BBB-Choral1.jpgLyrical, lush, evocative, and stirring – all words that help describe Sunrise Mass by Ola Gjeilo (pronounced Yay-lo). He is a new composer to me and one that I have been mesmerized by as I delve into his repertoire. First premiered in Oslo, Norway, in 2008, Sunrise Mass has captured the imagination of choirs across the world. It had its Toronto premiere in the final concert of the Orpheus Choir’s 2014/2015 season. But I have the Mississauga Festival Chamber Choir and artistic director David Ambrose to thank for my introduction to Gjeilo’s music as they present this work in “Spring Serenade” on April 2 at 8pm.

Gjeilo is a Norwegian-American composer educated at the Norwegian Academy of Music, Juilliard and the Royal Academy of Music in London. He is composer-in-residence for the popular British a cappella octet – VOCES8 (who were in Ontario last fall on their first-ever Canadian tour which included a stop at the Elora Festival, both in a solo concert and in a joint one with the Elora Festival Singers and Studio de musique ancienne de Montréal in the Bach Mass in B Minor under Noel Edison). Ola Gjeilo himself will be in Toronto in the fall as part of a festival of his work sponsored by the University of Toronto, Orpheus Choir and the Yorkminster Park Baptist Church. Before then, there are lots of opportunities to enjoy his work over the next month – make it to as many as you can!

Gjeilo’s Dark Night of the Soul makes an appearance as part of the Hart House Chorus spring concert, April 3 at 4pm. Conductor Daniel Norman leads the Gjeilo and Haydn’s Missa in tempore belli (Mass in Time of War). For this free concert, donations are being accepted on behalf of Sistema Toronto, a free, accessible childhood music education organization that started in Venezuela. Great Hall, Hart House, Toronto.

The Kingston Choral Society and Kingston Community Strings present “Sunrise: A Musical Celebration.” Gjeilo’s Sunrise Mass will be performed along with Spring from Haydn’s Seasons, selections from Schubert’s Mass No.2 in G Major and Aaron Copland’s The Promise of Living on April 22 at 7:30pm.

The Cantores Celestes Women’s Choir present Gjeilo as part of “Songs of the Universe” on April 23 at 7:30pm. Director Kelly Galbraith features Gjeilo’s Song of the Universal which was inspired by the Walt Whitman poem of the same name. Also included are the world premiere of Sergey Khvoshchinsky’s Hymn to Her Hands and the Canadian premiere of Mozart’s Missa in C Major (Sparrow Mass) arranged for female voices, and more. Cantores will mark this performance with a donation to support Syrian refugees to Toronto. April 23, 7:30pm, Runnymede United Church, Toronto.

Markham’s Village Voices present “Faces of Love,” featuring Gjeilo’s The Ground, an adaptation of the final movement of his Sunrise Mass. Other works include Bernstein’s West Side Story and Whitacre’s Five Hebrew Love Songs. May 7 at 7:30pm.

VOCA Chorus of Toronto presents “Vast Eternal Sky” on May 7 at 7:30pm. Artistic director Jenny Crober has chosen to feature Gjeilo’s Across the Vast, Eternal Sky, a beautiful musical setting to text by Charles Anthony Silvestri, inspired by the idea of a phoenix. The first half of the concert will feature the Fauré Requiem accompanied by the Talisker Players. Other works by Daley, Lauridsen and more promise to make this a most lovely evening.

Just the First Weekend!? On the first weekend of April alone, there is so much happening on the choral landscape it’s almost demoralizing. It’s as if every choir in the region has conspired to compete for your attention. From Kingston to London, there is a performance on everything from Broadway to Gospel. Here are some highlights:

BBB-Choral2.jpgHilary Apfelstadt is well-known in the choral community and has had a hand in the choral education of many conductors and students around town as director of Choral Programs at the University of Toronto. As well as director of several choirs at U of T, she also conducts Exultate Chamber Singers. April 1 at 8pm Exultate presents “Stories of Love and Longing,” featuring Brahms Op. 52 Liebeslieder Waltzes, Palestrina’s Sicut Cervus and several other works by Britten, Vissell, Jeff Enns, Mechem and more on.

On April 3 at 2:30pm, Apfelstadt is back, leading the University of Toronto choral ensembles in “Heart Songs,” an end-of-term concert featuring the University of Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Women’s Chamber Choir and Men’s Chorus. Highlights include music by Timothy Corlis set to a poem by Mohawk poet Pauline Johnson: Heart Songs of the White Wampum (which was a joint commission with Elektra Women’s Choir, Vancouver, and Bella Voce Women’s Chorus, Vermont). Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy will join all the musical forces together. Doctoral Choral Conducting Candidates Elaine Choi (Timothy Eaton Memorial Church), Mark Ramsay (Exultate) and Tracy Wong (Mississauga Festival Youth Choir and Young Voices Toronto) join Professor Apfelstadt in marshalling the choral forces.

The Toronto Northern Lights Chorus is the 2013 Barbershop Harmony Society World Champions. These “Silly plants” (YouTube them, seriously, it’s amazing) made Toronto proud with their award-winning top-place finish at the Air Canada Centre and are returning to defend their title at the international convention in Nashville later this year. They present “Genius of Music” with an ensemble from the Toronto All-Star Big Band on April 2 at 2pm and 7:30pm.

