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

The human voice is an astonishingly versatile instrument, capable of an infinite variety of tones, timbres and inflections. Something primal in us is touched by the extremes of range in the sound of a coloratura soprano or a basso profundo; the virtuoso melismatic technique of a Hindustani or R&B soloist; the mysterious, elusive harmonies of Tibetan and Tuvan throat singing; and the street-corner, sandpaper tones of Tom Waits, Billie Holiday and Joe Turner.

We have an inexhaustible fascination with vocal music. Historical documents about music that ignore technical and artistic questions often go into great detail about the sound of voices. Today’s recording industry is centred around the sound of the human voice, and our ability to mechanically engineer and manipulate sound has reached an astonishing level of ease and complexity. Paradoxically our interest in music’s most basic expression, unaccompanied or a cappella singing, is unabated and may actually be increasing.

2008_-_Choral_-_East_York_Barbershoppers.jpgEast York Barbershoppers: The awareness of tuning necessary to execute a cappella music, unsupported by instruments, can be a challenge even to experienced vocalists. In April I had the pleasure of attending a rehearsal of the East York Barbershoppers, in preparation for their May 23 concert. This event celebrates the group’s 65th year, which makes them one of the longest-running ensembles in the city. For more information see

Barbershop singing is an internationally popular a cappella genre of vocal music. It is notable not only for its particular nature – close harmony singing by male or female ensembles centred around (but not limited to) Anglo-American parlour song of the 19th and 20th centuries – but also for the rehearsal process that trains singers to listen and harmonize, and the continuing vitality of the art form all over the world. The USA-based Barbershop Harmony Society has roughly 25,000 members internationally, with chapters from Sweden to South Africa to New Zealand. Continuing to flourish without the aid of mainstream commercial promotion or institutional instruction, Barbershop has managed to sustain itself in the face of neglect on many fronts.

The East York Barbershoppers have have an ongoing lease agreement with several levels of government that allows them to rehearse regularly in Harmony Hall, 2 Gower St., a community space near Dawes Rd. in what, pre-amalgamation, was called East York. The rehearsals take place in the gym/theatre space on the main floor, but downstairs there is the specially named Quartet Room for small ensemble rehearsals and the President’s Room, a wonderful historical space filled with pictures, trophies and medals that attest to the group’s ongoing presence within the community.

Chatting with some members of the EYB prior to the rehearsal, I am regaled with an intriguing mixture of historical and technical knowledge. Ron Whiteside is a baritone who joined the EYB in 2000 and took his own ensemble, the Scarborough Dukes of Harmony, to competition wins in the 70s and 80s. He gleefully discusses a version of “Jeannie With the Light Brown Hair” that scandalized a 70s era barbershop judging team, or the pitch issues involved in tuning close-harmony seventh chords in vocal standards like “Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue” and “Ain’t She Sweet.”

Close harmony singing is challenging; you can’t assume, as a classically trained musician or experienced choral singer, that you will automatically be able to tune barbershop chords. Classical singers generally sing accompanied by piano, and the tempered tuning of the piano does not always foster sensitive ears. Piano and orchestral accompaniment can become a kind of aural crutch in which a sounding pitch is approximately matched and really sensitive intervallic tuning is neglected.

Barbershop rehearsals make very little recourse to piano, either for harmonies or melodic lines. Singers instead are given a root tone from a pitch pipe, and are expected to be able to build their harmonies from that information alone. They use sheet music in rehearsal – performances are always memorized – but are often working as much by ear and from memory as from a printed score. The singers I talked to all showed an awareness of the nature of pitch relationships and of the necessity of microtuning to give a chord a more vibrant sound, in a manner that would befuddle many musicians with more formal training.

I met some singers who had recently begun singing in the EYB and others who had been singing in barbershop ensembles literally almost all their lives. Director emeritus George Shields continues to sing with the ensemble, along with his, brother-in-law, Jack Kelly, who was a founding member 65 years ago. George and Jack are 89 and 90 years old.

