150th anniversary of Confederation with music by Canadian composers including Stephanie Martin, Eleanor Daley and Matthew Larkin” (all of whom reside in Toronto, as Mahon points out).

Mahon has a unique connection directly to Willan, whom he describes as “Canada’s best loved composer of church music.” There are few Canadian composers who have had the reach that Willan achieved. “Both my mother and father sang at St. Mary Magdalene,” shares Mahon, “from the time of their arrival in Canada in 1948, until Dr. Willan’s death in 1968 and for many years afterwards.” Willan served as music director at St. Mary Magdalene for almost 50 years. Mahon also remembers being a young chorister who was able to sing with his family in tribute at Willan’s passing: “I was 13 when Dr. Willan died and was privileged to sing at his Requiem Mass, sitting right behind my father in the Ritual Choir.”

“Most church singers in English Canada can name at least one piece by Healey,” says Mahon. “A good majority of them would also say that they can probably sing Rise Up My Love from memory. Such is the universal appeal of Willan’s music. For the most part, he wrote miniature gems, designed for the liturgy of the Church of St. Mary Magdalene, but choirs across the country and beyond sing them regularly… Speaking personally, I grew up listening to Willan’s music at St. Mary Magdalene, so it is in my blood.” Willan’s music anchors this all-Canadian presentation of music for Tallis’ 40th anniversary.

May 12, 7:30pm. The Tallis Choir presents “Milestones.” St. Patrick’s Church, Toronto.

Schola Magdalena: Votes for Women!

Still on the subject of Church of St. Mary Magdalene, Stephanie Martin, the ever-thoughtful composer and conductor-extraordinaire, has noted the upcoming centenary of 100 years since the first Canadian women were permitted to vote for the federal government. Martin and the six-member Schola Magdalena will be singing an all-female-composer concert to mark the event. “A small departure from our usual fare, like Hildegard of Bingen and Brigitte of Sweden,” Martin says, “the concert will also include some modern Toronto music from female composers,” including Martin’s own Missa Lumen, and from soprano Gabrielle McLaughlin. The feature of the evening will be Martin’s Te Deum, which she describes as a song whose “text conjures up so many visual images of martyrs, angels, joy and judgment.”

Schola Magdalena. Photo by Iain LoweAlthough 1918 marked the first time that certain Canadian women were permitted to vote, it wouldn’t be until 1960 that all women in Canada were included in the right to suffrage. (Women of colour, Indigenous women and anyone with mental or physical disabilities were excluded until that time.) Women’s voting rights ties into another event that Martin is exploring. Her upcoming opera Llandovery Castle tells the story of “nurses who served in WWI on the Llandovery Castle hospital ship. [They] were able to vote earlier than other women because they were officers. They could vote federally in 1914.”

While we have much to appreciate in universal suffrage in our contemporary Canada, we would do well to remember that it wasn’t always this way. Stephanie Martin brings history into focus with her thoughtful approach to composition and music.

May 23, 8:15pm. Schola Magdalena presents Celebrating 100 Years of Votes for Women in Canada. Church of St. Mary Magdalene, Toronto.

Upper Canada Choristers and Cantemos Latin Ensemble: La Rosa de los Vientos

For many newcomers to Canada, with family, children, partners, and friends far away, love can feel distant – strong, but distant, explains Jacinto Salcedo, coordinator of the Cantemos Latin Ensemble speaking to The WholeNote about the words he wrote in the poem: La Rosa de los Vientos (The Wind Rose). “This is a recurrent theme for immigrants. Often, families are split, but you still love them, care for them, and want the best for them,” he shares. “It is nostalgic and touching.” For the tenth anniversary of the ensemble, the poem has been set to music by César Alejandro Carrillo, a very well-known Venezuelan choral composer and conductor. Carillo is especially known for his work with the Orfeón Universitario of the Central University of Venezuela.

With 12 singers taken from the ranks of the Upper Canada Choristers (UCC), Cantemos endeavours to bring the sounds of Latin American heritage to Toronto audiences. “Ten years ago, the UCC wanted to feature one or two [Latin American] songs in a concert,” Salcedo shares. “It became a natural evolution to continue exploring the richness of the music. We’ve done Latin music that is sacred, secular, dance, Christmas, and modern pieces that aren’t as well known. It’s become a need to keep doing this. We’re always curious and interested in knowing more of our culture and sharing it with people.”