The Toronto Children’s Chorus and the Cawthra Park Secondary School Chamber Choir team up for “Good Vibrations.” The TCC main choir was on tour in Boston and New York City at press time. With stops at Sanders Theatre in Boston, Carnegie Hall in NYC and the Aaron Copland School of Music, they were also invited to sing at the Canadian Consulate for the Prime Minister who happened to be in town. What a treat for those kids! Catch them in action back home on April 2 at 4pm.

Barrie’s Choralfest presents “A Night at the Opera: Bizet’s Carmen in Concert,” featuring the Lyrica Chamber Choir, King Edward Choir, Bravado the Huronia Symphony Orchestra and various soloists. This grand and well-loved work is sure to provide a stellar evening of music. April 2 at 7pm.

Univox and Florivox are two of the busiest and most accessible community choirs out there in Toronto at the moment. Dallas Bergen, founder and artistic director is on a sabbatical, so in his stead, accomplished soprano, Univox sub-conductor and actor Tahirih Vejdani has taken the reins. Vejdani conducts Univox in a presentation of “Everything Beautiful: The Music of Broadway,” featuring cabaret superstar Chris Tsujiuchi and  performers from Theatre 20’s composium and conservatory in hit songs from West Side Story, The Phantom of the Opera and Wicked on April 2 at 8pm.

Florivox, usually helmed by Vejdani, is being led by Gillian Stecyk in “Shadows and Light: A Journey Through Dark Corners and Open Spaces.” In community partnership with Red Door Family Shelter – one of the only shelters in Toronto that accepts families in crisis – Florivox will present songs by Adam Guettel, Leonard Cohen and more on April 3 at 3pm.

The Etobicoke Centennial Choir presents “When Daffodils Begin to Peer,” featuring Paul Halley’s Love Songs for Springtime and Holst’s Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda amongst others on April 2 at 7:30pm.

The Karen Schuessler Singers present “London Composers Exposed! Creativity Up Close and Personal.” Featuring works by local composers, the event is followed by a post-concert reception and a chance to meet the composers and artists on April 2 at 8pm.

Carmina Burana – Carl Orff’s unrivalled musical masterpiece of medieval monkish debauchery – continues to be an impressive display for an effective choir. The Amadeus Choir will doubtless do the work justice, with the added support of the Buffalo Master Chorale and the Bach Children’s Choir on April 3 at 4pm.

Other great works this early spring:

The Elmer Iseler Singers and Toronto Ukrainian Male Chamber Choir join Vesnivka Choir’s “50th Anniversary Gala Concert” on April 17 at 3pm in Glenn Gould Studio. Conductor Halyna Kvitka Kondracki founded the Vesnivka Ukrainian Women’s Choir in 1965.

The Oakville Choral Society presents “Wings of a Dove,” featuring works by Mendelssohn, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms on April 22 and 23 at 7:30pm.

The Achill Choral Society presents “Celtic Spirit,” featuring Irish, Scottish and Eastern Canadian songs including Londonderry Air and Fogarty’s Cove. In true Celtic fashion the Achill Choral Society will be joined by NUÀ, a traditional trio featuring fiddle, guitar and bodhrán (Celtic drum) on April 23 at 3pm in Alliston and April 30 at 7:30pm in Caledon.

Just before the end of the month you can catch the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir’s presentation of Haydn’s The Creation. An ever-popular piece, Haydn’s classical masterpiece fits very comfortably in the ear and is always a treat. Look for me in the tenor section on April 27 at 7:30pm in Koerner Hall.

BBB-Choral3.jpgEcho Women’s Choir presents “Songs of Hope and Resistance: Celebrating May Day and International Workers’ Day.” A bold idea, Becca Whitler and Alan Gasser lead Echo in a variety of labour-themed works including Chilean Victor Jara’s Plegaria a un Labrador (Worker’s Prayer); French revolutionary song Le temps des cerises and more, on May 1 at 3pm.

The combined talent of Chorus Niagara, Choralis Camerata and Chorus Niagara Children’s Choir join with TorQ Percussion Ensemble and pianists Karin Di Bella and Lynne Honsberger in a compact, but-no less powerful version of Carmina Burana on May 7 at 7:30pm. The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir used a similar format in its performance with TorQ in 2012 and it was very effective.

Univox will join Masterworks of Oakville in a presentation of Mendelssohn’s grand Elijah on May 7 at 8pm in Oakville and May 8 at 4pm in Toronto. Always a pleasure to hear, this magnificent piece of music was once more popular than Handel’s Messiah.

Finally, make sure to check out singtoronto.com to see all the fun of Sing! The Toronto Vocal Arts Festival running from May 4 to 15.  We will have much more about this festival in the May issue of The WholeNote.

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

Choral-Banner.jpg“…It’s important that we also treat games as art, and when the opportunity comes along to engage with games as works of art that we take advantage of that opportunity” – Matt Sainsbury, Editor-in-Chief, Digitally Downloaded

2106-Choral_1.pngEaster marks the second busiest time of the year for the choral community, second only to Christmas. But even though much of this month’s column will be devoted to these wonderful musical opportunities, I thought I’d start out by focusing on something not often written about in Toronto – video game music.