Lindsay-born Pat Hannon, the ensemble’s young director, identifies himself as a fourth generation barbershopper, who grew up with the sound of close harmony in his home. Hannon points out that modern barbershop singing has both branched out from its original repertoire to include arrangements of songs such as Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” and Jason Mraz’s “I’m Yours,” and at the same time is beginning to rediscover and explore its own roots in African-American culture, from which many of its traditions originated.

Before I left, the ensemble serenaded me with Hank Snow’s “You’re as Welcome as the Flowers in May,” keeping perfect tune as every member of the group filed by and shook my hand, one by one. Walking out of Harmony Hall into the cool spring night, I was glad to see that in this corner of East Toronto this charming and rigorous tradition  of a cappella community singing is healthy and thriving.

2008_-_Choral_-_Aaron_Jensen.jpgTime to SING! Barbershop and many other a cappella groups of all sizes and styles can be found at Toronto’s SING! festival, a dynamic event now in its fourth year. SING! The Toronto Vocal Arts Festival will take place May 27 to 31. SING! was co-founded by the energetic and passionate Aaron Jensen, a composer/singer/conductor involved in so many different vocal music projects that he clearly does not have time to sleep. Still, he sounds more than alert when discussing his love of singing. In response to a follow-up email question, Jensen writes: “There is no human culture, no matter how remote or isolated, that doesn’t sing. We sing to build personal bonds, to celebrate, to venerate gods, to mark rites of passage and to pass along ancient stories. Singing boosts your mental health, calms nerves, sharpens your memory, reduces anxiety and raises your spirits. Singing is intimate, evocative, empowering, and it’s just plain fun.”

Jensen’s vision for the SING! festival is one that welcomes and celebrates many genres of music in the context of unaccompanied singing. His mandate is to make the festival and attendant events throughout the year a resource and hub for vocal training and performance in Canada. Jensen has also reached out to other North American cities, and there will be an upcoming SING! festival in Austin, Texas in October 2015.

Most of the activities in the Toronto event will be centred in the Distillery district just east of Parliament and Front Streets, but concerts will also take place at Koerner Hall and Glenn Gould Studio, as well as several Toronto churches, which are some of the best performance spaces in the city.

R.A.M. to Rajaton: The Estonian National Male Choir, known in Estonia as the R.A.M. Koor performs at Christ Church Deer Park May 28. This ensemble, which celebrates its 70th anniversary this year, has recorded for both Deutsche Grammophon and Sony records. Their performance includes a premiere by acclaimed Estonian Composer Arvo Pärt : his setting of the Da Pacem Domini text, in a new version for string orchestra and male choir. The choir’s SING! concert is part of a seven-concert tour of southern Ontario. More details about the tour’s dates and locations can be found at this Facebook group:

Two other acclaimed vocal chamber ensembles will be visiting Toronto for SING! 2015. Take 6 is a jazz harmony marvel that has performed with Ray Charles, Quincy Jones and Stevie Wonder. Finnish ensemble Rajaton, less well known in North America, are multi-platinum recording artists in Europe.

The Canadian contingent: This year Canada is represented at SING! by a number of different groups, including the Nathaniel Dett Chorale, with guests Countermeasure, one of Aaron Jensen’s ensembles. In a concert titled “Jubilate Deo: Great Sacred Choral Music through the Ages,” four Toronto choirs will sing together: the Cathedral Church of St. James, Rosedale United Church, Kingsway-Lambton Chancel, and All Saints Kingsway Anglican.

