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. 

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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

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Choral_-_Dett.pngTeddy Abrams is the 28-year-old conductor of the Louisville Orchestra. His youth is not for a lack of experience and talent. At the end of the summer he was featured by PBS as the youngest artistic director of a major American orchestra. He spoke of many philosophical questions that are affecting live instrumental music. One in particular has stuck with me, and that’s his belief that artistic organizations need to continue to create a positive direction for our society. He challenges himself and his musicians to think about the ways in which they can bring together, collaborate with and energize the communities they touch. And he sees important elements of civic, social and political life in music.

These big questions are inevitably lost in the competitive musical life of Toronto and the surrounding areas. I have yet to meet a musical organization that exists solely for the creation of a better society, in so many words; but, on the other hand, if so many of us did not have positive experiences with live music, why would we contribute so much of ourselves towards it?

In the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir (of which I am a member), each chorister spends over 150 hours in more than 50 rehearsals each season, apart from personal practice time. Add my other ensembles to the mix, the Scarborough Concert Band and Incontra Vocal Ensemble, and easily eight hours of my week are spent in rehearsals or doing music. When I conducted the UTSC Alumni and Community Choir the commitment was drastically higher with preparation, technique, and score study. Live music is not an insignificant commitment to bring to fruition. But the result is unlike any other. The collaborative nature of music requires the blending of myriad forces into a cohesive engine that can lead in many directions. And yes, they can present ideas, stories and thoughts on deeply political and social issues. A few upcoming performances truly showcase this ability.

Hail October! With October hailing the true start to the musical performance season, there are many performances ahead. Bravo Niagara’s North Star Festival is early in the month from October 2 to 4. This inaugural festival is endorsed by the UNESCO Slave Route Project. At St. Mark’s Anglican in Niagara-on-the-Lake on October 3 at 7:30pm the Nathaniel Dett Chorale presents “Freedom has a Voice.” The Chorale will be featuring Lift Every Voice and Sing by James Wheldon Johnson, a song written in 1899. A contemporary of Canadian Nathaniel Dett, Johnson would make his name as a writer, composer and dignitary in his position as executive secretary of the U.S. National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) for a decade. During the civil rights era, Lift Every Voice and Sing would become an anthem of the people throughout the movement.

Niagara, an important terminus on the Underground Railroad, is the perfect place for Bravo Niagara to honour the important goal of many looking for freedom. Such spirituals as Wade in the Water and Swing Low, Sweet Chariot have histories connected to the Underground Railroad. These songs are now staples of modern choral tradition but were once relegated to minstrel shows, their powerful history perverted in racist processes of minstrelsy and blackface.

Dett and Johnson were two of many musicians who revived these spirituals and re-elevated them from their degradation. With Polaris, the North Star, leading people onwards to Niagara, the region was a haven unlike any other. And the culture and peoples who braved this perilous journey have left an indelible and beautiful history for us to commemorate. I hope this is the first of many years for this festival.

Wilfred Laurier University’s “Sing Fires of Justice 10th Anniversary Concert,” honouring missing and murdered indigenous women, takes place at St. Matthews Lutheran Church in Kitchener, October 4 at 7pm. Choirs from WLU, the University of Waterloo, the Mino Ode Kwewak N’Gamowak (Good Hearted Women Singers) and many other guests are featured: music continues to be a salient and powerful tool in exploring communal trauma, sharing stories and celebrating. Admission is by freewill donation with funds going towards the Mino Ode Kwewak N’Gamowak.

Buffy Sainte-MarieBuffy Sainte-Marie: The pathways that lead to the creation of music, the sharing of music, and the performance of music are many. These deeply social, economic and political issues are heightened through music. Dett’s and Johnson’s history, stories and sense of justice were strongly linked to their musical expression. And for indigenous women in Canada, one only has to look at the artistic practices of the last two years of Polaris Prize winners – Tanya Tagaq and Buffy Sainte-Marie – to recognize a similar, albeit stylistically very different, linking of music and social justice.

