Asked to identify the true meaning of Christmas, those of us who look to the Grinch and Ebenezer Scrooge for spiritual guidance and inspiration might come up with a list that included traffic jams, grumpy people lined up at cash registers, un-spiked eggnog, Christmas cards=writer’s cramp, Christmas presents=credit card bills, snow=slush/shovelling/chiropractor fees.

choral scene john rutter photo credit jennifer bauer.Confronted with Tiny Tim, Cindy Lou Who and a few sad puppies in Santa hats, we might grudgingly acknowledge that somewhere in the midst of the chaos there is a chance to connect with family and friends and maybe do the odd bit of singing as well.

Choral musicians would likely add favourite composers, songs, oratorios and operas to the Christmas mix. The name of English composer and arranger John Rutter would show up on a few top ten lists — or on a few “to be avoided whenever possible” lists, because Rutter can be a polarizing name, especially as pertains to Christmas music.

Rutter’s original Christmas carols and carol arrangements have been a regular part of choral concerts since at least the 1970s, when his composition and recording work at Cambridge began to attract attention. While his academic background has led to work as a fine editor of choral music, it is his compositions that have made him an instantly recognizable name in choral circles.

For many people, Rutter’s work is synonymous with Christmas singing, and works like “Candlelight Carol” and “Star Carol” are compositions fit to stand alongside other famous and familiar seasonal songs. Others deem his music saccharine and sentimental, relentlessly middle of the road like Dunstan Ramsey’s description of himself as a reliable dinner guest in Robertson Davies’ Fifth Business: classy, heavily varnished, and offensive to no one.

My own opinion of Rutter’s work probably leans closer to the latter category. I find that his over-busy arrangements of carols often obscure the strength and simplicity of the old tunes and his musical tropes and lyrical sentiments usually leave me unmoved. But any derision I might have felt for this composer disappeared after seeing his musical skills in action firsthand.

Some years ago I sang for a choir that was recording some of Rutter’s works and Rutter himself came to conduct. Towards the end of the sessions and after one particularly gruelling day of recording, we broke for dinner, the tired singers spilling out onto the street. As I was leaving, I noticed that Rutter was bent over the piano, scribbling intently on a piece of manuscript paper. As I left, I said a word to him about the day’s endeavours, and he muttered a distracted reply.

When we returned for the evening session, he presented the singers with copies of a hymn that he had written while everyone else had been on break. While its derivations were obvious — its melodic contour and structure echoed a couple of well-known English Anglican hymns — it was a solid composition, fully realized, arranged and ready to record, written in under an hour.

Since then, any time I’ve heard negative comments about Rutter I’ve remembered that example of professionalism, technique and inspiration. Whether one responds to his aesthetic or not, no one can deny the deep craft imbedded in his music. Any composer or arranger who denigrates it might set themselves the comparable challenge of writing an appealing melody, effective vocal arrangement and straightforward, heartfelt lyrics, even without a 60-minute time limit. It’s much more difficult to do well than it might appear.

Rutter: Here are some (but by no means all) upcoming concerts that include works by Rutter.

On December 1 the Guelph Youth Singers perform “Winter Song,” a concert that includesRutter’s Brother Heinrich’s Christmas. The Mississauga Festival Choir performs Rutter’s Magnificat on the same day.

On December 7 and 8 the Sound Investment Community Choir perform “A Christmas Gift,” a concert that includes Rutter’s Gloria. They are joined by the Trillium Brass Quintet. Markham’s Village Voices perform this piece on December 1, Toronto Beach Chorale performs it on December 9

On December 7 the Upper Canada Choristers’ “Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day”features Rutter’s The Reluctant Dragon, a Christmas fable based on a story by Kenneth Grahame (of The Wind in the Willows fame).

And other concerts that will provide you with a Rutter fix include:

Vivace Vox’s “Songs of Light” and the Guelph Chamber Choir’s “Carols for Christmas” (both on December 2.) On December 16, Toronto’s Church of Saint Simon-the-Apostle has their familiar “Nine Lessons and Carols”service. Other carol services and concerts are going on all over the region, so please look at the listings for the many available options.