There will also be a series of intriguing workshops geared towards musicians and arts managers interested in networking, developing skills and building viable ensembles. Workshop topics will address subjects such as securing funding, the logistics of management, composing music for film and television, vocal care, and songwriting and audition strategies, among others. The Take 6 and Rajaton ensembles will be hosting workshops that investigate the technical and artistic aspects of their concert work. For information on the SING! concert and workshop schedule – there are many other groups performing that are not mentioned here –go to

Other May/June concerts:

On May 9 the Orpheus Choir of Toronto, one of the city’s staunchest choral champions of living composers, presents “Touch the Earth Lightly.” The concert features the premiere of Canadian composer (and Da Capo Chamber Choir conductor) Leonard Enns’ Ten Thousand Rivers of Oil and the Toronto premiere of Norwegian composer Ola Gjeilo’s Sunrise–Symphonic Mass .

On May 10 the ECHO Women’s Choir presents “My Mother is the Ocean Sea.” The concert features special guests Lemon Bucket Orchestra’s Mark Marczyk and singer/ethnomusicologist Marichka Kudriavtseva.

On May 23 the Masterworks of Oakville Chorus & Orchestra will give a tenth anniversary concert, performing two popular modern works, Poulenc’s Gloria and Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms.

On May 24 choral audiences will be forced to choose between two different womens’ voices ensembles. The Oriana Women’s Choir performs “The Voice of Oriana: Music for a New Day,” with works by Eleanor Daley, Harry Freedman, Derek Healey and others. And the Florivox Choir performs “This Woman’s Work,” a concert that includes music by Kate Bush.

On May 31 the male vocal ensemble, the Victoria Scholars, performs “Simple Gifts,” with what the choir bills as “easy on the ears”: works by Casals, Copland, Debussy, Kodály and Lauridsen.

On June 6 the Etobicoke Centennial Choir performs “Songs of Hope, Songs of Inspiration,” a concert that includes modern choral favourites such as Paul Halley’s catchy Freedom Trilogy and Samuel Barber’s serene Sure on This Shining Night.

Also on June 6 the Voices Chamber Choir performs “Brother Sun, Sister Moon,” with a theme of choral music for the morning and the evening,  The concert includes current American choral starMorten Lauridsen’s Nocturnes and Canadian Healy Willan’s Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis.

A final thought on the subject of a cappella singing: Our love of the voice stems from our love of music, defined very roughly as pitched and coherently organized sound. The reasons why we love music are varied, complex and usually expressed with too much flowery verbosity to suit me. Music, executed well, makes us feel good. We don’t need any more justification for its pursuit than that. But there is a special and unique quality to music’s expression through the human voice. The act of singing affects us in a manner we scarcely understand, but feel at the most elemental level.

When we sing, our vocal chords become the reeds that translate vibration into pitch. Our throats become conduits for air flow, our bones conduct sound and our bodies become the echo chambers that give life and resonance to the tones we create. No matter where voiced pitch finds expression – the shower, a concert hall, a school gym, a digital or analogue recording – its source is ultimately flesh and bone. Singing is the closest we come not just to making music, but to being music. It’s the nearest a process of transmutation that human beings can experience. As we embody music, music embodies us.

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

I wonder if we’ll ever overcome our tendency to judge people by their musical taste? When I see social media memes that make lofty pronouncements about the Power of Music (common elements: sunset; a violin bow; Mozart; a rose on a grand piano), I know what I’m in for when I get to the comments section: predictable complaints about today’s lousy songs; the ignorant new generation; hip hop; Taylor Swift; heavy metal, etc.

I have no problem with honest snobbery, I just wish snobs would be consistent. If your musical preferences are elevated ones, you can’t stop there – Benjamin Britten and cheeseburgers don’t mix. Your tastes in literature, dance, film, visual art, clothes, food and architecture need to be on the same haute plateau. If you’ve achieved that, congratulations, your superb acumen is beautifully integrated into every aspect of your life. Unfortunately, you’re probably insufferable. More likely, you don’t actually exist.

Here’s the key – snobbery works best in opposition. It’s not enough to like something – what are you, eight? To be a true aesthete you have to hate something as well. Our love of Sondheim’s tart rhymes is made keener by our dismissal of Lloyd Webber’s sugary melodic hooks. Our veneration of Bach requires a good sneer at the burghers who preferred Telemann for the prestigious post at the Leipzig Thomaskirche. We hone our love of Hank Williams by sharpening our disdain for Clint Black. Louis Armstrong vs. Wynton Marsalis? I Can’t Even, as the status updates say.

