In my last column before the summer I promised to address the reluctance of audiences to attend performances of new music, citing the extreme example of one determined listener who vetted a concert over the phone in order to make sure nothing on the program was too modern.

This is a problem not just for choral concerts, but for new music in general. The quantity of words committed to paper on this subject is responsible for the demise of several large forests. In brief, the two opposing stances are:

choral 11) Modern music feh. Why should I pay good money to hear something that sounds like a battalion of cats attacking a giant mutant chihuahua while a chorus of bull walruses sings the Nauruan national anthem backwards?

2) Modern music is the future, this piece in particular is pure genius, and everyone in the concert hall gets it except you. What is your problem? Why can’t you get with the program? Go away and listen to Bach’s Minuet in G on auto-repeat. If you get bored, listen to a can-can by Offenbach or something.

Okay, it’s not always so bad, but it’s pretty darn close. Keeping it brief, let me see if I can both give a bit of historical context and offer a solution to the problem.

1) During the last century, classically trained composers wanted to innovate, like most artists do.

2) Some innovators composed music that sounded unpleasant — torturous, in fact — to many listeners. Never ask why this happened. Believe me, you don’t want to know. If you hear a composer start to talk about it, run away.

3) Some other innovators wrote music that wasn’t quite so scary, but it still was odd enough to spook those who were used to Mozart, Tchaikovsky, etc. This stuff sometimes had key signatures, but a lot of people still found it nauseating.

4) But nobody cared anyhow, because as it turned out, you didn’t have to listen to modern music anymore to be all cultured and superior. You could listen to the Beatles (rock), John Coltrane (jazz), or non-Western classical music (“exotic” instruments and timbres) and still feel like you were a cut above. A lot of this music was just as intricate as the new classical stuff but sounded way nicer.

5) Over time it became clear that nobody wanted to listen to the most difficult new music except weird people and snobs. The composers grew up and had children, but their kids weren’t weird snobs and they didn’t like it either. Most of them got into hip-hop, actually.

6) Eventually composers got tired of only being listened to by snobby weirdos, and started writing music again that non-musicians — that is, most normal people — could like and appreciate.

7) Now we have to convince everyone that new music isn’t as bizarre as the stuff their grandparents hated. A lot of it isn’t. Really! In fact it’s pretty tame. Composers want to be your friends. So will you please come back and listen?

Now, you may go to a concert in which nice pleasant classical music by dead guys is played, and then the stupid musicians will throw in some new stuff as well. Sorry about that — we kind of like to mix it up. Please don’t leave. You will upset the composers’ mums, ’cause they are all still alive and their feelings get hurt when you walk out or throw things at their sons and daughters. But don’t worry — if you happen to get stuck at a concert with totally discordant music, you have two sure-fire methods of recourse:

1) Before the concert, watch (on YouTube) the episode of Star Trek: TNG in which Lieutenant Worf listens to Klingon opera (“Unification II,” season 5, 1991). Then pretend Klingon opera is the music you’re going to hear. Be brave like Worf and listen to it.

2) Think of scary movies. Actually, think of any movie in which bad things happen. Listen (on YouTube) to Leonard Bernstein’s score for On the Waterfront (1954) and Bernard Herrmann’s score for Psycho (1960). Not so bad, right? Next time you’re at a new music concert, close your eyes and imagine that you’re being menaced by a lunatic or getting beat up by dockyard thugs. This will render the musical experience much more enjoyable.

I hope this solves the problem and encourages you to take a chance on the new stuff. If not, I’ll have no choice but to write about this subject again, but seriously this time. Trust me, you don’t want that. Now, on to the concerts.

choral 2Estonian composer Arvo Pärt is an example of a composer whose work has depth, edge and substance, but has also found popular, mainstream appeal with many audiences — especially choral audiences, which can be quite a conservative bunch. Soundstreams Canada has long been a central champion of Pärt’s music in Canada, and their house choir, Choir 21, boasts some of the strongest choral singers in the region. This is a chance to hear this music masterfully executed.