Lyrica Chamber Choir of Barrie’s December 8 concert, “Let All Mortal Flesh,” features works by Rutter and Norwegian-American composer Ola Gjeilo, whose accessible work has become popular in the USA, but is relatively new to this part of the world.

20 joan-adult true-north-brassAnd not: I am happy to note concerts by two choral ensembles that had previously flown under my radar. The Kokoro Singers, founded in 2004, perform concerts in Ancaster and Guelph on December 8 and 9. The Volunge Lithuanian Choir, founded in 2006, performs a free concert on December 9.

On December 15, the Nine Sparrows Arts Foundation hosts “City Carol Sing” in support of food banks across Canada. The concert features several excellent ensembles — the Larkin Singers and the True North Brass among them — as well as a chance to hear renowned tenor Richard Margison and his daughter Lauren Margison, a notable singer in her own right.

2013 concerts to watch for: Conductor and keyboardist Philip Fournier is making a name for himself as a purveyor of early music in Toronto. A concert of music by Praetorius, Sweelinck, Couperin, Perotin (one of the earliest known composers of the European canon) and Palestrina takes place on January 12 at the elegant The Oratory of St. Philip Neri on King Street West.

The Elora Festival Singers perform the famous unfinished Mozart D Minor Requiem, K626, on January 20, for a concert and lunch event in Elora.

An opportunity to hear the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir takes place on January 26, at the Choral Conductors’ Symposium concert. This event is part of the TMC’s choral development program, in which upcoming conductors get a chance to work with a large professional ensemble. It is a terrific opportunity for young conductors who often find themselves bribing friends, family and viola players to muster enough of the requisite four sections to fill a living room. The event is free to the public, and takes place at Yorkminster Park Baptist Church in Toronto.

On February 3 the Shevchenko Musical Ensemble gives a concert that will include Serbian and Ukranian folk songs.

On the same evening, different choral ensembles from the University of Toronto join together to perform Beethoven’s Mass in C and Brahms’ haunting Nänie.

Ben Stein is a Toronto tenor and theorbist. He can be contacted at choralscene@thewholenote.com. Visit his website at benjaminstein.ca.

21-23-choral-barnes-option-1Paintings and sculptures occupy physical space. Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa resides in the Louvre in perpetuity, guarded and revered, physical manifestations of “great art” in a hallowed space, ready for us to come and venerate.

Music, by contrast, is a manipulation of sound and time and lives in our minds and ears. Music is a physical experience not a physical object. Without our minds and ears to translate, it cannot exist.

Music needs to be iterated and reiterated to continue to live. The giants of the musical canon seem inviolate and firmly rooted, but even established musical giants have been as subject to trend and fashion as any other musician. Bach needed Mendelssohn to reintroduce his work to the world. Mahler’s work was headed for obscurity when it was championed by musical lion Leonard Bernstein. Vivaldi’s inescapable Four Seasons was actually a forgotten work at the beginning of the 20th century. Its rise in popularity corresponded with the rise of recording technology and turned a relatively obscure composer into a household name.

Because of its need to be constantly renewed, music is subject to the world’s often wayward and chaotic currents of artistic fashion (as is literature, theatre and architecture). Economics, technology, trend and fashion play a greater role in shaping our tastes than we understand or will admit to.

In Canada, a young nation swamped by European and American cultural and economic influence, we are continually reminding ourselves and each other that what we create here is worthy of advocacy. Canadian musicians whose careers may not have extended past national or even regional borders need and deserve our continued interest and awareness, especially after they are no longer in a position to promote themselves.

Barnes: One such composer is Milton Barnes who had a rich and varied career centred in Southern Ontario but ranging over North America. He had fruitful associations with many musicians, ensembles and dance companies. Trained in modernist compositional techniques, he ultimately moved to a more accessible style that factored in his background as a jazz drummer, his ease with popular music and his knowledge of traditional Jewish music.

Eleven years after his death, it would be easy for Barnes’ work to pass into disuse — new composers are fighting for space in a crowded local and global market and Canadian artistic history is so young it is hard to conceive of it as a tradition to be fostered, celebrated and renewed.