The Legend of Zelda Symphony of the Goddesses – Master Quest arrives for one night, March 19, 8pm at the Sony Centre on its international tour. This updated show returns with some of the most iconic video game music ever written, including music from the newest game, “Tri Force Heroes.” It is a massive entertainment event that always sells out, so it doesn’t need our help. But I am highlighting it here for a number of reasons: it is a chance to see a talented female conduct a major work in Toronto; there is a lot of choral music in it and not all of it is English; I have friends who have sung it and really enjoy the energy of the music; normally, travelling shows like this won’t even bother to hire a choir; they’ll just record sung chords to a synthesizer and use that; so this is a nice treat; oh, and it’s really, really fun.

Japan has long embraced both gaming and music, having done live performances of video game music as early as 1991. In 2005, the very first video game concert by the LA Philharmonic in the Hollywood Bowl saw 11,000 attendees. In 2011 and 2012, the London Philharmonic recorded The Greatest Video Game Music, volumes one and two. These were huge hits and topped classical charts. The widely popular German Symphonic Game Music Concerts take place annually in the Cologne Philharmonic Hall. This is a major art form and an incredible source of new performance opportunities for both choirs and orchestras.

In Zelda, composer Koji Kondo’s music has been arranged into a full four-movement symphony for choir and orchestra with a host of smaller pieces representing 18 games over 30 years. Conductor Amy Andersson touring along with executive producer Jason Michael Paul, leads the Tallis Choir and the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony Orchestra.

Andersson, a former conducting fellow at the Aspen Music School, led the previous Symphony of the Goddesses – Second Quest on its international tour. A conducting veteran of Colorado Light Opera and the National Theatre of Mannheim, Andersson was married to the late Yakov Kreizberg (formerly of the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra) and is sister-in-law to Semyon Bychkov (BBC Symphony Orchestra). Andersson attended Mannes School of Music at the New School with both Bychkov and Kriezberg.

As I mentioned, this ever-popular event is sure to sell out. Fair warning, this isn’t your typical performance; hooting and hollering is expected. Part symphony, part celebration, it’s jovial, fun and full of amazing instrumental and choral music. And definitely dress up; green tunics and fairies will abound.

Easter

One of the highlights of every Good Friday in the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir season is the “Sacred Music for a Sacred Space” concert that takes place annually in St Paul’s Basilica. This year several pieces will be highlighted including Eric Whitacre’s stunning Her Sacred Spirit Soars, a tribute to Queen Elizabeth I; Patrick Hawe’s Quanta Qualia for alto saxophone and choir; and a new commission, Leonard Enns’ I Will Lift Up Mine Eyes for alto saxophone, soprano saxophone and choir. Topping the list is the 2013 TMC commission by Timothy Corlis, God So Loved the World. This work is a textured soundscape that is both passionate and stark. The words are simple but powerful; some of the most poignant from the entire Passion of the Christ. “Pater, dimitte illis, non enim sciunt quid faciunt”: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” opens the seven-movement piece. “Eloi, eloi, lama sabachthani”: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” – in Aramaic and set to a dissonant C-minor chord in the fourth movement of this piece – is particularly moving.

As I have mentioned before, I sing with the TMC, and while rehearsing this Corlis song I found myself musing about the place of religious music in the context of our secular world. Classical music is largely played outside of the context it was created for; masses, for example, form the bulk of grand symphonic choral work – but not everyone can be present at a Herbert Von Karajan-led Mozart Coronation Mass in St Peter’s Basilica (1985). Those familiar with the Roman Catholic Mass, or who went to Catholic school, are acquainted with the tradition and ritual of the mass, and how music often accompanies specific actions and rituals during the liturgy. Most people who attend classical music concerts, specifically, those of a requiem or a mass, are disconnected from the history and the context of these important works. I wonder when a full mass was last played with symphony and choral forces in Toronto.

This year the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir presents “Sacred Music for a Sacred Space” Wednesday, March 23, and Good Friday, March 25. Look for me in the tenor section.

TSO’s Mozart Requiem: I believe Joel Ivany, the Elmer Iseler Singers, the Amadeus Choir, and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra were able to bridge some of the disconnect of hearing sacred music in secular settings with the recent remarkable reimagining of the Mozart Requiem in January during the Mozart @261 Festival. Spectacular music making occurred in those performances and the TSO’s efforts to reach out to a younger and more diverse audience were noticeable and very welcome in the filled Roy Thomson Hall. Ivany focused our eyes on the grief and feelings of loss that come with death. These are universal core values that are relatable to many people. What may often be forgotten when listening to requiem masses is that they were created to accompany actual passing, ending, finality – the ultimate Christian passage for the faithful.

Ivany’s staging reminded me that there does exist a place for a secular mass and ritual in our daily lives and that the same emotions that drive these ancient masses continues to provide important experience and context to us centuries after they were written.

If you wish to see a more conventional Mozart Requiem, your chance comes with the massed skills of the Guelph Symphony Orchestra and the University of Guelph Choirs on March 20 at the Basilica of Our Lady Immaculate, Guelph.

