The term “Christmas carol” has become a kind of catchall for a multifarious group of songs from many parts the world and about 500 years of history. These songs emerge from hiding once a year, saturate our brains like an aural snowstorm and then retreat to their lairs for another ten months.

Christmas music, much of it beautiful, serene and profound, is commonly used by stores of all types to attempt to move product and it’s not surprising that people’s frustration with the hard sell becomes anger at the music itself. I’m not blaming the businesses, who have their own bills to pay, but carols really ought to be for singing, not for shopping. This is where choirs have a crucial role, because as I’ve written in the past, carol concerts are one of the few areas left in modern life where audiences of non-musicians are invited to participate in music making.

Christmas saturation brings with it musical anachronism, as carol singers hired for the holidays often find themselves wandering through 21st century malls, dressed up in garb that is meant to evoke late 19th-century England, while warbling tunes written by an American composer from Pennsylvania in 1951. Here’s a quick guide to help you differentiate one Christmas song from another.

Carols. Rarer than you’d think, carols are thought to have originated from dances; the words were sometimes cadged from pre-Christian sources and retro-fitted to coincide with Christmas celebrations. There were carols for all seasonal and liturgical occasions of the year, and it is only in the last couple of centuries that carolling became solely associated with Christmas. Carols often tell stories, have lively rhythms and a directness of expression that has actually caused church authorities to ban them on occasion. “The Holly and the Ivy,” with its pagan imagery and dancelike tempo, might be considered a true carol.

Christmas Hymns. Often mistaken for carols, Christmas hymns tend to be grander, statelier, with more ornate and even stuffy language. The classic familiar ones were often written by professional priests and clerics, such as Wesley’s “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” At their best, such as in the work of John Goss (“See Amid the Winter’s Snow”), Christmas hymns combine brilliant lyrics with pellucid song composition.

Christmas Anthems. Compositions with a Christmas theme, often composed or arranged specifically for choral performance, and not meant for group singing. Benjamin Britten’s Ceremony of Carols and much of the work of John Rutter fall into this category.

Christmas Songs. This is almost an entirely American,20th-century phenomenon that exploded with the rise of recording technology. Like hymns, Christmas songs tend to tell us what we ought to be feeling, albeit from a secular perspective: excitement, anticipation, togetherness, as opposed to religious fervour. It’s hard to contest the sentiment, but after weeks of it, you start to feel like you’re being beaten on the head with a soft pillow; it doesn’t really hurt, but you wish it would stop. I wonder if the depressed feelings that many experience around Christmas time has to do in part with the gap between the Christmas song paradigm and the reality of credit bills and feuding relatives?  Nonetheless, at their best all four categories of Christmas song contain works of genius. As I pointed out in an earlier column, Christmas has become a big pan-cultural party that can reasonably be enjoyed by people of all backgrounds.

On to the concerts: I’m going to assume that the readers of this column need no urging from me to find a Messiah performance or a carol singalong this time of year, and so will instead focus on some concerts that take an unusual angle, as well as looking ahead at the post-Christmas concert scene in the new year.

Trinity Pageant: There are many pageants and Lessons and Carols services being held this year at churches and civic centres – please check the listings for events in your area. The Christmas pageant mounted by the downtown Church of the Holy Trinity (just behind Eaton Centre) is a cultural event that has proved so popular over the years that the pageant runs into repeat performances, taking place at various times between December 12 and 21.

Briggs’ Snowman: On December 7 the Bach Children’s Chorus joins Orchestra Toronto for a concert that features the animated film The Snowman , with live musical accompaniment by the orchestra and choir. The film is based on the celebrated book by English illustrator Raymond Briggs. Briggs’ trademark combination of gentle imagery and dark, disturbing themes is a welcome antidote to more sugary Christmas entertainments. The concert also features the premiere of Canadian Dean Burry’s A Hockey Cantata. Burry’s work for children is accessible without being pandering, and this concert is highly recommended.