Cantemos Latin Ensemble. Photo by Daniel CharltonThe Upper Canada Choristers, under Laurie Evan Fraser, have a big offering with their “Magic of Music” concert. In addition to Cantemos, guest baritone Bradley Christensen and the Junior and Chamber Choirs of Allenby Public School will join the performance. Christensen will perform Vaughan Williams’ Five Mystical Songs along with the choir. En masse, the choirs will perform Rutter’s The Music’s Always There With You.

“UCC is about sharing music with the community,” says Salcedo. “We come from all kinds of different professions and interests in life, but [singing] is the common ground that we love and nurture.” Next year, the choir goes on tour to Japan with Canadian and Latin repertoire. “We want to keep exploring new rhythms, new songs. We are now at the point where we can be more well known. I think the level of quality and musicianship we’re getting will help us in the next ten years.”

May 11, 8pm. The Upper Canada Choristers and Cantemos Latin Ensemble present “The Magic of Music.” Grace Church on-the-Hill, Toronto.

Celebrating the Human Voice: SING! The A Cappella Festival

SING! The Toronto Vocal Arts Festival co-artistic directors Suba Sankaran and Dylan Bell present a packed schedule this year, with ten days that explore the magic of a cappella music. Sankaran chatted with The WholeNote: “It’s cool again to be singing in Glee clubs, in barbershop ... Through Pentatonix or Pitch Perfect, or Glee, it’s cool to be singing.”

FreePlay Duo: Suba Sankaran and Dylan Bell. Photo by Edward HanleyThere’s an astounding lineup. Part of the festival I’m flagging: artists FreePlay Duo (which is Sankaran and Bell); hugely popular all-male Rockapella; Retrocity, a local 80s group; an all-female concert featuring the Penthelia Singers and Girl Pow-R with others; and Resound, a totally unbelievable gospel trio who will drop your jaw and melt your heart.

For new attendees, Sankaran has some tips. “Take in one of the weekend shows,” she says. “It will give you a chance to experience a workshop or two, go to the outdoor free stage, drink in some of the a cappella artists, and then go to an evening show.” In one concert, three groups are celebrating their 20th anniversaries: Retrocity, the Toronto Northern Lights and Cadence. It’s a great introduction to the “spectrum” of a cappella as Sankaran describes it, including barbershop, jazz and contemporary.

SING! The Toronto Vocal Arts Festival offers big weekend concerts, a free outdoor stage, and intimate performances in small venues like the Jason George Pub and the Little Trinity Church. There’s a huge breadth of performers representing diverse musical styles and that is a direct reflection of the energy and connections that Sankaran and Bell bring to the table. Local sacred traditions are reflected with “SING! Crossroads,” which features the Ruach Singers and Six 13, both Jewish a cappella worship groups. “SING! Celebrates Gospel” brings in the Christian tradition rooted in Black music of North America. And the multidisciplinary aspect of the festival is reflected with “Art Battle”!

Central to all of this is people making music with nothing but their voices. “The power of the human voice, the fact that it can empower a person, whatever age, whatever ability – that to me is the most important thing. It truly is a universal language, especially when you get into a cappella,” says Sankaran. “Your voice is like your fingerprint. It’s completely unique. People can try and imitate you but they can never be you, they can never breathe like you.”

Make sure to check out ten days of empowering a cappella music.

SING! The Toronto Vocal Arts Festival runs from May 23 to June 3 in a variety of venues, mostly centred around the Distillery District, Toronto. Check out www.singtoronto.com for all the offerings.

Exultate Chamber Singers: “We Sing and Connect”

Last month, I wrongly reported that Hilary Apfelstadt’s final concert with the Exultate Chamber Singers was at their April 6 concert. There is one remaining program in the season, however: “We Sing and Connect,” which takes place on Friday May 25 and Saturday May 26.

May 25 and May 26, 8pm. Exultate Chamber Singers presents “We Sing and Connect.” With special guests the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre Adult Choir (May 26 only). St. Thomas’s Anglican Church, Toronto. 

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

Emotion is at the core of every musical performance and storytelling is at the heart of emotion. Sometimes the stories can be esoteric, sometimes they are obvious, sometimes they challenge us to find them. There is an extra dimension that conductors put into their concerts when programming songs that tell a story to evoke certain feelings. Take in a well-constructed choral concert this month and see the part that musical storytelling plays. I’ve highlighted a few below.