The concert on October 1 will include the Canadian premieres of two Pärt works, Adam’s Lament and L’abbe Agathon, and the world premieres of two Canadian works, James Rolfe’s Open Road, and a new commission (written for a very special reason which will be revealed at the concert) by young Canadian-Estonian composer Riho Maimets. I do not know his work, but I am familiar with Rolfe, and I can assure wary concert-goers that this will certainly be a moving and delightful concert. If you are new to modern choral works, this is an excellent chance to experience composers and musicians working at the top of their game. Guest conductor Tõnu Kaljuste is one of the world’s great choral musicians.

choral 3Another notable choral visit takes place in October, but registration for the event is under way even as I write. American choral composer, arranger, author and conductor Alice Parker is coming for SING!, a three-day workshop and community songfest from October 25 to 27. Parker is a choral legend (now well into her ninth decade) who has devoted her life to choral music. During the weekend Parker will lead community singing, give a workshop on hymnody in worship, lecture at the University of Toronto, preach at Yorkminster Park Baptist Church and conduct a massed choir of over 200 singers in a grand finale concert. The gala finale will include a who’s who of Toronto choral groups: the University of Toronto MacMillan Singers, U of T Women’s Chamber Choir & Men’s Chorus, Exultate Chamber Singers, Orpheus Choir of Toronto, Cawthra Park Secondary School Chamber Choir and Yorkminister Park Baptist Church Choir.

The weekend’s events require no registration — this is an amazing opportunity for choral aficionados to watch or work with a master musician. The event is co-sponsored by Yorkminster Park Baptist Church, the Royal Canadian College of Organists and the Southern Ontario Chapter of the Hymn Society as well as by the University of Toronto Faculty of Music. For more info email the head of U of T’s choral program,

Incidentally, Hilary Apfelstadt, as well as running choral activities at U of T, has further embraced Toronto’s choral culture by taking on the directorship of the Exultate Chamber Singers. One of Toronto’s top community choirs, established by John Tuttle (another choral legend), Exultate makes choral music at the highest level.

New music needs new singers and new energy, and there is always room for another choir in the city. This year choral fans can welcome the newly established Aslan Boys Choir and their artistic director Thomas Bell.

Targeted at boys aged 8 to 13, the choir’s mission statement is “to prepare boys for life and leadership through musical excellence and cultural enrichment.” Aslan is apparently still auditioning — if you have a child who enjoys choral singing, you can contact the choir at 416-859-7464 or to arrange an audition.

I would certainly encourage interested parties to find out more — chorus singing was a revelation to me at that age and opened up my awareness of both choral music and yes, modern composition.

I will be highlighting other modern works of the concert season in the months to come. A tip of the hat to west coast soprano Carolyn Sinclair for the Klingon opera solution to modern music. On with the show! 

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


choral torontomasschoirIn my last column I promised to address the reluctance of audiences to attend performances of new music, even to the point of vetting concerts over the phone to make sure nothing on the program is too modern.

One reader wrote in to observe that time often sifts through and discards the inferior music of past eras, leaving a core of proven masterworks that form the basis of performers’ standard repertoire; with a finite amount of time and resources for concert-going, it is reasonable to concentrate on works that have some guarantee of quality and durability.

I wrote back and pointed out that time was actually an unreliable source and judge of quality. Many composers whose work was neglected to various degrees after their deaths were revived by later musicians, found an audience, and now are considered important. Into this category fall Bach, Mahler, Vivaldi, Monteverdi, as well as composers popular with early music audiences such as Dowland, Gesualdo and Biber.

Hearing well-known works repeatedly can be both pleasurable and a way to a deeper understanding of these compositions. But there is great fun, satisfaction and real excitement in feeling that you are singing (or listening to) something new and unusual.

The reader and I agreed in a pleasant email exchange that an active, engaged audience was needed, to be receptive to musicians who champion both new and neglected works. Only with these kind of listeners can time and successive audiences find which composers speak to them most deeply.

For those interested in being part of a vanguard of new, varied and interesting choral projects, there are fascinating opportunities this July and August at Stratford Summer Music.

The festival, somewhat overshadowed in the past by the town’s renowned Shakespeare festival season, has in recent years emerged as a hub of innovative summer programming. This year, their focus is on choral music.

This year Stratford Summer Music is inviting interested choral singers of all ages, abilities and experience to participate in a series of events titled “We Sing the World – a Choral Symposium,” over the course of four days, July 18 to 21. The musicians leading rehearsals, panel discussions, concerts, workshops and lectures are a mixture of Canadian and international choral music experts. The festival’s two themes are the environment and world culture; the workshops and discussions will address how world culture and environmental concerns are influencing and shaping choral music in the new century.