So it is good to see two Toronto choirs collaborating in a concert in part devoted to Barnes’ music. The Jubilate Singers have consistently created unusual and inventive programs. The Jewish Folk Choir is one of Toronto’s most long-running groups and has a long, varied and fascinating history of social and political engagement. It has been a staunch advocate for Jewish-Canadian music.

The two groups’ collaboration is named “L’khayim: A Celebration of Jewish Music,” and takes place on November 25. The concert showcases works in Yiddish, Ladino (a linguistic amalgam of Hebrew, Spanish and Aramaic influences) and Hebrew. Klezmer ensemble Shtetl Shpil are the guest instrumentalists. It will feature Barnes’ lively Sefarad, a tuneful suite that he wrote in 1996 to celebrate the 3,000th anniversary of the City of Jerusalem.

Soundstreams: Contemporary composition has also needed fierce advocacy, in part because of the fierceness with which audiences have resisted it. Over the course of the 20th century, the idea of the inherent superiority of European-derived composition has broken down completely and those who desire an intellectual component to music have been able to find it in various types of world music, jazz and other areas of popular music.

To remain relevant, contemporary music groups have had to bridge gaps between the European tradition and other stylistic areas. Toronto’s Soundstreams, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, has never wavered from its contemporary music mandate. But it has certainly expanded both its own and its audience’s understanding of what contemporary music entails. Their programs are notably free of pretension and over-seriousness; their mandate to involve and inspire young musicians gives their season a sense of liveliness and fun.

As part of its anniversary celebrations, Soundstreams is hosting a concert with the Latvian Radio Choir, considered to be one of the world’s top choral ensembles. A truly professional outfit, they give over 60 concerts a year. Choral aficionados definitely don’t want to miss this one.

The icing on the cake: as part of its commitment to outreach and education, Soundstreams will host four choirs from Canadian universities for this concert which will allow young musicians the experience of working with the Latvian Radio Choir in a mentorship capacity. The concert includes a number of Russian and Latvian works, a piece by John Cage and music by a nice range of contemporary Canadian composers.

21-23-choral-moonriseOther concerts of note

On November 3 the Hamilton Children’s Choir gives a fundraising concert in support of the choir’s performance at the Xinghai International Choir Championships. Please come out and support this endeavour.

On November 17 and 18 the Cantemus Singers perform an early music program that includes Charpentier’s In Nativitatem Domini.

The recent Wes Anderson film Moonrise Kingdom (now available on DVD) brilliantly utilized the music of Benjamin Britten throughout, including Britten’s wonderful and popular children’s opera Noye’s Fludde. On November 23 there is an opportunity to hear this work live, as the VIVA! Youth Singers take part in a staged version.

In a similar vein, the Elora Festival Singers perform Menotti’s festive Amahl and the Night Visitors on November 25. This opera is a touching and humorous work and an excellent introduction to opera for children.

As we head into the Christmas season, many choirs gear up for seasonal concerts. Next month, there is an astonishing number of concerts taking place on December 1, too many to list effectively. Please have a look at the listings to see how many varied and interesting choices there are on that Saturday evening. 

Ben Stein is a Toronto tenor and theorbist.  He can be contacted at choralscene@thewholenote.com.  Visit his website at benjaminstein.ca.

Conductors learn that, in certain situations, to hear a sound exactly when you want it, you must indicate it slightly ahead of time. I’m uneasily contemplating this temporal disconnect as I write this column, several days before preparing for a big concert I’m conducting and playing in (a chamber performance of Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers). As I write, the concert is several days in the future, but it will have been over for several weeks by the time you read this.

All of which should allow for a neat segue to an elegant, erudite little rumination on the nature of music and our perception of time. But I don’t have any time to write about time! I’ve got to practise this score. Or rather, last month, just slightly ahead of the time I should have been devoting to this column, I was practising a score and ... oh, forget it. Here are some choral concerts coming up soon, helpfully grouped into different areas of interest.

Requiems: November is the month for remembering the Commonwealth participation in WWI and Canadian choirs often program requiems for this time of the year. Here are several of note:

On November 3, the Cantabile Chorale of York Region performs Eternal Light a requiem setting by British composer Howard Goodall. Goodall’s work has enjoyed a popular reception in his home country, and this particular requiem setting has won an award as well.