Lovers of choral music yield to no one in their readiness to indulge in a good love it/hate it status fest. But there are elements of choral culture that mitigate this unfortunate tendency and may make us a little more tolerant than say, indie-rock fans or free improv obsessives.

For one thing, there is a strong amateur aspect to choral music, in both the modern and ancient sense. We usually love what makes us feel good, and the modernist asceticism that produced so much defiantly listener-unfriendly music in the last century made less headway in choral circles than, say, orchestral ones. For another, the kind of singing that takes place in liturgical settings, or even plain old group singalongs, has had its influence on choral composers. And finally, children’s choirs are a main entry point of apprenticeship both for musicians and choral music audiences, and composers who write for them know that their music must be visceral, energetic, and above all, fun.

Unfortunately, choral audiences also have a tendency to stick with what they know, and our preference for familiarity and adherence to the cult of the masterwork means that a good deal of interesting music goes unheard. We’re willing to listen to minutiae and fragments from our musical gods – our love of Mozart’s final musical sketchbook, the Requiem in D Minor, proves that. But coming up this month is an exciting revival of a work by a composer who is familiar to us for only a few pages of his entire musical oeuvre.

2007-Choral-Martin.jpgParry’s Judith: Anyone who has attended a Last Night of the Proms concert knows Sir Charles Hubert Hastings Parry’s Jerusalem, and anyone who’s sung in a church choir knows his “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind.” Parry’s name alone situates him firmly in the 19th century, a time when British imperialism dominated politics and culture. But isn’t that the kind of facile dismissal I deplored above? If music of 18th-century Austria still speaks to us, what about British music from closer to our time, and from a culture that many of us still understand and share?

Parry (1848–1918) had a distinguished career as composer, essayist and teacher. Among other achievements, he wrote some of the first articles in the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, a resource that remains central to music research today. Unlike composers such as Vaughan Williams and Holst, whose music seems to have been able to bridge the gap between the Victorian/Edwardian eras and our own, Parry’s has been ignored or dismissed since his death, surfacing most often in the types of settings mentioned above.

On May 3 at Koerner Hall, Toronto conductor/composer Stephanie Martin and her ensemble, the Pax Christi Chorale, are undertaking the North American premiere of a neglected oratorio by Parry, Judith. First performed to great success in 1888, it tells the biblical story of the heroic Jewish heroine who saves her people by her daring assassination of the Assyrian general Holofernes.

Martin’s interest in the piece turned into something of a quest when she discovered that the orchestral parts for Judith were not available from the original publisher. Assembling a research team and enlisting the help of British Parry scholar Jeremy Dibble, Martin created a performing edition of the score on her own. You can read her thoughts about Judith and its recovery process on her blog, at this address: Martin and the Pax Christi Chorale have worked incredibly hard on this historic project – which will also include the first full recording of the work – and I truly hope that they get a strong audience turnout for the performance.

2007-Choral-Rozario.jpgTavener Explored: Another British composer is celebrated in Toronto this month – John Tavener, who died in 2013, almost a century after Parry. On April 16 Soundstreams presents “Song for Athene,” a concert devoted to Tavener’s works, that will also feature music of Jonathan Harvey and Canada’s own Christos Hatzis. David Fallis will lead Choir 21, and Elise Bradley will conduct the Toronto Children’s Chorus. The concert is notable both for the special participation of British soprano Patricia Rozario, a musician who is especially associated with Tavener, and for whom he wrote over 30 works, and for the North American premiere of Tavener’s setting of the Missa Brevis text. For more information see

Like the Judith concert, I think this exploration of Tavener is an event not to be missed this month. Parry, once celebrated, may be re-emerging from the shadows. Tavener, recently deceased, is greatly popular in choral circles. What will be his fate in the century to come?