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Brother Heinrich: On a similar note, on Dec 20 the Toronto Children’s Chorus will perform A Chorus Christmas: Ceremonial Splendour. a concert that includes John Rutter’s enjoyable choral fable, Brother Heinrich’s Christmas, about the 14th-century Dominican mystic Heinrich Seuse, thought to be responsible for composing the famous macaronic carol In Dulci Jubilo. The piece is narrated by legendary actor/writer Gordon Pinsent.

Coro San Marco was founded in 1995 by Toronto residents who hail from Italy’s Veneto region (the area around Venice). On December 6 they perform their Advent/Christmas concert, with a selection of Christmas songs from around the world.

Victoria Scholars:  On December 19 and 21 this chamber choir of men’s voices, perform Yuletide on the Cool Canadian Side, a concert of carols arranged by Canadian composers.

Echo Women’s Choir: The ancient concept of the Divine Feminine came to the fore in the last century, as a spiritual conjunct to the struggles for women’s rights that were carried out under the banner of modern feminism. Male-centered aspects of monotheistic worship in Christian and other religions have been challenged and reassessed, and the spiritual insights and strengths of female religious leaders, thinkers, mystics and composers have become part of our modern discussion. On December 7 the Echo Women’s Choir perform The Divine Feminine, a concert that includes music by the12th-century German composer Hildegard von Bingen.

This concert is also notable for a rare appearance by the co-founders of Stringband, Marie-Lynn Hammondand Bob Bossin. Toronto audiences born before the Beatles first album came out may remember Stringband well from a series of celebrated albums from the 1970s, as well as their many club, concert and folk festival appearances.

Bossin and Hammond are two of the most skilled songwriters to come out of the first wave of the Canadian modern folk music movement. Bossin writes in a deliberately political and historical manner, taking politics and cultural issues as subjects for his clever and amusing songs. Hammond’s work is more introspective, mining her family history, in particular her mixed French and English background, for truths found amidst the conflicts and encounters that are part of the Canadian experience. Hammond is based in Toronto, but Bossin now lives on the West Coast, and any chance to see these two folk legends perform together is not to be missed.

A Grand “Midsummer”: Looking ahead to the new year, on January 16 and 17 the Grand Philharmonic Choir Female Chorus joins the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony Orchestra for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” a concert title which in January is going to seem either like wishful thinking or rubbing it in. But the music selection is excellent: Vaughan Williams’ Serenade to Music; Mendelssohn’s famous incidental music for the above play and selections from Purcell’s The Fairy Queen. Purcell never set Shakespeare’s poetry, but The Fairy Queen has great moments of humour, pathos and the composer’s peerless text settings.

Tafelmusik Orchestra and Chamber Choir present a Beethoven double bill from January 22 to 25. The orchestra plays Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, and then are joined by the choir for his Mass in C. Guest conducting is the Montreal Symphony Orchestra’s Kent Nagano.

Both pieces were written in the first decade of the 19th century. The Mass in C was composed for the Austrian ruler Prince Nikolaus Esterházy  II in 1807, and has the classical structure of liturgical works composed by Mozart and Haydn under similar conditions and royal patronage. At the premiere there was a scene – the prince was not sufficiently appreciative of the piece, perhaps -- and Beethoven left the concert venue in a fury, a breach of royal protocol that would have been unthinkable, and professionally fatal, to the older composers mentioned above. Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony captures unforgettably the spirit that led the composer to assert his humanity and freedom against the patronage system to which most European composers had been forced to submit for centuries. 

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

beat - choral 1This year is the centenary of the First World War, which began in June 1914. We commemorate the 1918 armistice date of November 11, commonly known as Remembrance Day, with a mixture of hope and horror, knowing now that what was called “the war to end all wars” was merely the beginning of the bloodiest hundred years in recorded history.

WWI was the century’s grimmest – and last – example of the confluence of 19th-century battle tactics with 20th-century industrial weaponry. The carnage that resulted came about in part because soldiers and their leaders alike clung to a notion of bravery under fire that lost its meaning in the metal rain and poison air that the new weapons created.

In wartime, music brings solace for the devastated, becomes a marshalling tool for further conflict, and on occasion, strengthens those voices raised in protest and in question against the imperatives of war. Phil Ochs wrote at the height of the USA’s conflict in Vietnam, “It’s always the old to lead us to the war/It’s always the young to fall.”