The Islington United Church Choir performs Fauré’s Requiem on October 28. This piece is always worth a listen. Fauré’s elegant, unaffected writing is a welcome contrast to more bombastic settings of the requiem text.

The Orpheus Choir has transformed itself into one of Toronto’s vanguard groups for championing new music. On October 27 they perform Requiem for Peace by Canadian composer Larry Nickel. Nickel is a Vancouver-based composer who has had works commissioned by many groups, including some of the top west coast chamber choirs. Choir director Robert Cooper is also celebrating his tenth year as the Orpheus’ director. There will be more about that milestone in a future column.

choral scene nancy fabiola herrera option 1Opera: Spanish composer Manuel de Falla’s rarely performed one-act opera, La vida breve is being given two concert performances in a Toronto Symphony Orchestra program featuring the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir on November 1 and 3. Falla composed in the first half of the 20th century and his music is a wonderful blend of modernist elements with indigenous Spanish sounds. To hear this work live is a rare opportunity.

The standard judgment of English baroque composer Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas is that the music is brilliant — it is — but that the libretto is weak. I am not convinced that this is true; I have heard singers do subtle and moving wonders with the text, imbuing the words with perception and sorrow. Judge for yourself as the Georgetown Bach Chorale performs a concert version of this opera on October 26 and 27.

Opera aria concerts are always fun, although they are sometimes criticized for removing arias from their dramatic context. I say, why not? We know that all sopranos die beautifully, all tenors die bravely, all basses are evil and all mezzos are seductive. Think I’m wrong? Find out as Brantford’s Grand River Chorus performs “Great Moments from Opera“ on October 27.

Benefit concerts: On November 3 seven Toronto Beach area choirs perform together and separately in a benefit for the East End Refugee Committee. On November 4 the Mississauga Choral Society presents “Malawi Benefit Concert: Voicing Our Care,” performing music themed around social justice and global issues.

choral scene 2 georgetown bach choraleLiturgical text settings: There is a small Bach choral festival taking place over the next few weeks. On October 13 the Tallis Choir combines Bach motets with music by German Romantic composers whose music was inspired by Bach, Brahms, Bruckner, Rheinberger and Mendelssohn.

Bach’s church cantatas are miracles of formal design and emotional depth and are very difficult to execute. Two choirs that are rising to the challenge are the Toronto Beach Chorale, who perform Cantata BWV131, “Aus der Tiefe,” on November 3; and the Pax Christi Chorale who perform cantatas 80 and 147 on October 21. The second cantata, of course, contains the chorus well known in English as “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” perhaps Bach’s most familiar melody.

On Oct 13 Toronto’s St. Anne’s Church choir performs Mozart’s Solemn Vespers. Mozart wrote two settings of the vespers, K321 and K339, and both settings wipe the floor with every mass Mozart ever wrote during his tenure in Salzburg. Go and hear it.

Other concerts of note: On October 13, 14, 20 and 21 the Peterborough Singers perform Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. This popular work is the musical equivalent of a house party — wild, chaotic fun with everyone trying to be heard over the percussion. The famous opening chorus has been used in every movie featuring medieval knights that you have ever seen.

On October 19 and 20 the Tallis Choir is the guest of the Toronto Consort in a concert of works from the English Renaissance, some of which the Consort recorded for the popular television program The Tudors. Scandalous rumours that series star Jonathan Rhys Meyers will appear for a special midnight date with a lucky ticket holder have no basis in reality and did not originate here.

The Toronto Chamber Choir is one the few choirs in the area that regularly programs early choral music. In an October 28 concert titledKaffeemusik: The Mysterious Pierre A-la-mi-re” featuring music by renaissance composers Josquin, Ockeghem, de la Rue and Willaert, the choir illuminates the fascinating story of brilliant music copyist Pierre Alamire and the stunning manuscripts that he created.

Three special tribute concerts: An October 21 concert by Toronto’s Vesnivka Choir features a tribute to Marta Krawciw-Barabash, the late founder and president of the Toronto Ukrainian Music Festival. They are joined by the Orion Men’s Choir and the Toronto Ukranian Male Chamber Choir.