Once again, I’m uneasily aware of having neglected many excellent concerts while focusing on just two. Please have a look in the listings and stay informed about what’s taking place this month. In May I will take an in-depth look at the art of a cappella singing. 

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

2006-Choral-Exultate_Chamber_Singers.jpgGoing back to graduate school this year has made me terrified of making declarative statements about music, choirs or pretty much everything else. What I had previously assumed to be safe, boring statements of fact have turned, each and every one,  into points of heated argument.

For instance, previously I would have in all innocence said things like “next week I am going to hear Mozart’s Mass in C Major.” Now, no sooner are the words out of my mouth than I feel compelled to explain   (before someone points it out) that I am actually attending a concert, not a church mass like the one at which Mozart’s music would have first been heard; and that I realize that the C Major chords being sounded will not bear any resemblance to the timbre and tuning of those imagined by Mozart; and that I am aware that the sweeping assumptions about the nature of Time implied by my use of the words “next” and “week” are presumptuous and not provable.

I’m not kidding! Individual words are the subject not just of discussions and articles, but of entire books. Heavily contested terms to both ponder and avoid: “music,” “metre,” “sound,” “sonata,” “Haydn,” “Beyoncé,” etc.

Masses: I mention all this because of the nature of March and April choral concerts, many of which feature musical settings of the Mass, and other sacred texts, to coincide with the Christian holiday of Good Friday and the six-week season of Lent. The last time I was at a traditional church mass was almost 20 years ago at a friend’s wedding. But I have sung in and attended performances of many masses of all types and styles since that time, and that is probably not an uncommon experience, especially for people involved in choral music.

When we hear a concert version of a mass, what is our relationship to the music? Is it a religious experience, an aesthetic one or some kind of combination of the two? How – and why – did Mozart and Haydn become part of a pantheon of classical music demigods, rather than the down-to-earth musical civil servants of the European courts they actually were? (Short answer: it’s kind of Beethoven’s fault, but let’s not get into that now.)

Speaking of Mozart, Haydn and masses, on March 15 Hart House Singers perform Haydn’s Paukenmesse (Mass in Time of War), a crowd-pleaser since its premiere in 1796. And on March 20 and 28 the excellent Exultate Chamber Singers perform “O Be Joyful,” a concert that includes one of my favourite Mozart pieces, his Vesperae Solennes de Confessore K339 (Solemn Vespers), as well as settings of Psalm 100 by Palestrina, di Lasso, Schütz and Mendelssohn. On March 7 Orpheus Choir performs “The Soul’s Journey,” featuring English composer John Rutter’s appealing Requiem setting. The concert also includes a rare opportunity to hear James MacMillan’s Seven Last Words from the Cross. MacMillan is a Scottish composer who has been recorded and performed extensively in the U.K., and it’s great that the OC is making his work available to be heard live. On March 28 Orillia’s Cellar Singers perform “Light Perpetual,” a concert that features Canadian Eleanor Daley’s setting of the Requiem mass as well as Fauré’s celebrated version.

Passions: Passion settings, which describe the events of the Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, also take place this time of year. These are usually settings of the Christian Gospel texts. As with Mass settings, Passions have moved to a concert experience from their original church role.

On March 10 and 11 Toronto Mendelssohn Choir performs Arvo Pärt’s Passio, a setting that at least one critic found too reflective for the savagery and drama of the Passion story. I disagree. Pärt’s version is haunting, and a large group like the TMC can convey the work’s scope and grandeur. Audiences from all over the world have responded enthusiastically to Pärt’s modern take on classical tonal structures. For those who would like to explore his work further, on March 7 and 8 Kitchener’s DaCapo Chamber Choir perform his setting of the Magnificat text in a concert titled “O Earth, Return.”

Bach’s St. John Passionis the textbook example of this genre, and Tafelmusik’s interpretation of this work, performed every few years under the direction of Ivars Taurins, has become something of an institution in the city. Performances this year take place between March 19 to 22. As well as the virtuoso choir and orchestra, the performances offer a chance to hear the acclaimed English tenor Charles Daniels in the role of the Evangelist.