Check it out: One sure treat this fall is the October 30 presentation of The Phantom of the Opera by the Orpheus Choir. A unique, one-night-only accompaniment to the 1925 silent film, the blend of cinema and music should inspire more work like this. Movie soundtracks have long incorporated choral music. With the recent involvement of the Tallis Choir with the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony Orchestra in the Sony Centre’s “Gladiator Live,” I can only hope for more opportunities that blend film and music in the city. It’s also worth noting that these film concerts, of which the TSO is doing a few this year (Psycho and Back to the Future), are often the only time under-30s are not greatly outnumbered in instrumental music audiences.

A gospel powerhouse hosted by York University, “G.I.V.E., the Gospel Inter-Varsity Explosion,” will feature more than 150 voices drawn from the York University Gospel Choir, University of Toronto Gospel Choir, McMaster University Gospel Choir and Humber Gospel Choir. G.I.V.E. will perform October 24 at 7pm at the Islington Evangel Centre under conductors Karen Burke and Corey Butler, with special guests the Toronto Mass Choir and Gospel Joy, a choir from Warsaw, Poland.

Toronto Mendelssohn Choir will be singing with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra in Ralph Vaughan William’s A Sea Symphony. Soprano Erin Wall was a pleasure to sing with during last year’s Mahler’s Second Symphony with the TSO. She returns to share her talent on the stage of Roy Thomson Hall. A bold and bombastic work, A Sea Symphony’s  premiere in 1910 was at a time of perhaps unrivalled patriotic and imperialist fervour. The work is a perfect example of a deeply political  and nationalist (dare one say jingoistic)message brought stunningly to life through music. Come and watch us at RTH on October 21 and 24 at 8pm.

Kaffeemusik: A unique performance will be hosted by the Toronto Chamber Choir in its afternoon Kaffeemusik series. Classical 96.3FM’s Kathleen Kajioka will narrate the life of Matteo Ricci (1552-1610), considered to be the first European allowed into the Forbidden City of China’s emperors. The China Court Trio will provide accompaniment with period music from Italy, Portugal and China at the Church of the Redeemer, November 1 at 3pm.

Remembrance: Commemorations for Remembrance Day begin over the next few weeks. Exultate Chamber Singers perform “Stories of Remembrance” at St Thomas’s Anglican Church on October 23 at 8pm. Included are smaller works by Eleanor Daley – In Remembrance and For the Fallen – but the feature is American composer Donald McCullough’s Holocaust Cantata. Written in 13 movements for choir, cello, piano and narrators, this piece is in English, translated from real-life accounts of letters found in the American Holocaust Memorial Museum archive. 

Brian Chang is a tenor in the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir and a policy analyst during the day. Follow him on Twitter @bfchang

An unusual but fantastic summer has just passed, filled to the brim with culture and sport. With Toronto playing host to the Pan Am and Parapan Am games, the concurrent Panamania cultural events truly allowed our city to showcase its diversity and love of music. Unprecedented energy filled many corners of the GTA as facilities opened their doors and neighbourhoods flew their colours and opened their arms in welcome. Choirs from across the GTA were highlighted across the GTA, from the University of Toronto Scarborough to Nathan Phillips Square to Ajax and the Milton Velodrome. The Element Choir was everywhere, supporting Polaris Prize winner Tanya Tagaq in her transformative music on several occasions. Perennial favourite, the  inclusive, open concept Choir! Choir! Choir! also featured in a Panamania event in the Distillery District with their pop culture approach to choral music. And who can forget the fantastic Hamilton Children’s Choir singing “Shine Your Light” in front of a sold-out Rogers Centre and millions on TV?