On October 13 Toronto’s Xiao Ping Chorus celebrates its 20th anniversary with a concert of opera arias and art songs with music from both Western and Eastern traditions.

Finally, on November 3, University of Toronto choirs join together in a special concert commemorating the 80th birthday of Canadian composer Ruth Watson Henderson.This composer’s music has been programmed consistently by choirs in Southern Ontario and beyond, but within contemporary music circles her work tends to be overlooked or even ignored.

I hope that this changes. Watson Henderson’s music is not wildly experimental or technically innovative in the “reinvent the wheel” manner that contemporary composition series regularly demand. Instead, it is classical in the best sense — it balances popular appeal with artistic depth and rigorous formal design. It needs impeccable diction and great sensitivity to text, tuning and musical structure.

I am very glad to see this anniversary celebration taking place, and I truly hope that the next generation of choral conductors understands that this composer has created a body of work in which all Canadian choral musicians can join in taking pride. 

Ben Stein is a Toronto tenor and theorbist. He can be contacted at choralscene@thewholenote.com. Visit his website at benjaminstein.ca.

31 choral lydia-adams 079 dscn2053September can be a frustrating time for choral music fans. Eager to reconnect with their favourite choirs, they find that the concert season does not start until October, or even November. What are choirs doing during the first month of the fall, anyhow — bowling tournaments? Poker sessions? Sleeping in?

Lofty goals: Lydia Adams is the conductor of two accomplished Toronto choirs, the Elmer Iseler Singers and the Amadeus Choir. She writes about the autumn’s first rehearsal, “I personally always have a sense of excitement, butterflies, even, before that first chord. It is pure joy (and relief!) once that first moment is over and you (as a conductor) think: “Okay, we have a sound. Everything is going to be fine.

“I start working for the choir’s sound from that moment. I have a clear idea what I want to hear from the choir and keep asking for that right through to the season’s end.”

Nathaniel Dett Chorale director Brainerd Blyden-Taylor adds, “our organization has a social justice mandate as well as a musical one. We do a one-day retreat early in the fall, to connect with each other spiritually and musically, to find the spirit behind the music.”

But while these comments are insightful, they do not fully address the unique challenges of autumn choral rehearsals. Peeling back the veil of choral silence, this column exposes the complexities and challenges that each choral section presents.

Tenors have the reputation of being self-absorbed, in part because of the inordinate amount of time they spend in front of mirrors. But tenors need mirrors to monitor correct mouth position. This helps in the vocal production of glorious high notes that no other voice can match. No mirrors, no proper mouth position, no high notes — it is astonishing how many people cannot understand or accept this simple equation.

Still, these technical pursuits can interfere with the first few weeks of choral rehearsal. Music directors must struggle to convince tenors to follow their beat, rather than to gaze soulfully into the conductor’s eyes, hoping to see themselves reflected.

Conductors should gently continue to call attention to themselves as rehearsals progress, and eventually the tenors will be able to distinguish them as sentient human beings. But the process must be respectful. The hurtful phrase, “There are other people here besides you, you know!” is to be avoided at all costs.

Basses and altos: The more robust sections of the traditional choir tend to spend summers in physically active pursuits such as white-water rafting, rock-climbing, defusing bombs and rescuing heiresses from eastern European kidnappers bent on world domination.

Often basses and altos have so much fun with these light-hearted outdoor activities that a gentle reminder about fall commitments is not enough to lure them back to the choir. Ensembles with a concert deadline approaching have no choice but to retrieve their low-voiced singers by force. This is done by setting special traps to recapture and bring them back to civilization. Power tools tend to be the standard bait.

32A complex acclimatization process follows, as altos and basses are gradually reintroduced to such things as choir folders, concert dress, hot coffee during break, spoons, napkins and indoor showers. This process is usually very successful; by October or November, altos and basses learn to happily accept standard choir pencils, and stop asking for the picks and axes necessary to mine graphite deposits and chop trees to make their own.

Sopranos, the highest of the four standard choir voices, are subject to a mysterious ailment little known outside choral circles. It is a documented scientific phenomenon that if a soprano goes without a weekly choir rehearsal for a period of time, she will forget that the three lower voices actually exist. In extreme cases, sopranos have been known to forget entire symphony orchestras between the afternoon dress rehearsal and the evening performance.