Participants will form a chorus that will rehearse during the symposium and perform a concert at the end of the weekend. Registration information can be found at

The festival’s programming is stylistically diverse, situating classical choral singing within the larger context of world music and modern vocal techniques. Concerts will include appearances by the famous Vienna Boys’ Choir (July 26 to 28); Johannesburg’s Mzansi Youth Choir (August 22 to 24); Anúna, the Irish national choir (as part of the choral symposium); and an August 4 concert by the Toronto Mass Choir, one of the city’s best gospel music ensembles.

The festival is also devoting a substantial part of the summer to an exploration of the work of legendary Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer, perhaps the most internationally renowned Canadian composer alive. On July 18, the opening day of the choral symposium, Schafer celebrates his 80th birthday.

Schafer has been an iconoclast from the beginning, rebelling against the stultifying conventions of the classical concert paradigm from the 1960s onward, setting his music dramas in lakes and woodland locales. Schafer’s innovations seem prescient now, as young classical musicians are venturing away from the concert hall with increasing frequency and looking to bars, clubs and other non-traditional spaces to try to connect with audiences. (His Music for Wilderness Lake will be performed along the Avon River at 7am from July 19 to 21).

At the same time, there are strongly traditional elements in Schafer’s work that connect him to European Romantic strains in myth, opera and literature. His work often depicts metaphysical struggles between good and evil, light and dark. Sexuality, particularly female sexuality, is sometimes presented as a destabilizing, threatening force.

Activities focusing on Schafer’s work include an 80th birthday dinner July 18, an exhibition of hand-drawn scores opening July 17 (Schafer’s scores are notable for their unusual artistry and draftsmanship, incorporating visual imagery as well as traditional music notation), lectures, symposia and concerts.

Other concerts and festivals of note:

At the Elora Festival, there are many opportunities to see the Elora Festival Chorus, which is appearing in at least eight separate shows. Notable concerts with an anniversary theme are “Coronation: Crowning Glory” on July 20, which is a celebration of Queen Elizabeth’s 1953 coronation, and a centenary celebration of the birth of Benjamin Britten on July 28.

The Tafelmusik choir and orchestra take part in a very intriguing blend of dance and music on June 21 and 22, as part of the Luminato Festival. The ensembles accompany choreographer Mark Morris’ interpretation of Handel’s L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato.

Handel’s setting combines John Milton’s two poems, L’Allegro and Il Penseroso, in a metaphysical dialogue. L’Allegro (roughly, the lively one) is happy, active — something of a party animal, actually — and Il Penseroso (the introspective one) is pensive, ruminative, even a bit gloomy. The two poems are companion pieces that explore opposite approaches to life, spirituality and sensation.

Handel and his librettist interspersed the two poems, creating a dramatic tension between the classic Eros and Thanatos principles. Recognizing that whichever text came last would get the final word on the argument, they added new text and a third character, il Moderato, that attempts to mediate and find a middle path between the two extremes.

Whether this succeeds as a dialectical synthesis is a matter of opinion. The new text comes down rather on the side of il Penseroso, and l’Allegro — whose approach strikes me as more fun — is treated as a bit of an unruly teenager in need of curbing. But this was very much in harmony with the aesthetic of the time, which was ultimately about balance, grace and proportion in all things. Handel’s music mines the text and finds many opportunities for word painting and expressiveness. The show also incorporates the images of poet/draftsman/painter William Blake and has been a hit since its premiere in 1988.

The Kokoro Singers, based in the southern Ontario region, perform “Earth, Air, Fire, Water” on June 9 in Guelph and on June 15 in Dundas. The concerts feature works by Hatfield, Whitacre, Ticheli and Thompson.

On June 15 the Cabbagetown Classical Youth Choir performs its annual spring concert, which features excerpts from Mozart operas and other works. The choir’s mandate is to give singing opportunities to children of families in difficult economic circumstances, and they are soliciting funding to help with this worthy goal. The concert is the finale of an operatic workshop for youth, and features a special appearance by legendary Canadian bass-baritone Gary Relyea.