“I’ll be Your Refuge”

“Music has a way of softening the edges around a message, of getting at its true emotional core, and of transmitting that to a broad range of people,” says Annabelle Chvostek, JUNO-nominated singer-songwriter and artist-in-residence for Echo Women’s Choir. She continues: “Having music carry ideas can make things feel less preachy or didactic. It’s just giving it from the heart.” Chvostek is answering some of my questions by email. I’ve asked her about her experiences creating and adapting her solo music for Echo Women’s Choir.

Annabelle Chvostek - photo by Ximena GrisctiI’ll Be Your Refuge is Chvostek’s feature song that gives the Echo Women’s Choir spring concert its title. This isn’t Chvostek’s first time writing or arranging music for Echo. She has adapted her songs Black Hole and Firewalker for them, amongst others. But “this year is the first time I am actually presenting a song that is a choral song first. I’ll Be Your Refuge is a song I want to be singing, but it is so much more poignant to do it with the intent and attention of these women supporting its delivery. And it was a magical process to have room for four vocal parts to carry it instead of my one.”

The story she’s telling here is one that is deeply personal for her. Her partner is a former refugee and Chvostek is sharing a story of acceptance, belonging and open arms. “Observing the global refugee crisis of the last few years has been powerful. Some of the most moving news moments for me have been around [refugees], including watching Canadian families and communities respond to the crisis with openness and generosity,” she continues.“And frustratingly, some people respond with fear.” Echo is sharing this music to move beyond fear.

Echo is unlike any other choir in the city that I’ve met. It is a gathering of female-identified voices rooted in a compassion and drive for social justice. Their concerts are community gatherings centred around music, much of which is uniquely arranged for Echo by Alan Gasser. Becca Whitla and Gasser are co-directors with Chvostek. They want you to think and be challenged by their music and storytelling. There is deep thoughtfulness behind the music they program and the issues they want you to confront.

Echo Women's Choir - photo by Katherine FleitasDene singer Leela Gilday comes to Toronto as the choir’s special guest. Based out of Yellowknife, Gilday shares stories and describes herself as having “a sense of humour as well as a sense of social justice and an ironic appreciation of human folly.” Her music and stories will be welcomed by the choir.

“Music is one way we can express the things that we hope will contribute to a fairer, more just society,” says Chvostek. “One that cultivates joy within all its diversity of expression. Music can actually get at things in a way that words alone can’t.”

Echo Women’s Choir presents “I’ll be Your Refuge” with special guest Leela Gilday and co-directors Becca Whitla, Alan Gasser and Annabelle Chvostek, Sunday April 29 at 3pm, at Church of the Holy Trinity, Toronto.

Now the Guns Have Stopped

For the Oakham House Choir upcoming concert “Better is Peace than Always War,” artistic director Matthew Jaskiewicz has paired Karl Jenkins’ The Armed Man and Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem. Two distinct works, they are companion pieces in their ability to channel a message of peace in the form of a mass. The concert’s title comes from the opening words of the 12th and final movement of Jenkins’ piece. The Armed Man is popular amongst community choirs for its universal message of peace and its musical accessibility. The work includes poetry by Rudyard Kipling, Jonathan Swift and Sankichi Tōge, a Japanese survivor of the Hiroshima bombing by the USA. The hymn L’homme armé, for which the work is named, is based on an ancient tune. The hymn tells us “the armed man should be feared,” a warning against those who carry and use weapons.

Paired with The Armed Man, Jaskiewicz has chosen the Fauré Requiem. A beloved staple of French music and the requiem canon, this is a mass for the dead. Put into the context of a call for peace, this requiem performance will not be used for actual commemoration. Audiences will instead be challenged to think about the areas of the world plagued by conflict at this very moment. And as we approach the centenary of the end of World War I, it serves to remind us of past conflicts as well. This concert commemorates the end of the First World War and is a collaboration with the European Union consulates in Toronto. Members of the armed forces from the Scottish Regiment and Haller’s Army (Blue Army) will be in attendance. Oakham is also pleased to welcome the Novi Singers of Toronto to this performance.

Oakham House Choir Society presents “Better is Peace Than Always War” on April 28, 7:30pm, at Metropolitan United Church, Toronto.

“Let there be light!”