S2106-Choral_2.pngoundstreams Canada features Scotland’s most celebrated composer, Sir James MacMillan, with “The Music of James MacMillan.” The Grand Philharmonic Chamber Choir, the University of Waterloo Chamber Choir, Choir 21 and the Virtuoso String Orchestra perform MacMillan’s Seven Last Words from the Cross and other works on March 6 at St Peter’s Lutheran Church, Kitchener. Soundstreams presents a similar program with Choir 21 and Virtuoso String Orchestra in Kingston, March 4, at the Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts. And in Toronto on March 8, at Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre. MacMillan conducts each performance.

Quick Picks

The York University Chamber Choir performs “Musick to Heare” in the Tribute Communities Recital Hall, Accolade East Building on Mar 9. Featuring music inspired by Shakespeare’s comedies, tragedies and sonnets, Robert Cooper leads the choir in George Shearing’s jazzy Songs and Sonnets, Ralph Vaughan Williams Serenade to Music, and other inspired works by Canadian composers Allan Becan, Berthold Carriere and Michael Coghlan.

The Queen’s University Symphony and Choral Ensemble and the Perth Choir perform Schubert’s Mass in C D462 and other works on Mar 18 in Grant Hall, Queen’s University, Kingston, in celebration of Queen’s 175th anniversary and the Town of Perth’s 200th.

The Kingston Symphony performs Beethoven’s Symphony No.9 on Mar 19 and 20, at the Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts, Kingston. The first half of the concert will examine sections of the work, its poetic source and inspiration, the influence it has had and explore “Why is this symphony so good?” all hosted by KSA conductor Evan Mitchell.

Voices Chamber Choir presents “Light Eternal” including Duruflé’s Quatre motets sur des thèmes Grégoriens, Gounod’s Ave Maria, Saint-Saëns’ Quam dilecta, and Fauré’s Requiem and Cantique de Jean Racine on Mar 19, at the Church of St Martin-in-the-Fields. This is a lovely chance to catch a wonderful collection of French masterworks.

Last month I mentioned the multimedia presentation of the Bach Mass in B Minor concurrent to the Bastian Clevé film The Sound of Eternity by the Orpheus Choir and Chorus Niagara in St Catherines, Mar 5, or in Toronto Mar 6, at Metropolitan United Church. For a more conventional performance, the Grand Philharmonic Chamber Choir presents the Bach Mass in B Minor on Mar 25, at the Centre in the Square, Kitchener.

Metropolitan United Church has a lovely Mar 25 lineup titled “Requiem: In a Time of Sorrow.” Featuring Bach’s Cantata No.78, Brahms’ Alto Rhapsody and Requiem, with several soloists I enjoy, including Claudia Lemcke, Jordan Scholl and the clear, strong tenor of Charles Davidson. I’d be at this performance if I weren’t performing “Sacred Music for a Sacred Space” with the Mendelssohn Choir.

And finally, Mar 31 at Koerner Hall, the Elmer Iseler Singers and Esprit Orchestra present a concert titled “La création du monde,” after the instrumental work of the same name by Darius Milhaud which opens the program. Highlight of the evening is Soul and Psyche, a new creation for choir and orchestra by Esprit music director, Alex Pauk – a five-movement “contemporary mass” with influences from Inuit poetry, Balinese prayer, and more. This is also a rare chance to catch Hussein Janmohammed’s Nur: Reflections on Light, a collection of choral miniatures inspired by the Ayat an-Nur-Verse of Light from the Qu’ran. Janmohammed’s work was commissioned for the opening of the Aga Khan Museum and the Ismaili Centre and had its world premiere there in 2014, performed by the Elmer Iseler Singers, conducted by Lydia Adams.

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

“Ballet cuts right to the heart of what’s most beautiful, physically in humanity and what’s most beautiful in story. We are taking a very European form and introducing it to a First Nations experience.” – Joseph Boyden

2105-Choral.jpgA remarkable moment in history arrived on December 15, 2015, when the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada presented its final report on the dark history of Indian Residential Schools. Beginning in 2008 the TRC has gathered testimony from 6,000 survivors of, and witnesses to, a 120-year legacy of institutional racism, neglect and destruction. The report makes 94 specific calls to action to help create a better future and to acknowledge and repair the damages of the past and present. The Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s production of Going Home Star – Truth and Reconciliation, which is being presented in Toronto at the Sony Centre for three performances on February 5 and 6, can be seen as a swift response to this call for action.

With the support of the TRC of Canada, the Royal Winnipeg Ballet commissioned a story by author Joseph Boyden to be set to music by composer Christos Hatzis and choreographed by Mark Godden for the RWB’s 75th anniversary. In this story, Boyden, the Giller Award-winning author of Through Black Spruce, brings together Annie, “a young, urban First Nations woman adrift in a contemporary life of youthful excess,” and Gordon, “a homeless First Nations man who escaped the Residential School system … [who] possesses the magic and power of the trickster.” Accompanying the RWB is the the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra. Vocal music is provided by the incredible Tanya Tagaq, Steve Wood and the Northern Cree Singers, with Tagaq’s voice as an ancestral presence, powering Annie’s story and her reconnection to history. The power of voices joined in song is also there in the show, with the Pow Wow of the Northern Cree Singers bringing the final scene of the first act to its culmination, with wild drumming creating the sound of a train. The music is truly invigorating.