On April  3 The Georgetown Bach Chorale will be performing the same work in their home town. This month there is also an opportunity to hear another noted Bach tenor, Rufus Müller, in Kitchener-Waterloo, in the Grand Philharmonic Chamber Singers performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. This companion piece to the St. John is performed more rarely, in part because of its larger scope and instrumentation needs, but many consider it Bach’s greatest choral work.

Personal: I try not to use this column to mention any concert in which I’m taking part, but I have to make an exception for the Metropolitan Festival Choir’s “The Grace of Mourning: Music for Good Friday” on April 3. Along with the crowd-pleasing Fauré Requiem and German Romantic composer Josef Rheinberger’s Stabat Mater, the MFC is performing a rare work that merits the interest of choral aficionados, Hugo Distler’s haunting Totentanz (Dance of Death). Distler was a German composer of great courage and principle, who actually committed suicide rather than be drafted into the German army during WWII. His musical language borrows from the Lutheran motet tradition that extends from Bach back to composers like Schütz, Schein and Eccard. Borrowing rhythmic and modal elements from this 16th- and 17th-century repertoire, Distler’s music offsets the harsh austerity of the text with great empathy and compassion.

Quickly: Two younger choirs deserve your attention and support in upcoming concerts. On March 15 That Choir performs “That Choir: Unplugged,” with choral versions of music by Pentatonix, Mumford & Sons and Imogen Heap, among others. And on March 28 the Univox Choir performs “Kühl/Caliente,” a concert in support of Doctors without Borders.

The Vienna Boys Choir is a venerable choral institution well-established for crowd-pleasing concerts and enjoyable repertoire. They are performing in Midland on March 24, Guelph and Brampton March 25,  Burlington March 26, Kingston March 27 and St. Catharines March 28.

And finally, a special note: this month the Elora Festival Singers will be travelling to New York to perform at Carnegie Hall. They will be performing a sneak preview of their program on March 8 in Elora.

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

2005_-_Beat_-_Choral_-_Da_Capo_Choir.pngThis column starts out with information about a few choirs from outside of the GTA, interspersed with several concerts that have a Latin or Mediterranean theme. If you think this might indicate a hidden desire to be anywhere but Toronto in February , even if it’s only halfway sunny and pleasant –  you would most likely be right. Here are a few listings which even if they don’t warm you up, will at least keep you moving!

On February 7 London, Ontario’s Karen Schuessler Singers perform their annual singathon. The concert is a fundraiser and will feature special guest conductors from the London area. More information can be found here:

On February 13 the Upper Canada Choristers hold a concert titled “Music of the Americas,” to help launch a CD of the same name. This community ensemble was founded in 1994, and since 2008 has begun to specialize in music of Latin America, in addition to other international repertoire. This concert will feature Cantemos, a chamber ensemble drawn from members of the UCC. The CD features music from Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Uruguay, Venezuela, Costa Rica, Cuba, Jamaica, the U.S. and Canada, sung in Spanish, Portuguese, Latin and English. More information is available at

On February 28, the Peterborough Singers perform “Soul,” in honour of Black History Month. The choir combines with an instrumental ensemble and vocal soloists to explore the great rhythm and blues works of Motown (Detroit), Philadelphia, Memphis and New Orleans soul writers and composers. This is some of the best popular music created in the last century, but it tends to be avoided by many Canadian choirs, perhaps because they often Break It when they try to Shake It, so to speak. It’s good to see a choral ensemble taking it on.

Also on February 28, St. Catharines’ Chorus Niagara performs “Life Eternal: The Requiems of Mozart and Rutter.” Mozart’s famous D-Minor Requiem is paired with English composer John Rutter’s tune-filled modern setting of the same text.