This presents choirs with an enormous problem as the season gets underway; how to reintroduce the rest of the choir without terminally alarming the sopranos. Often conductors integrate the other sections gradually throughout the autumn, telling the sopranos they are guest audience members who have been granted special dispensation to attend a rehearsal.

Eventually the sopranos notice that these apparent guests are making a noise that resembles singing, and will innocently enquire as to what is taking place. This is the conductor’s opportunity to tell the sopranos wonderful stories about helpful, magical beings named “Tenor,” “Alto” and “Bass,” who only live to help and serve sopranos as they do their important work. Sopranos always respond with gratitude and interest to these exotic but unobtrusive creatures, and their fascination often lasts for several rehearsals.

Leaving choirs to their autumn challenges, let us investigate which concerts are taking place this month.

Lydia Adams, mentioned above, recently won the prestigious Roy Thomson Hall Award of Recognition. Adams writes, “I was amazed and humbled. I also was overwhelmed as I was acutely aware of having worked with many of the other musicians who had won the Award: Lois Marshall, Maureen Forrester, Robert Aitken and, of course, Elmer Iseler were all musicians who held special meaning for me and who influenced my career in a major way. I am happy for the recognition for my choirs and also for the choral community in Toronto.”

Look forward later in the fall to Adams’ Elmer Iseler Singers presenting a concert, October 21, celebrating the diamond jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II, featuring works by many great composers from Handel and Purcell, to the Modernists Tippet and Britten who rescued British music in the 20th century. And on October 27 the Amadeus Choir will present Rachmaninoff’s beautiful and imposing Vespers. Blyden-Taylor’s ensemble performs three distinct and interesting programs at Toronto’s Nuit Blanche between September 29 and 30, including works by Canadian composers Sid Rabinovitch and Peter Togni. They are also performing a benefit concert in Orangeville on September 22 for the One-world Schoolhouse, to raise money for schools in St. Lucia. See their website for details.

Finally, England’s renowned Tallis Scholars visit the city on September 12, bringing their signature sound to a program of renaissance and early baroque music. 

Ben Stein is a Toronto tenor and theorbist.  He can be contacted at choralscene@thewholenote.com.  Visit his website at benjaminstein.ca.

Many choirs are typically on hiatus during the summer. Below are some choral concerts taking place in July and August.

The Elora Festival, built around the Elora Festival Singers, is always a rich source of choral music in the summer. Taking place July 13 to August 5, choral highlights include Mendelssohn’s Elijah, Britten’s rare 1937 opera composed for radio performance, The Company of Heaven, Paul Halley’s celebrated Missa Gaia, and a concert devoted to the music of American composer Eric Whitacre.

The Nathaniel Dett Chorale performs at the Westben Arts Festival Theatre — the Barn — on July 15.

The Toronto Jewish Folk Choir sings at the Ashkenaz Festival, which takes place August 28 to September 3.

The Ontario Youth Choir, a group that has fostered excellent singers over many years, performs in Kingston on August 24 and in Toronto, August 26.

In May, I wrote about a colleague who passed away suddenly, and about the bonds, loyalties and joys of singing that draw the choral community together. This month, I address an aspect of choirs that can be awkward, contentious, even divisive —the issue of singing choral music for money.

As a young singer who fell in love with choral music, I was in awe of the musicians who were part of professional choral ensembles. To get paid to do something that was so much fun seemed astonishing to me. When I began singing for these groups myself, I was gratified to be paid, but I quickly learned that this could not be my only source of income, and that I would have to find other work to put food on the table.

Looking back, what I find odd is that this simple truth — choral singing won’t pay the bills, and you will need more than classical vocal training to generate income through music — was never openly discussed, not by singers, conductors, arts administrators or vocal teachers. The subject remains a delicate one. Why is this the case?

Perhaps in a well-meaning attempt to encourage and foster passion for and commitment to the arts, or perhaps because open discussion about money is often considered taboo, musicians avoid informing their students about the often difficult economic realities of a career in music. Myself, I would never have become anything but a musician — the ability to count to four and a vague awareness of pitch are about the only skills that I possess — but being armed with the some hard economic facts about the musician’s life might have led me to make more strategic, or at least more informed, choices.