Several concerts commemorate the bravery and sacrifice of all who served, and lived and died, and endured during that time. For others not mentioned here, please consult the listings.

On November 8 and 9 the DaCapo Chamber Choir performs three elegiac works in a concert titled “There Will be Rest.” The repertoire includes Barber’s Agnus Dei (the choral setting of his famous Adagio for Strings) Elgar’s Lux Aeterna, and Canadian Eleanor Daley’s Requiem setting.

On November 9 That Choir also performs Eleanor Daley’s Requiem, as well as works by Whitacre, Mealor, Clausen, Górecki and Runestad.

On November 11 the Orpheus Choir performs “The End of Innocence: Readings, music and images in commemoration of the centenary of the Great War.” Conductor Robert Cooper states, “WWI was a turning point for Canada, transitioning from a British colony to nationhood. We want our audience to feel that emotional experience with a greater appreciation of Canada’s impact in the First World War, through the medium that we so value – choral music.” The concert includes texts from the Canadian archives, read by actors, to recreate the voices of soldiers and nurses serving on the front lines, and their family and friends reaching out to them from home.

Vespers: The phrase “Setting the Mass” is something of a classical composer’s shorthand for the much longer “daring to claim your place amongst the pantheon of the greats by setting the same texts they did.” The Latin Mass text is considered by many the greatest test of a composer’s sensitivity to text and command of musical form.

A close second to the Mass text is the Vespers, the set of prayers intoned during evening services, most often within Catholic, Orthodox and Lutheran churches. These prayers draw together disparate elements of Christian worship, combining the Magnificat from the Gospel of Luke with Latin translations of psalms from the Hebrew Scriptures.

These Hebrew texts normally have appended to them a Gloria Patri – glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost – which can make an English translation of the complete prayer jarring from a Jewish point of view. And yes, this paragraph is what is known as a kvetch.

But I digress. The Vespers texts have elicited beautiful settings by composers over the centuries – Mozart wrote two settings that I prefer to all his masses. But the setting that has emerged as a masterwork comparable to the canon of mass settings of the common practice era is Monteverdi’s Vespro della Beata Vergine 1610.

Because there is little information about the 1610 Vespers, as it is commonly known, we have no idea how, or even if, the work was ever performed. Its offbeat structure and orchestration has led to speculation that the piece was a kind of compositional resume, used to show ecclesiastical patrons what kind of work Monteverdi was capable of executing. In any case, it is a stunning group of compositions, and a chance to hear it live is not to be missed.

On November 25 Soundstreams will pair Monteverdi’s vespers setting with one by Canadian composer Gilles Tremblay. Tremblay is a modernist of the old school, if one can make such a formulation. He studied under Messiaen in Paris, and attended the famous Darmstadt school, meeting with and influenced by Boulez, Stockhausen and Xenakis. Tremblay’s work extends and maintains an important stream of 20th-century compositional endeavour.

Based in Quebec, Tremblay maintained his European connections, and in 1986 his Les Vèpres de la Vierge was commissioned to celebrate the 850th anniversary of France’s Notre-Dame de Sylvanès Abbey. For further concert details see

beat - choral 2Christmas: Christmas concerts are starting in November this year, most likely in an attempt not to have to fight for audience share in the crowded December field. Pecksniffian types might deplore this, but these are the same people who object to seeing Halloween costumes hawked during the summer. Come on – when is there a wrong time to try on costumes and stock up on chocolate? Same thing with Christmas carols and egg nog. I say, go for it. Christmas has gone right back to its ancient winter solstice roots, becoming a rollicking bacchanalia of food, drink, and reckless spending. May as well start in November, ’cause once January hits we’ve got a good three months of frigid misery to look forward to. Hell, I’m lobbying for Christmas partying to begin at the end of September – who’s with me? Anyhow, here are some November concerts to get you in the mood, and some December events that will take place too early to list in next month’s column.

On November 28 and 29 Oakville’s Tempus Choral Society performs “Songs for a Winter’s Eve,” an eclectic program including selections from Vaughan Williams’ Dona Nobis Pacem, early baroque composer Caccini’s setting of the Ave Maria text and folk legend Gordon Lightfoot’s tender Song for a Winter’s Night.