From England, the Bradfield College Tour Choir is visiting Canada. This youth choir has performed all over Europe, and in the US as well. Their musical director, Anne Wright, is originally from Toronto. They are singing in Niagara Falls on July 4, and in Toronto on July 3 and 6. The July 3 concert takes place at Casa Loma.

Hamilton’s Arcady Singers sing several concerts as part of the Brott Music Festival, which takes place in venues in Burlington, Hamilton and Ancaster. On June 20 they will be featured in a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony; on August 1 they take part in a concert performance of Verdi’s Aida; and on August 15 the festival’s grand finale is Mahler’s Symphony of A Thousand, which is really an oratorio for choir and soloists.

On July 28 the Hart House Singers perform “The REAL Glee: Songs made famous by Yale, Harvard and Hart House Glee Clubs.” Glees — part songs for small ensembles — have been around for centuries. The modern high school glee club is a mixture of standard choir and show choir, a kind of choreographed choir/music theatre hybrid. But up to the middle of the 20th century, glee club music was a collegiate phenomenon with a particular aesthetic and style. It combined folk songs, school songs, 19th century parlour music and archaic sounding Latin lyrics in a manner that has almost disappeared. This concert — which will also feature modern songs that might be more familiar to the Glee television audience — is a chance to revisit and enjoy this charming repertoire.

The Elmer Iseler Singers appear in Parry Sound at the Festival of the Sound on July 18, in a mixed concert of popular Canadian music that includes Srul Irving Glick’s The Hour Has Come. This tuneful and accessible piece, premiered by the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir in 1985, has become something of a Canadian choral standard. The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir also appears at the festival on August 11, singing Orff’s Carmina Burana.

Speaking of unconventional locations, the Westben Festival (various dates between June 8 and August 4) takes place in Campbellford, which is in the mid-Ontario region of Northumberland County. All the concerts take place at the Westben Barn. Westben Youth and Teen Choruses will be taking part in a version of Bizet’s Carmen July 4 to 7, a concert of selections from Broadway musicals June 9 and a performance of Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy June 29.

That’s all, folks. Enjoy the music and have a great summer! 

Ben Stein is a Toronto tenor and theorbist. He can be contacted at Visit his website at

1808-choralMore than any other musician before Wagner, Beethoven exemplified the idea of composer as spiritual leader, the artist as visionary genius who compels the support of performers, teachers and historians to realize his dreams and ideas.

Beethoven is an approachable genius, though. His achievements are leavened and humanized by his vulnerability, his awkwardness bordering on misanthropy and his loneliness. Through the insights we garner from his letters and notebooks we are witness to his very human struggles with friends, family and colleagues, to his frantic rewriting and experimentation with his own work.

With few exceptions, every note of Beethoven’s oeuvre feels like something is at stake. To be involved in a performance of his work sometimes seems, in a small way, like sharing in his struggles. As much as any of his works, the Missa Solemnis — performed in Toronto on May 15 by the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir — exemplifies this phenomenon.

It’s generally accepted that Beethoven did not write sympathetically for voices. He was certainly not alone in this. In many instances Bach appeared to think of the voice as an instrument with a human being attached. Many of both composers’ solo and choral vocal lines, beautifully wrought, are only possible to execute faithfully as long as the singer does not have to breathe for minutes on end.

The choral section of Beethoven’s famous Ninth Symphony is a half-hour long vocal rollercoaster ride that taxes both the solo quartet and the choir with sustained high tessitura writing, dynamic extremes that require skilled vocal control, long instrumental-style passages with no room to breathe, all combined with the challenge of being heard over the wall of sound created by brass, winds, strings and tympani.

The Missa Solemnis is the same thing, multiplied by three.

It is the extreme nature of the vocal writing in the Missa Solemnis that makes it especially challenging. Beethoven’s cruelly high melodic lines and virtuosic instrumental writing were well beyond the capabilities of the players and singers of the time, and the first performance of the work (in Russia, 1824) was famously ragged. It was not published in its entirety until after his death.

But in writing music that outstripped the capabilities of the musicians of the time, Beethoven founded the idea of the composition as artistic and spiritual summit, to which musicians must aspire and strive. Wagner and Stravinsky would continue this tradition, forcing musicians to develop new technical prowess, matching their abilities to new sounds that the world had never experienced. The Italian verismo vocal training of the late 19th and early 20th centuries founded a tradition of vocal heft that could deliver the heaviness of sound required by late Beethoven composition and the music that followed in its wake.