Choral_1_-_Tagaq.jpgApocalypsis: For those of us lucky enough, the beginning of summer was enriched by the revelatory powerhouse that was Luminato’s presentation of Apocalypsis. As a tenor in the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, I sang in one of the 12 choirs that made up the second half of this grand masterpiece of art. One thousand performers brought this uniquely conceived piece to fruition for only the second time since its premiere in 1980. Unfortunately, the choristers caught only a brief glimpse of the staging and choreography. I wonder if the audience was even aware of about 400 of us entering towards the end of the first act as Babylon is crumbling. I relished this moment, entering into the darkness of the dim balcony amidst the cacophony of thick chain metal crashing as the Seven Seals of Myth are broken;  and then, in the residue of the broken world, an old woman emerged. I never saw her but the privilege of hearing her was humbling: Tanya Tagaq in her evocative portrayal of the old woman. We are lucky she was around so much this summer.

Luminato Artistic Director Jörn Weisbrodt has one more festival under his helm before he passes on the reins. Luminato has been good for choirs in our region right from the start with such pieces as R. Murray Schafer’s The Children’s Crusade. But this summer’s Schafer work, Apocalypsis, was Luminato’s largest act of civic engagement so far; it was a truly monumental task to produce and assemble the forces needed for this. One thousand performers will forever remember this unique event in history. I myself made friends with choirs and people from Ottawa to Kitchener. Between the festivities of the Parapan Am and Pan Am games and the grandeur of Apocalypsis, city-building through choral music has been given a real shot in the arm. Here’s to much more!

Building time: Followers of choral music are aware of the rehearsal hours and planning that go into a full season of music. There is often a lag between the start of the season and the first choral performances. It takes time to get a choir back into itself. Noel Edison puts it well when talking about the 130-voice Toronto Mendelssohn Choir: “There’s a lot of humanity in this room.” All choirs, regardless of size, need this time together to build good sound.

As adults we may forget the mix of elation and comfort kids feel after returning to school from summer vacation. But this fun, slightly nervous feeling hits me afresh as choirs return from break and begin making sound anew. Most choristers will spend the first few rehearsals listening to funny quips from conductors about the dismal quality of the sound or cries of tone deafness, flat basses and sharp sopranos. (Tenors are always on pitch. Always.) The reality is that it takes a while for an ensemble to get back into it. Ensembles may have new members, they definitely have new repertoire. For choral music audiences, September is a quiet month as choristers get back into the habit. But for those of us in the choirs, we are busy at work.

A few early birds, of course, are always the exception to the rule:

Intersection: Toronto continues to offer some exemplary opportunities to experience the civic experience of choral music with Contact Contemporary Music’s Intersection: New Music Marathon on September 5. Christine Duncan and the Element Choir will be making an appearance at Yonge-Dundas Square along with a host of other performers in a display of performance and interactive installations. Check them out starting at 2pm.

Wilfrid Laurier leads its school year performances October 4 with “Sing Fires of Justice 10th Anniversary Concert.” Held at St Matthew’s Lutheran Church, donations are accepted in lieu of ticket sales. For ten years now, WLU has used this concert as a commemoration of murdered and missing indigenous women across Canada creating a fusion of community-based music and social justice.

Sweetwater: In the last couple of years there have been quite a few productions of Bach’s Mass in B Minor (one of which I performed in with the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir). I am excited to see it on the lineup for the Sweetwater Music Festival staged as a sing-a-long September 19 at 1pm in Owen Sound. There are quite a few moments of emotion in the piece that are a pleasure to sing as a performer. The Gloria in Excelsis Deo is one not to miss with its bold trumpets and the choir going almost at full tilt before settling into the beautifully gentle Et in Terra Pax. Conductors Kenneth Slowik and Adrian Butterfield have rightfully chosen the Gloria as a feature in the sing-a-long. Unless one is in the Amadeus, Oakham House Choir or Tafelmusik’s sing-a-long Messiah how often does one get to sing with an orchestra? The Bach’s Mass in B Minor can be watched in full the next day, September 20 at 3pm.