The show’s composer, two-time JUNO Award recipient Christos Hatzis, is no stranger to working with Aboriginal peoples, having spent considerable time producing music inspired by the Inuit, including the award-winning radio documentary Footprints in the Snow. During the year he spent working on the music for Going Home Star, he developed anxiety and was briefly hospitalized as he came to terms with the difficult stories that inform the work. It is no light undertaking. As Boyden says “[It’s] a way to allow Canadians to begin to understand something of such huge pain [and] … to absorb not just the pain and the anger but the beauty as well.”

It’s a thought mirrored in the TRC report itself: “Residential schools were a systematic, government-sponsored attempt to destroy Aboriginal cultures and languages and to assimilate Aboriginal peoples so that they no longer existed as distinct peoples …. Across the globe, the arts have provided a creative pathway to breaking silences, transforming conflicts, and mending the damaged relationships of violence, oppression, and exclusion.”

I will be in the audience for Going Home Star – Truth and Reconciliation, and I hope you will be too.

2105-Choral2.jpgKlang der EwigkeitI am a big fan of cross-disciplinary music collaborations, so I’m very excited to see the Orpheus Choir/Chorus Niagara presentation of the Canadian premiere of German filmmaker Bastian Clevé’s 2005 film, Klang der Ewigkeit (Sound of Eternity), a multimedia presentation of the Bach Mass in B Minor. Consisting of 27 short episodes inspired by the 27 movements of the mass, Clevé’s scenescapes were filmed across the globe from Germany to Morocco, India to the United States. Originally created for Helmuth Rilling at the Bach Oregon Festival, the setting was controversial since the B Minor Mass is beloved by many and thought to be perfect in its existing form. But crossing the lines between music and visual art is not new. Another current example, The Decades Project, unites the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and the Art Gallery of Ontario in an exploration of the ways in which visual art has inspired music and music has inspired visual art. Earlier this year the presentation of Claude Debussy’s La Mer accompanied an impressionist painting by Armand Guillaumin at the AGO.

The Orpheus Choir, along with Chorus Niagara, performs Klang der Ewigkeit with the Talisker Players on March 5 at FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre in St. Catharines and on March 6 at Metropolitan United Church in Toronto.

In the (not very) bleak midwinterThere is so much happening in choral music the first weekend of February, you’ll be hard-pressed to choose:

Tafelmusik’s epic journey to record every Beethoven symphony comes to a head with the most thrilling of them all – Beethoven’s Symphony No.9. As Beethoven’s last symphonic work, and largely, his most popular, Tafelmusik’s Choir and Orchestra will fill Koerner Hall with unforgettable music in four performances beginning February 4.

On February 6, the Toronto Mass Choir, under director Karen Burke, will be presenting a concert in collaboration with the Toronto Jazz Orchestra at Bloor Street United Church at 7:30pm. (And if you miss Mass Choir then, you can catch them later in the month when, along with York University, they  will be hosting “Power Up,” a gospel music workshop. With workshops ranging from Introduction to Steelpan to Choir 101 to instrument coaching to dance, this three-day intensive event runs February 19 to 21, finishing with a concert at Islington Evangel Centre. With live instruments and well over 100 singers, the Toronto Mass Choir will definitely raise the roof.)

Also on February 6, the Mississauga Festival Choir presents its annual “Festival of Friends.” Ten years on, this concert has raised $25,000 for local charities, this year’s beneficiary being Alzheimer Society Peel. Six choirs will be featured including the very well-known Cawthra Park Secondary School Boys in B & Chamber Choir, the Mississauga Festival Chamber Choir, the Mississauga Festival Youth Choir, the Mississauga Choral Society Chorus and the Queensmen Male Chorus. Singing en masse and separately, highlights include Timothy Corlis’ Gloria (Missa Pax), Eric Whitacre’s Water Night and Stephen Hatfield’s Jabula Jesu.

February 7 is even more jam-packed. At 7pm the Victoria College Choir and the Toronto School of Theology Choir present a free performance of Vivaldi’s Gloria in the Victoria College Chapel. Earlier in the day, at 2:30, VOICEBOX: Opera in Concert presents Salieri’s Falstaff at the Jane Mallett Theatrewith the VOICEBOX Opera in Concert Chorus ably supporting a fine cast of soloists. Half an hour later, at 3pm, at Grace Church-on-the-Hill, the U of T Faculty of Music’s New Music Festival presents a “Choral Contemporary Showcase Concert” featuring the U of T Men’s Chorus and Women’s Chamber Choir with Hilary Apfelstadt, Elaine Choi and Tracy Wong conducting. And at 4pm, the Toronto Children’s Chorus is presenting a free outreach concert at St. Paul’s Basilica on Power St., featuring their Chorale Choir and Youth Choir; Elise Bradley and Matthew Otto conduct.

Also of note: Speaking of the Toronto Children’s Chorus, the TCC Chamber Choir will be going on tour in Boston and New York City in early March, performing with Coro Allegro and the Boston City Singers in Cambridge, singing in the Choirs of America Nationals and performing at Stern Auditorium in Carnegie Hall. Before they go, they’ll be warming up in a concert titled “Poles Apart,” February 27 at Yorkminster Park Baptist Church.

The following day, February 28 at 4pm, and right across the road at Christ Church Deer Park, the Toronto Classical Singers and the Talisker Players Orchestra present “Fauré’s Requiem and Duruflé’s Requiem, along with other music these popular pieces have inspired.