For those interested in further Canadian content – and yes, that should be every single one of us, at any time of the year – the Exultate Chamber Singers perform “A Canadian Noël” on December 5. The concert sounds fun and folksy – works by Canadian composers, Christmas stories from singers in the ensemble and an audience carol sing-along.

On November 29 and 30 Orangeville’s Achill Choral Society performs “The Glory of Christmas.” This concert provides a rare opportunity to hear the work of opera composer Giacomo Puccini in another setting. Puccini’s setting of the Mass text, commonly known as the Messa di Gloria, was written early in his career. It was unpublished during his lifetime but has since been revived and has been recorded and performed many times.

The Jubilate Deo (glory to God) text, originally the Hebrew Psalm 100, is another poem that has inspired composers from many eras and locales. On November 29 the Jubilate Singers use their own name as inspiration for “World Jubilate,” performing settings of this psalm and other seasonal songs.

On November 30 the Healey Willan Singers perform “A Garland of Carols.” The afternoon will feature Britten’s popular A Ceremony of Carols, a work that demonstrates perfectly Britten’s Mozartian ability to wed formal coherence to a series of great tunes.

J.S. Bach’s Weihnachtsoratorium, or Christmas Oratorio, is another masterwork that was likely never performed in one sitting (cf. the 1610 Vespers discussion above) during the composer’s lifetime. Bach composed six cantatas to be performed at different church services during the Christmas season, retrofitting new lyrics to pre-existing music that he had composed for other cantatas. With many composers, this would be a recipe for chaos, but not for Bach, who could create order in a bowl of rice krispies. The Weihnachtsoratorium is a beautifully conceived work, gentle and celebratory by turns, with an unparalleled unity of text, melody and form. On November 22 and 23 the Masterworks of Oakville Chorus and Orchestra perform parts 1 to 3 of the Christmas Oratorio.

Also, on November 28 the Bach Consort will perform the work in its entirety, in their concert titled “Giving Bach to the Community.” Players from the Toronto Symphony and Canadian Opera Company orchestras will join Mississauga Festival Chamber Choir; proceeds from the event will be shared among various downtown charities.

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

BBB-ChoralThis month I will write in depth about two exciting projects taking place in the coming weeks. First, I will expand on September’s column, which included a brief mention of Morten Lauridsen’s visit to Toronto, which will take place on Saturday October 25.

Lauridsen is a choral giant, one of the few extant. While England’s John Rutter may still enjoy a comparable degree of international popularity, I’d argue that Lauridsen music, often as accessible as a mainstream film score (Lauridsen founded USC Thornton School of Music’s program in film scoring), has a meditative, introspective quality that is rarely found in Rutter’s cheerful compositions.

Lauridsen can employ spiky-sounding modern tonal idioms, but more often approaches composition from the angle of choral liturgical music, which tends to value audience connection over formal innovation (the closest Canadian equivalent is probably the late Srul Irving Glick, whose Jewish liturgical music has a similar aesthetic).

Not surprisingly, Lauridsen’s music is very popular with church, school and community choirs. His most famous pieces combine spacious melodic intervals of fifths and fourths that give a distant echo of Sacred Harp part songs, with dense chordal writing containing the gentlest of dissonances.

Read more: Shining Light on Lauridsen


Are there too many choirs in the GTA? I pondered this question uneasily as it became clear towards the end of the summer that a number of different ensembles, volunteer and semi-professional, were still scrambling to find singers, posting both messages to this column and on social media sites.

The stark reality of musicmaking (at least for those of us who avoided contact sports in high school) is that arts work is as competitive as any other sphere – more so, perhaps. Choirs must compete for audience share, for arts council grants, for publicity – and for choral singers. Cue the jokes about soprano glut and the bribes necessary to secure tenors.

The challenge in any community is to find the right balance of professional choral singers, volunteer amateurs, children’s choir and choral training programs, population base and audience interest. As in any crowded field, choirs have to find an angle to make them stand out from the pack. Some choirs target specific musical styles, others emphasize formal musical training or openness to untrained enthusiasts. We have yet to see a combination of choral singing and hot yoga, at least as far as I know, but it will emerge soon enough.