My own experience has made me stubbornly determined to be open with younger musicians regarding money issues — not to stomp on their dreams, but to help them go into their chosen profession armed with some practical knowledge about the different elements at play.

In the specific case of choral pay, one of the likely reasons for the lack of discussion may be the awkward fact that it lags behind pay for other musicians. The choral ensembles, churches and synagogues in the Southern Ontario region that pay choral singers generally do so at the rate of $20–$30/hr. Most professional ensembles are in the $24–$28/hr range. By contrast, unionized opera choruses pays between $31–$38/hr. The minimum rate of pay for instrumentalists of all kinds, according the Toronto Musicians’ Association, is $42/hr for a minimum two-hour rehearsal call, and $50/hr for a minimum three-hour performance call.

Whether instrumentalists always get this minimum rate is another question entirely. The point for this discussion is that  our most accomplished choral ensembles often pay a significant amount less per hour than the minimum rate of pay for an orchestral instrumentalist or unionized opera chorus singer. An experienced choral singer performing a two hours-plus Messiahconcert filled with grueling choruses will get paid half of what the trumpeter and percussionist, fresh out of school, get paid for playing in three or four movements comprising 12 to 14 minutes of music.

Still, is this discrepancy truly a problem? With so many singers ready, willing and eager to sing for free, shouldn’t hired singers be grateful for whatever they can get? There are parts of the world in which the idea of a paid choral singer is unheard of.

My own opinion in this matter — tiresomely obvious to anyone who spends more than ten minutes in my presence — matters less than yours, and anyone else’s involved or interested in choral singing. But since you ask, my belief is that choral singing in Ontario — so accomplished in so many ways — could certainly stand to take a professional leap forward. Why should choral singing not be a skilled and specialized métier, a viable career choice, rather than a very poor second to soloist work?

Open, public discussion of this question might offer some creative solutions. What follows are a few statements and suggestions for dialogue , debate and possible action for those involved in choral training and performance.

Organizations that hire choral singers have a ethical responsibility to pay them equitably. This is easier said than done, of course — in many cases it would require some groups to extensively revise their business model. But choirs regularly manage to pay market prices for instrumentalists, venue rental, advertising, administrative needs, technical needs and other expenses; should they not do the same with the employees whose work defines the very nature of the organization?

At the same time, singers should become more exacting in the two ways that count most for a professional musician: being at an engagement promptly, and being able to execute music accurately and stylishly in the shortest amount of time. Choral musicians often come up dismayingly short in these areas. One cannot demand a professional rate of pay if the service delivered is not up to the best professional standard. And speaking of professional standards, strong choral skills — sight-reading, chiefly — could be much more emphasized in voice training than they are currently, if singers are going to be able to solicit paid chorus work.

Music teachers, universities, colleges and conservatories ought to be very clear about what options and opportunities truly exist for the singers that they graduate every year. Voice students should be learning skills and techniques that will broaden their knowledge base beyond a narrow focus on vocal technique and classical music, to encompass other skills that help them find work in a variety of professional areas.

Grants bodies and unions can raise awareness of this issue, by noting the hourly rate or general compensation parameters of other performers, and by helping to promote and foster the idea of parity for choral singers.

Audience members can raise this issue with arts organizations, grants bodies and governments. Individual and corporate donors can insist that the amount of money given will be dependent on a certain amount of it going directly to singers’ compensation.

More than anything, all parties involved may start talking and sharing information, to begin to come up with their own solutions. Now and then, choral singers have been known to complain about the organizations they work for. For all I know, those who run these organizations are griping about their hired singers as well. Isn’t it time to turn from private complaint to open discussion? It can only help the growth of skill, excellence and artistry within the Canadian choral scene.

If you would like to be part of what I hope will be a creative, good-humoured and energetic discussion, feel free to email me at choralscene@thewholenote.com. All emails will be held in strict confidence. In coming months, look for a choral blog in which open dialogue can take place. 

Ben Stein is a Toronto tenor and theorbist. He can be contacted at choralscene@thewholenote.com. Visit his website at benjaminstein.ca.

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