Singsation: The Centre for Social Innovation and the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir are offering a free Culture Days’ Singsation. Singsation Saturdays are a mainstay for hundreds of people throughout the season and offer enjoyers of choral music a chance to sing some fabulous music with fantastic local conductors. A highlight of last year was COC chorus master Sandra Horst’s Opera Choruses Singsation. This year VOCA conductor Jenny Crober leads off with a smattering of diverse choral music. Culture Days runs from September 25 to 27 across the country. The Culture Days Singsation takes place September 26 at 10:30am. Free. Last year over 100 people sang, some of them for the first time ever with a choir, some of them for the first time since they were children.

So the new season is upon us. I haven’t yet got any of my new music and rehearsals have yet to start. Like most choristers out there, I’m ready to get back into it and to tackle new works. With a chamber choir, a full symphonic choir and a concert band ahead this year – I’ll be busy. Rehearsing is often considered the painful part with performances as the reward. I very much feel that rehearsing is where the community is built, where the people come together and where choirs truly become great. Performances are merely evidence that everything else is working well. In this, choirs become fantastic acts of community, working together towards a goal. At the start of a new season, there is no time like this in the life of a chorister. A new season. New voices. New music. New challenges. It’s all very exciting. Now is the best time to find an ensemble, try it out and reignite or stoke that love for music and performance. clip_image001.png

Brian Chang is a bass clarinet- and horn-playing policy analyst who sings tenor. Follow him on Twitter @bfchang

Choral-Score.jpgThe term avant-garde has come to mean art on the edge – work that is provocative and disturbing. Many people are not aware that avant-garde was originally the military term for soldiers whose task was to scout terrain ahead of an advancing army. To be a member of the avant-garde, therefore, was to be at a higher risk of first contact and combat than other members of the force, and like many that are first over the top in any combat situation, members of the avant-garde were not expected to have a high survival rate.

Frequently, the artistic avant-garde faces a kind of annihilation as well; not death, thankfully, but the loss of their cutting-edge relevance. Their innovations are subsumed into the mainstream, their work ceases to provoke and the public moves on to new outrages and diversions.

Choral-Fallis.jpgIn artistic terms, what happens to a member of the avant-garde who has survived their encounter with a hostile or receptive public and lived to tell the tale? Do they become venerated elder statesmen, losing their indie cred as they join the establishment, or do they stay on the cutting edge? Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer has enjoyed both rebel status and critical success, amassing a performance history that many composers must envy. His work has never been mainstream, but it has extended beyond the small contemporary music audience to which many composers find their work consigned.

Schafer has been credited with inventing the term “soundscape.” It may be hard for young musicians and their audiences, accustomed to opera productions in vodka bars and symphonies on bicycles, to appreciate how revolutionary it was for Schafer to mount his productions in forests, lakes and other spaces beyond the concert hall. But while there can be a gimmicky quality to some non-traditional staging, Schafer’s work was always rooted in a simple but profound belief that (to paraphrase conductor David Fallis) music changes depending on how and where it is heard. Schafer’s staging needs, his graphic scores and sound innovations were a passionate attempt to get both performers and audiences to listen with fresh ears.

Schafer has been scathing in the past about certain concert music traditions that he finds stultifying. I read one memorable essay in which he compared the classical piano itself to a prostitute. Whether you agree with this or not – I’m not sure that much is achieved by denigrating keyboard instruments or sex workers, either on their own or juxtaposed – it certainly made for provocative reading.

But Schafer’s ire was partly a reaction to what he regarded as the ossified concert culture which unfortunately remains with us still. Schafer’s approach to actual musicians, and the concert audience itself, has been anything but stern and insulting. On the contrary, it has often been playfully generous, notably in his works for children. Unlike some avant-garde artists, Schafer’s lack of contempt for the audience, and his clear desire to connect using musical language that is accessible as well as challenging, has been in part responsible for the positive response to his work.