Later that same day at 7.30pm, the Schola Cantorum Choir and the Theatre of Early Music Orchestra present choruses from a variety of popular masterworks including Bach’s St. Matthew PassionSt. John Passion and Handel’s Messiah and Israel in Egypt in the Trinity College Chapel at the University of Toronto.

This being a leap year, there’s an extra day in February, and what better way to celebrate it than with the massive 200-voice Bach Children’s Chorus, as part of Roy Thomson Hall’s free noon-hour concerts. These concerts feature the grand organ and are a lovely break from a day’s work.

And on into March, right at the beginning of the month, the Kaleid Choral Festival takes place in Kitchener. Under the leadership of Jennifer Moir, this two-day festival for young voices culminates in a performance on March 3 in St. Peter’s Lutheran Church, Kitchener. Artist-in-residence of the festival, Rajaton, will be performing as well. This small Finnish a cappella group produces music unlike any other heard in Canada. 

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

Choral Scene 1Walter Mahabir greets me with a big hug and a huge smile on his face. We’re in the busy Coffee Pub at the Centre for Social Innovation Annex, the home of The WholeNote. We haven’t seen each other since Luminato’s staging of Apocalypsis where we sang in separate choirs that made up the monumental work. He’s the new assistant conductor of the Orpheus Choir and one of the reasons I’m focusing on emerging conductors this month. He’s younger than I am by a few years and represents the exact kind of fresh air in choral conducting that I’m looking for and that I respond to. He’s young and attractive, has a gentle yet firm approach and even broke into song uninhibited during our interview.

For him, choral music has been fully intertwined with his life from an early age. He’s a proud graduate of the musical halls of St Michael’s Choir School. He has a breadth of experience behind him as well. At York University he studied conducting under Lisette Canton. He’s sung tenor with the Cantabile Chamber Singers, the Canadian Men’s Chorus, the Nathaniel Dett Chorale and the Orpheus Choir.

Jennifer Min-Young Lee: The second individual in this month’s focus is Jennifer Min-Young Lee, the new associate conductor of the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir. As a child she was fully immersed in a hybrid youth leadership, skills-building and education program all revolving around music. Born and raised in South Korea, Jennifer spent many summer and winter breaks immersed in the World Vision Children’s Choir. In 1960, children who lost their parents in the Korean War were organized by World Vision into a choir to share love and hope while building their skills and experience. The legacy of this choir continues to this day. Lee explains that this was how she came to learn and interact with music. This intensive musical experience occupied her every break from school. With a master’s in choral conducting from the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester and an undergraduate degree in music and education from the University of Western Ontario, Jennifer has solid credentials and solid skills.

She’s a powerhouse of a conductor and educator. She laughs nervously as she lists all her musical obligations. It’s a gentle way to express humility. She’s a full-time music teacher at Bur Oak Secondary School in York Region. She helms a vocal program of over 100 students as well as piano majors. Most of her students have never had any formal musical education. She takes them as they are and teaches them key skills as they grow and come to embrace the creativity of music. Beyond teaching she has sung in the Exultate Chamber Singers (who also performed in Apocalypsis) and has served as apprentice conductor for Orchestra Toronto, all on top of her considerable experience in Rochester and London during her studies.

When we think of conductors, our ingrained expectation is someone akin to Leonard Bernstein or Peter Oundjian. While maestros like Bernstein were powerhouses, their vernacular and approach to music were far removed from the average person’s. Lee’s true skill lies not just in her profession, but her ability to teach and reach students without musical education. The fact that she has guided students who previously had no musical experience through years of successful music education is significant and incredibly valuable. These are the kinds of skills and teachings that make a difference in our communities.

Bur Oak is in the heart of a new development and in an area filled with newcomers, mostly from East Asia and South Asia. Many of her students had never had music offered in educational curricula until they came to Canada. These are kids who have no idea who Von Karajan or Bach are, and don’t know music beyond catchy YouTube vids. But these kids understand Lee, watching her conduct and teach. For many of them, singing in a choir is the first time they have ever learned to step back and be part of a greater whole. And some of these kids will one day grow up to lead ensembles of their own.

Every year at the end of January the Toronto Mendelssohn hosts one of a handful of choral conducting symposiums in North America. It is a weeklong intensive event that culminates in a free concert. Rarely does one get to see so many conductors with different styles in play at one time. Over the years, I’ve spent time cataloguing the various physicalities of these conductors. From “lego hands” to “stacking cups” to “the octopus” to “wings about to take flight “ - there is no shortage of physical interpretations and expressions of music. The first performance I ever did of Handel’s Messiah with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra was under guest conductor Christopher Warren Green. At the end of All we like sheep have gone astray the music becomes suddenly sombre and slow after a much faster and energetic beginning. In the last few bars the maestro just held his hands up to the choir with pleading on his face and barely conducted as we sang “the iniquity of us all.” It was incredibly effective. Lee participated in the Choral Conductors Symposium a few years ago before returning to the Mendelssohn Choir in her new role as associate conductor.

Walter Mahabir speaks of his own inspirations on the podium. When I ask him questions about conducting influences he lists many noting Lissette Canton’s precise technicality, Robert Cooper’s balance, and Brainerd Blyden-Taylor’s emotion. Mahabir says he is learning from them all as he finds his own way. He explains that no matter what he does, he sees himself as an entertainer and he enjoys movement as a basketball player and dancer. The physicality of conducting suits his style very well.