Sustaining cultural activity is always a challenge, and choral directors and administrators have dark nights in which they wonder If It’s All Worth It. But my answer to the column’s original question is no, you can never have too many choirs. Choral singing is one of the few areas left in which amateur musicians are actively making music in a community setting, and this can only be a good thing.

Regarding a possible singer shortage, I’d say: hey you, reading this column – join a choir! The audience for choral music is in part the same demographic that attends choral concerts. To find out about choral options, look into resources and message boards such as The WholeNote Canary Pages, Facebook choral pages (like Toronto Freelance Choral Singers) and the Choirs Ontario website.

Open rehearsals: Another way to find out about choirs is to attend an open rehearsal, which is becoming increasingly common during the autumn at the beginning of the musical season. This can allow you to meet possible choral colleagues and see the conductors in action. Open rehearsals that have been brought to my attention this month are: Bell’Arte Singers, Saturday September 13; Orillia’s Jubilee Chorale, Saturday September 27; Oshawa’s County Town Singers, also on Saturday September 27; Toronto Beach Chorale, Sunday September 28.

Some of these rehearsals (those between September 26 and 28) are taking place as part of Culture Days, an increasingly important expression of the arts in their fullest community sense. You can read more about Culture Days on page 56 of this issue, and find out more by visiting

Roll over, Beethoven: For anyone who thinks musical life is harder than it used to be, know that Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony had only two full rehearsals before its premiere, which is still about what you get these days for the first performance of a new work. The Toronto Symphony hosts the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir for three performances of the Ninth September 25 to 27.

The TMC is also hosting a special edition of one of their regular “Singsation” Saturday workshops on September 27. (Let’s hear it for Culture Days again!) These Singsation events take place throughout the year. Sheet music is provided. It’s a very good outreach project and a fun way for people to experience the city’s largest choir from another perspective. More about this series on the next page.

In brief:

The Mattaniah Christian Male Choir is based in Dundas, just outside Hamilton. They perform in Whitby on September 26, in a benefit for long-term care facilities for the elderly in Durham.

The Colours Of Music festival has a performance by That Choir (Yup, that’s their name – made you look twice, didn’t it? An ensemble’s name is another obvious way to generate interest) on September 26 – music by Bruckner, Whitacre, Mealor and others.

Wilfrid Laurier University Faculty of Music starts the academic year with an October 5 concert in Kitchener titledSing Fires of Justice for Hope.” This concert is part of an initiative at Laurier to raise awareness of Aboriginal women who have been murdered or have gone missing in Canada.

For those who have not heard a Baroque viol, there is really no instrument like it. Played well, it is mysterious and somehow melancholy, even when playing lively figures. Toronto has its own group of viol players, the Cardinal Consort of Viols. On October 5 they will team up with Waterloo’s Conrad Grebel Chamber Choir to perform of a concert English verse anthems and viol ensemble music.

Finally, the University of Toronto’s head of choral music studies, Hilary Apfelstadt, has had considerable success in creating events that build a weekend of choral activities around the work of a particular composer. This year, the weekend’s guest is Morten Lauridsen, an American composer whose music is performed throughout North America. (Coincidentally Lauridsen’s Lux Aeterna is also part of the Elmer Iseler Singers’ season opening concert October 5 at Eglinton St. George’s United Church.) Apfelstadt’s ambitious “A Celebration of the Music of Morten Lauridsen” won’t take place until October 25, so I will have more to say about Lauridsen’s work in next month’s column. But you heard it here first, didn’t you?

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


Over the course of the 2013/14 concert season I wrote several columns about the challenge that choirs face when programming new music: how to get audiences to risk the price of a ticket on repertoire that is not tried and true, safe and familiar.

One final observation to sum up this theme, before the summer break: most new music for choral ensembles that is not strictly popular falls into the category of “extended tonality.” What exactly is extended tonality?