Pax Christi Chorale is joined by the Toronto Mozart Players for a presentation of Haydn’s masterpiece oratorio: Die Schöpfung (The Creation). The Creation represents the highest form of oratorio,” shares David Bowser, artistic director of Pax Christi, via email. “It was written with love for the listener. Haydn paints colourful and vivid musical depictions of darkness and light, water and weather, plants, birds, animals and people, all framed in grand angelic choruses.”

David BowserBowser is presenting the work in its original German because the “text is closer to today’s spoken German, and gives the music a more buoyant phrasing and crisper articulation. It should be underlined that neither Haydn nor van Swieten, who wrote both versions, spoke English with any fluency and the settings are clumsy,” he says. Many a chorister has frowned when confronted with the awkward English of “And to th’ ethereal vaults resound” or “achieved” in three syllables. The original German allows the choir to move beyond such awkwardness.

Pax Christi is joined for this concert by Sandy Rossignol, a video artist. Bowser explains the creative process and the reasoning behind the inclusion of this added dimension to the music. “Often audiences are buried in their programs reading along with the text,” he says. “And they are not as connected with the performers. A video of images compiled and manipulated by Sandy will serve as abstract surtitles to assist the audience in following the German text. The music is so visual that Sandy was immediately inspired. He is also incorporating themes of science, equality, diversity and conservation to bring modern relevance to the performance.”

Rossignol’s live visual accompaniment promises to give the concert a unique visual storytelling dimension.

Pax Christi ChoralePax Christi Chorale presents Die Schöpfung (The Creation) with the Toronto Mozart Players, Danika Lorèn (soprano), Charles Sy (tenor), Oliver Laquerre (bass-baritone), and live video performance by Sandy Rossignol on April 28 at 7:30pm, at Grace Church on-the-Hill, Toronto.

QUICK PICKS

Apr 6: Exultate Chamber Singers presents “We Sing and Play!” As noted in last month’s Choral Scene, Dr Hilary Apfelstadt is retiring from the University of Toronto and as artistic director of Exultate. She brings the Toronto Winds to her final concert with Exultate, which features the premiere of Resurgam by Canadian composer Matthew Emery, the choir’s composer-in-residence. Emery has blended Renaissance polyphony with contemporary compositional techniques to create a work for an interesting pairing: voice and small wind ensemble. St. Thomas’s Anglican Church, Toronto.

Apr 28 and 29: DaCapo Chamber Choir and the Orpheus Choir of Toronto present This Thirsty Land. Joined by instrumentalists, the choirs present the local premiere of DaCapo artistic director Leonard Enns’ work This Thirsty Land, recently commissioned and premiered by the University of Guelph. Other smaller works include Toronto-based composer Hussein Janmohamed’s Sun on Water and Norwegian Trond Kverno’s Ave Maris Stella. April 28, 8pm at St. John’s Lutheran, Waterloo, and April 29, 3:30pm at St. Anne’s Anglican Church, Toronto.

Apr 29: Amadeus Choir of Greater Toronto presents “I Saw Eternity.” Artistic director Lydia Adams conducts the choir’s final concert of the season featuring music by Eric Whitacre, Eleanor Daley, Hussein Janmohamed, Stephen Chatman and more. The inspiration for the concert comes from Henry Vaughan’s poem The World, which opens with the lines: “I saw eternity the other night.” Leonard Enns’ and Stephen Chatman’s settings of The World are presented along with other spacious works including Ola Gjeilo’s Serenity and Eric Whitacre’s Water Night. Eglinton St. George’s United Church, Toronto.

May 5: Mississauga Festival Choirs present “Generations,” with the Mississauga Festival Choir, the Mississauga Festival Chamber Choir, their youth choir, Resonance, and their intergenerational choir Raising Voices. The signature work of the evening will be John Rutter’s Mass of the Children. Living Arts Centre, Mississauga.

May 6: St. Anne’s Anglican Choir presents “A Hubert Parry Tribute.” The Junction Trio joins a larger orchestra and the St. Anne’s Choir under music director John-Luke Addison. The concert commemorates 100 years since the death of Sir Charles Hubert Hastings Parry. Royal music aficionados will know him for his coronation anthem I was Glad, which was written for the coronation of King Edward VII in 1902. The famous Anglican hymn Repton, a staple of congregations around the world was set to music by Parry. St. Anne’s Anglican Church, Toronto. clip_image001.png

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

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