Mahabir and I come from similar parts of the city, he from North Etobicoke and I from North Scarborough. These are parts of the city that are socially, economically and racially diverse and in many ways divergent. Transit is minimal, City Hall and Queen’s Park are far away, schools are in disrepair, parents are working multiple jobs, and arts programs are woefully underfunded if they exist at all. These places do not lack culture and community; they are in fact some of the most diverse in the entire country. However, music education is not always prevalent. Mahabir teaches a junior kids choir that was born out of the growth of musical programming offered by the Regent Park School of Music. And he teaches piano in the Jane and Finch neighbourhood. He’s committed to making it more than just a place for after-school hanging out and to turning it into a learning experience where the kids can grow creatively. And he loves it most when he sees the energy and joy they get out of performing – of showing them that they can do it, and they can do it well. Mahabir exudes this energy as does Lee. Their respective students are very lucky indeed.

These two conductors have a breadth of education and experience behind them and ahead of them. Their careers are only better because they represent everything that music needs to be in the coming years – younger, bolder, and diverse.

Choral Scene 2It’s the most wonderful time of the year!

Choirs are on full display with their holiday offerings. It’s a wonderful time for music! Here’s a mix of fun and beautiful highlights:

Jennifer Min-Young Lee can be seen conducting selections at the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir presentation of “Festival of Carols” on December 9 at 7:30pm, Yorkminster Park Baptist Church. David Briggs will be featured on the impressive church organ and the Salvation Army Staff Band will be performing alongside the choir.

Walter Mahabir will be part of the Orpheus Choir presentation of “Welcome Christmas” on December 15 at 7:30pm, Yorkminster Park Baptist Church. They will be performing with the Hannaford Street Silver Band and the absolutely incredible Jackie Richardson.

Singing Out! presents “All I want for Christmas is you.” Toronto’s LGBTQ gender-diverse and voicing-diverse choir performs fun holiday selections on December 5 at 3pm and 7:30pm in the Jane Mallett Theatre. The choir always dances and I’ve been told there will be bells.

Univox presents the gospel cantata Great Joy by Joubert, McElroy and Red, featuring a five-piece band on December 9 and 11 at 8pm in the Al Green Theatre at the Miles Nadal JCC. The band will feature Chris Tsujiuchi on piano who also helms his own “A Very Christ-erical Christmas Cabaret” at the ever-fabulous Buddies In Bad Times Theatre on December 12 and 13 at 7:30pm.

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra and the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir perform Sir Andrew Davis’ grand interpretation of Handel’s Messiah. This year is a special treat as it will be recorded live by Chandos. December 15, 16, 18, 19 and 20, various times, at Roy Thomson Hall.

The Oakville Children’s Choir and the Oakville Symphony Orchestra provide a fun pairing for holiday fun at 1:30pm and 4:30pm on December 13 at the Oakville Centre for the Performing Arts. These annual family fun concerts are audience participation and include some lovely highlights from John Williams’ Home Alone score.

The New Year!

January always provides a quieter month of respite for choristers with the exception of two notable events. One being the aforementioned Toronto Mendelssohn Choir Choral Conductors Symposium free concert on January 30 at 3pm at Yorkminster Park Baptist Church. Second, the Toronto Symphony’s Mozart festival featuring the Amadeus Choir in Mozart’s Requiem on January 21 and 23 at 8pm in Roy Thomson Hall. Special note: Philippe Sly, bass-baritone, is featured in the Requiem and he is one not to miss. 

Please stay in touch! Feedback: choralscene@thewholenote.com or Twitter @thebfchang

Oakville Children's Chorus at the World Choir Olympics in Latvia (2014)The GTA has a host of fantastic children’s choirs. From Oakville to Mississauga, Hamilton and Niagara, these choirs are often-times the entry point for a lifelong engagement with music and the arts. They provide important exercises in strengthening the fabric of social engagement, inside and outside of music, helping to provide key skills as children age and move on to other adventures – some of which may be still be musical. There are some skills essential to choral music that directly benefit later-life experiences, such as knowing when to blend in and be part of a greater whole; paying attention to difficult situations and implementing plans and practices to address them; learning to follow instructions/direction and applying them to your personal situation/physicality; and learning how to engage contructively with people who ignore all these things. There is so much that these ensembles do in creating and building communities.

Here are some of them: The Toronto Children’s Chorus has eight separate choral programs for different skills and levels of engagement including six choirs. The VIVA! Youth Singers are featured every year in the National Ballet’s performances of The Nutcracker and have five ensembles. The Oakville Children’s Choir has seven programs including six choirs. (Artistic director Sarah Morrison led the Oakville Children’s Choir to a double gold finish at the World Choir Games in the Summer of 2015.) The Hamilton Children’s Choir with Zimfira Poloz was featured in R. Murray Schafer’s Apocalypsis during Luminato, as well as the Pan American Games closing ceremonies. These are some of the hardest working choirs out there year after year. And there are many others throughout Southern Ontario.  It’s also important to note that these are also ensembles who have a presence in their communities beyond their membership. The Oakville Children’s Chorus has begun a project in partnership with ErinoakKids, the largest children’s treatment centre for a variety of disabilities. Members of ErinoakKids and the OCC sing together regularly in a glee club that was created to share music. Sarah Morrison speaks of the joy and learning that is shared when choirs reach out into their communities. And, as she says, more often than not, it’s the kids who have the ideas, the energy and the enthusiasm for these collaborations. The Hamilton Children’s Choir also performs regularly for seniors in their communities.