Twentieth-century music can be viewed as a kind of pitched battle between composers whose work dispensed with the idea that music ought to have a key centre that could help orient the listener and composers who kept elements of traditional harmony and melody even when they were venturing into more experimental territory. The so-called “Second Viennese School” – Schoenberg, Berg, Webern – who began writing what is confusedly known as atonal music and later composers that built on their work, such as Babbitt, Boulez and Stockhausen, are examples of the former, Stravinsky, Britten and Shostakovich, of the latter.

There were many other categories, sub-genres and trends, but very broadly, these were the two opposing camps of musical endeavour that emerged out of the European classical tradition.

Extended tonality won.

1909 Choral

It won in the sense that younger composers generally did not pick up on the atonal experiment in music, and this musical strain now appears to be going the way of cool jazz and the songs of the German meistersingers – intellectually-driven styles that ran aground and seem to have little current appeal to revivalists. Late 20th-century composers did not want to leave behind rock, jazz and world music, influences that operate almost entirely in a tonal framework. Their insistence on integrating these influences in their music placed them firmly in the tradition of earlier composers who had  integrated various types of popular music into their sophisticated compositions.

What does this mean for listeners? Looking at this year’s new composition programming in retrospect, I can state that none of it was music that ought to have sent anyone but the most timid listeners screaming for the exit. So, are you willing to take a chance on something new, knowing that it is not likely to be that weird?

Speaking as someone who will order fish and chips for lunch, dinner or breakfast if possible, I hesitate to be overly judgemental about anyone’s musical menu choices. But it’s time to recognize that we’re living in an era in which composers are reaching out to listeners with alacrity as well as skill and insight. We’re well past the point at which we should be thinking of new music with hostility. So I hope you’ll give some of it a chance this summer, and in the new season as well. Below is a selection of concerts taking place from June to August.

The Ontario Youth Choir was founded in 1971 by the choral organization Choirs Ontario. TheOYC quickly became a vital instrument for generating enthusiasm for choral music among young singers, and for providing an important bridge between children’s choirs and adult ensembles. Each summer 40 talented young singers are auditioned and selected to take part in two weeks of rehearsals, masterclasses and voice lessons, culminating in a short three-city cross-Ontario tour and several concerts. The ensemble is conducted by a different Ontario director each summer. This year Guelph University’s Dr. Marta McCarthy leads the OYC in concerts in Toronto and Midland.

The Open Ears Festival is a great event to attend for those interested in new music – it’s one of my favourite new music festivals around, in part because it always conveys a sense of fun and irreverence in its programming. The Da Capo Chamber Choir will be taking part in the festival with concerts on June 7 and 8. For more information about the festival in general, see          

On June 8 and 14 the Kokoro Singers will be performing inGuelph and Dundas, respectively. Their concert “Celebration of Canadian Composers” features several composers – Mark Sirett, Donald Patriquin and Stephen Chatman among them – who are the most listener-friendly in the country. If you’re looking to ease your way into new music, this is a very good place to start.

On June 11 the Hamilton Children’s Choir performs “Together as One”; the concert is in support of the choir’s tour to Korea.

On June 20 the Adelphi Vocal Ensemble performs“Music for St. John’s Eve,” a concert of English choral music that includes Vaughan Williams’ Mass in G Minor, as well as selections by Tallis and early-20th century composers Harwood and Naylor. The Vaughan Williams mass is an appealing and historically important work that is always worth hearing live.

Speaking of historically significant, this summer Ontarians have two chances to hear the Choir of Trinity College Cambridge. This ensemble dates as far back as the 14th century and has past associations with important composers and conductors. The choir will be performing at the Elora Festival on July 13 and at the Westben Arts Festival on July 19.

On June 7 and 8 the University of Waterloo’s Conrad Grebel University College choirs will perform “Sound in the Land: Music and the Environment: Kalahari Journey,” a choral initiative that is part of a larger environmental project to understand the nature of the earth through the medium of sound. The event involves workshops, lectures and events as well as concerts. More information can be found at 

Finally, check out the Festival of the Sound in Parry Sound for performances of Rachmaninoff’s Vespers by the Elora Festival Singers on July 29 and of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony by the Elmer Isler Singers on August 10. The Elora Festival Singers will also be performing several exciting-sounding concerts at their own festival, notably David Fanshawe’s celebrated African Sanctus on July 12. 

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

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