And so, despite avant-garde aspects in Schafer’s music, I have always thought of him as the last Romantic, a Canadian Mahler of the North. While his tonal language uses extended harmonies and non-traditional soundscapes, his music is rooted in the techniques of earlier eras, including his ability to write a good old-fashioned catchy melody, the most deceptively simple and undervalued of a composer’s skills. Schafer’s fascination with nature, and his frequent depiction of metaphysical battles between good and evil, connect his work to traditions that seem at odds with this era’s self-referential irony and arch diffidence. I would urge both those of advanced and conservative tastes to give Schafer a listen, if they have not done so before.

Choral-Cover.jpgThis month brings the opportunity to do just that, by attending a performance of one of Schafer’s most ambitious works. In June, Toronto’s Luminato Festival will mount a new production of Schafer’s Apocalypsis. This is the first time that the work will be heard in its entirety since its 1980 premiere in London, Ontario.

Apocalypsis is a two-part work. The first half is based on the Book of Revelation, the Christian text that has contributed so many images to literature and popular culture – the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, the Seven Seals, the Whore of Babylon, the Beast and the False Prophet, all of whom are defeated by the forces of good. The second part, Credo, is an extended chorus that has been performed several times as a concert work. The text is a translation of writings by Giordano Bruno, a 16th-century Jesuit priest who was also a philosopher and astronomer. Bruno’s ideas of spirituality, and the place of the world in the universe, were so disturbing to Catholic authorities that he was imprisoned and put to death in 1600.

Part of the difficulty in restaging Apocalypsis has been that the forces that Schafer specifies for performance are enormous, requiring a muster that evokes the original military meaning of avant-garde. Toronto conductor David Fallis, who has performed Schafer’s work in the past, will be leading the advance. Samoan choreographer Lemi Ponifasio and MAU, his ensemble, will be the central group involved in the staging. Canadian star performers Brent Carver, Tanya Tagaq, Denise Fujiwara and Nina Arsenault have solo roles. New Zealand opera singer Kawiti Waetford will join them, and performance art legend Laurie Anderson will have a video cameo as well.

Then there are Apocalypsis’ ensemble requirements. The list of performers constitutes a music festival in its own right. Groups from all over Ontario are participating – see the list of choirs at the end of the column, which does not even include the many instrumentalists involved. There will be close to 1,000 performers – dancers, soloists, choristers, conductors, brass, strings (including 12 string quartets!), winds and percussion – in the Sony Centre in three performances on June 26, 27 and 28, making Apocalypsis a Mahlerian endeavour indeed.

That the performance of such a large work has been made possible is a tribute both to the producers of Luminato and the commitment of Canadian ensembles to indigenous modern composition. Conductor Fallis speaks with enthusiasm about the conductors and choirs that he had never worked with, and whose drive and excellence he has come to admire. Considering that the last complete performance of Apocalypsis  took place 35 years ago, for many this one may well be a once-in-a-lifetime experience – but hopefully not. It is exciting to witness many Ontario groups joining together to make arts events take place, so let’s hope this will be a model for future collaborations, especially with Canadian works.

For tickets and further information, see 

Choirs Involved with Apocalypsis:

Bell’Arte Singers
Cantabile Chamber Singers
Cantores Celestes Women’s Choir
City Choir
Concord Vocal Ensemble
Da Capo Chamber Choir
The Element Choir
Exultate Chamber Singers
Grand Philharmonic Choir
Guelph Chamber Choir
Hamilton Children’s Choir
Tallis Choir of Toronto
That Choir
Toronto Chamber Choir
Toronto Mendelssohn Choir
Oakham House Choir
Ontario Youth Choir Alumni
Orpheus Choir of Toronto
Ottawa Bach Choir
Pax Christi Chorale
Regent Park School of Music
Seraphim Men’s Chorus
St. James Cathedral Choir
Singing Out!
Univox Choir Toronto

Benjamin Stein is a Toronto tenor and lutenist. He can be contacted at Visit his website at

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