A functional musical vocabulary is another benefit of early involvement in a choir.  As a policy analyst by educational training and trade, I spend a lot of time around people who have no formal musical background. These are not people who don’t have music in their lives – far from it. But they aren’t playing clarinet in a wind ensemble or violin in a string quartet or singing alto in a mixed-voices choir. They have a musical vocabulary made up of words like “rocking,” “energetic” and “soft,” instead of “chromatic,” “largamente” and “that suspension in the time change before the major chord was innovative.” Children’s choirs have an important part to play in the evolution of how larger communities engage in music. Because really, who looks at a bunch of kids singing and goes “Wow. I really don’t like this.” These kids inevitably grow up and in time share their experiences in music with a new generation. Moreover, the skills they learn will continue to serve them and us throughout their lives.

That being said, we should beware of making the jargon of music into a kind of closed door club. I take friends to concerts who have never been or go infrequently to live instrumental or choral music. The musical fabric of the city is built into their lives in bars, pop concerts, street performers and music theatre, but the same cannot be said of instrumental music. On a recent trip to the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s presentation of La Mer and A Sea Symphony, I brought a friend who had been to a symphony only twice before. I gave a briefer on the Sea Symphony and used many of the words that I used in last month’s column: bombastic; imperialistic; grand. This worked for him. For a person untrained in music, who cannot usually tell the difference in sound between a trombone or a horn, or what a cadence is, he understood because he felt it. And this is where the great power of instrumental music lies, in common experience. His vocabulary didn’t need to be RCM certified to convey the commonality of experience. So the languages trained musicians use to communicate widely should not exclude others. The languages of what we could describe as music in the widest sense are as varied and many, as diverse as the living things that make up this planet. One doesn’t need to analyze the pitch and program of toads in the Caledon Hills during mating season to appreciate that something grand and exceptional is happening. Similarly, one can listen to A Sea Symphony and interpret a military sound without knowing that trumpets and snare drums are creating that sound.

It is also worth considering the information we get as to the state of choral music making in our communities not by what the established choirs are doing, but by what is happening on the fringes, and anywhere children and young voices are concerned. Where are younger people engaging with music? EDM, DJ Skratch Bastid, Choir!Choir!Choir, Pentatonix, music theatre and film soundtracks are just some of the sources of music I find my friends going to that aren’t mega-scale, heavily produced pop concerts. And for this, and an even younger crowd, Disney movies continue to be a source of deep and powerful musical tradition (That Choir recently had a Disney-themed cabaret).

In September, That Choir did a season launch that wasn’t a choral performance. This is unusual and welcome in an attempt to build a community of relationships that support a choir and its work. The TSO does this as well, with donors of much more privileged wallets. One day I might make it through the doors of the Maestro Club or the fancy Amex lounge at Roy Thomson Hall. For now, having a drink at No One Writes to the Colonel and singing “I can’t feel my face when I’m with you” by the Weeknd with 100 other people hits the spot pretty well. And importantly, it does for a lot of other people as well.

Children’s Choir Concerts

The Toronto Children’s Chorus is going on tour to Boston and New York City in March 2016. These talented kids will light up the hallowed walls of Carnegie Hall in the Choirs of America National Competition. The Toronto Children’s Chorus presents “Spectral Contrasts” on Saturday November 7, at 4pm, in Calvin Presbyterian Church. Proceeds will go towards the competition.

The Hamilton Children’s Choir will be part of the City of Hamilton’s Remembrance Day ceremonies on November 8, at 10:30am in St George’s Church.

The VIVA! Youth Singers present “Shanti!: Our Native Land” on November 29, at 3:30pm in Trinity-St Paul’s Centre.

The Oakville Children’s Choir presents “Songs for a Winter Night” on Saturday December 5 at 7pm in St. John’s United Church in Oakville.

Chorus Niagara’s Children’s Choir presents “The Time of Snow” at Beacon Christian School on Saturday December 6 at 2:30pm in St Catharines.

Other Concerts

Chorus Niagara is pulling together the McMaster University Choir and the Niagara Symphony Orchestra in presenting “CELEBRATE!: The Explosive Power of 160 Voices in Partridge Hall” on November 7, at 7:30pm in FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre in St Catharines.

Further east, another conglomeration of choirs is assembling for “Choralpalooza,” featuring the Kingston Chamber Choir, She Sings, the Kingston Townsmen, the Kingston Choral Society and Open Voices Community Choir. This will take place November 8, at 12pm in the Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts, Kingston.

Bel Canto is just one of many choirs in Scarborough. They perform “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year” on December 6, at 2:30pm and 7:30pm, in St. Dunstan’s of Canterbury.

Two sets of German choral works are being presented: one by the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir on November 25, at 7:30pm in Koerner Hall; the other by the Hart House Chorus on November 29, at 4pm in the Great Hall of Hart House. clip_image001.png

Please stay in touch! Feedback: choralscene@thewholenote.com or Twitter @thebfchang

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