On March 1 Dundas, Ontario’s John Laing Singers perform “Poet’s Corner 2: Songs of Faith, Hope and Love.” The concert provides an opportunity to hear a rarely performed (around here, anyhow) choral work by Italian composer Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Romancero Gitano. Castelnuovo-Tedesco is perhaps best known for his guitar compositions, which were championed by Spanish classical guitar legend Andrés Segovia. He was also a prolific film composer, and his works are very energetic, accessible and redolent with Spanish-inflected musical gestures. Romancero Gitano sets the words of Spanish poet and political martyr Federico García Lorca, and is scored for chorus and classical guitar, a rare combination.

On March 7 and 8 the Kitchener/Waterloo-based DaCapo Chamber Choir performs "O Earth, Return." This ensemble specializes in unaccompanied music of the 20th century, with a special focus on Canadian repertoire. They sponsor a competition for new compositions every year, and a work by Matthew Emery, the 2014 winner, Night on a Starry Hill, will be premiered at the concert. Popular composer Arvo Pärt’s Magnificat setting will also be performed. The two performances are held in Kitchener and Waterloo respectively.

Back in Toronto, on March 7 the Jubilate Singers perform “Rhythm Fusions,” a concert featuring British composer Bob Chilcott’s Little Jazz Mass, American Norman Luboff’s African Mass and Swede Lars Jansson’s To The Mothers In Brazil: Salve Regina. The JS’s conductor, Isabel Bernaus, is a good programmer of world music, and the work of all three composers is infused with a lively knowledge of that genre.

And here are more listings, just to prove that I am not neglecting Toronto ensembles, filled with hardy choristers who brave the elements to faithfully attend rehearsals every week:

On March 1 the Toronto Classical Singers perform “Music from Two Great Rivals.” The concert features Antonio Salieri’s Mass No.1 in D and the Mozart D-Minor Requiem.

The purported rivalry between Mozart and his older contemporary Antonio Salieri is one of the many myths that has become part of the Mozartian legend since his death in 1791. This particular myth has its roots in the dramatic poem by Russian writer Alexander Pushkin, Mozart and Salieri published in 1830. But it was British playwright Peter Shaffer’s 1979 play Amadeus that gave us the modern image of the vulpine older composer, consumed with jealousy over the accomplishments of his younger colleague, planning his murder and plotting to steal his brilliant compositions.

The reality is more prosaic – Salieri was only six years older than Mozart, one of the many Viennese composers that Mozart had to compete with for the attention, approbation and patronage of the Austrian aristocracy. Italian by birth, he was a successful opera composer who also has the distinction of teaching Schubert, Beethoven and Liszt. He was a rival to Mozart, in a professional rather than a dramatic sense, but there is also evidence that he and Mozart had a friendly and collegial relationship. Still, if their rivalry is ultimately just a story, it’s a great one, and Shaffer’s Amadeus explores the gap between talent and genius that is part of Mozart’s enduring mystery.

Several of Salieri’s operas have been restaged in recent times, and his Mass in D is worth a listen on its own terms, rivalries and legends aside. The galant style that he was trained in (as were Mozart, Haydn and J.C. Bach) had been imported from Italy to the rest of Europe, and as we explore less venerated or even forgotten composers from that era, we gain new and different insights into how to play and understand this musical tradition.

The University of Toronto music faculty has new music concerts and lectures taking place throughout the months of February and March. On February 8 the Faculty’s Men’s Chorus and MacMillan Singers will perform a contemporary showcase featuring U of T student composers, emerging Canadian composers Matthew Emery and Patrick Murphy and veteran choral masters Steven Chatman and Bob Chilcott.

Another concert of contemporary music to watch out for is Warrior Songs on March 6. The Elmer Iseler Singers perform this new work by Canadian Peter Togni. Warrior Songs takes as its theme the idea of being a “warrior for non-aggression” and explores texts from Buddhism, Malcolm X and the Roman Catholic Liturgy. Togni has had a distinguished career creating work that is both accessible and complex.

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

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