The Missa Solemnis is infused with the same spirit as the Ninth Symphony and other late period Beethoven — a musical expression of faith locked in combat with doubt. Extremes of mood convey an almost desperate sense of Beethoven’s desire to connect to the world around him.

The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir is perhaps the only group in the region that can marshal the forces for such a mammoth work. A large-scale choir in the 19th century mode, the TMC is well equipped to be able to handle the technical elements of the work and to have a fighting chance to avoid being swamped by the orchestra. This is a massive undertaking for any ensemble and a chance to hear it live is not to be missed.

The Missa Solemnis is a kind of apotheosis of the European mass tradition, but innumerable other mass settings exist to cater to all tastes. A homegrown Canadian example that draws on one important strain in our history is the Celtic Mass for the Sea written by Scott MacMillan, a legendary folk musician from the East Coast. For their “Celtic Tide” concert on June 1 the VOCA Chorus has assembled a kind of Canadian Celtic supergroup, experienced and renowned players who bring their deep knowledge of Irish folk tradition to the music.

The VOCA Chorus, led by veteran conductor and pianist Jenny Crober, has made a specialty of combining classical works with folk and popular elements. Their Celtic-themed concerts have been increasing in popularity each year, and tickets for this current concert are reportedly in high demand.

Celtic Mass for the Sea was commissioned by the CBC in 1988 and has garnered many performances since then. The work blends the exuberant nature of Celtic rhythms with the resonance of the ancient mass text. Macmillan is planning to travel to Toronto to attend the performance and will give a pre-concert lecture on the work.

Further on the subject of modern Canadian works: I took part in a concert recently where the hapless ticket seller was quizzed about the nature of the music involved. The potential concert-goer wanted to make certain that whatever works were on the program would not be too “modern.” Assurances that the most modern composer of the evening died in 1986 were barely sufficient.

Yes, this happened. It’s common enough, really, so there’s no point in being all snobby about it. Many people actively fear contemporary music, and I’ll address that in depth in future columns. But folks, your friends, neighbours and colleagues are exploring new works in their various choirs every week. All of them, or at least most of them, make it back after rehearsal with their sanity intact. If they can do it, so can you. Here are a few concerts to consider this month.

This year’s celebrations of Ruth Watson Henderson’s 80th birthday continue with a concert of her works by the Oriana Women’s Choir on May 25. Read my appreciation of Watson Henderson’s work in my October 2012 column.

On May 4 and 5, Waterloo’s DaCapo Chamber Choir performs “Leonardo Dreams,” a concert featuring works by the ensemble’s conductor Leonard Enns, fellow Canadian Glenn Buhr and American Eric Whitacre, all of whom write very well for choir and whose works have enjoyed repeated success with audiences.

Enns’ and Watson Henderson’s works are also featured in a concert by Barrie’s Lyrica Chamber Choir on May 25, along with works by Healy, Estacio and Mozetich.

On May 24 and 25, another woman’s chorus, Etobicoke’s Harmony Singers, performs an all-Canadian program of popular works, with songs by k.d.lang, Joni Mitchell, Barenaked Ladies and Michael Bublé. On June 2 the VIVA! Youth Singers perform Dean Burry’s A Medieval Bestiary, which is a cantata specially written for children’s voices. Burry’s work is both well wrought and appealing, and ought to be a very good introduction to classically styled music theatre for children.

On the subject of youth choirs, I recently had the pleasure of doing some vocal coaching for the Bach Children’s Chorus. It was an education to watch conductor Linda Beaupré — as experienced a choral musician as we have in Toronto — work with the next generation of choral singers. Her Bach Chamber Youth Choir, performing on May 11 with the Bach Children’s Chorus, is a rare youth ensemble catering to mid- and older teens interested in choral singing.

Finally, a free concert: the Caribbean Chorale of Toronto performs at the Church of St. Stephen on May 5. 

Ben Stein is a Toronto tenor and theorbist. He ca e contacted at Visit his website at

Choral Scene 1I’m writing this column on March 18, a year to the day after the unexpected passing of Bruce Kirkpatrick Hill, an event that affected many choral singers throughout the city (read my column about this here). In honour of a man who loved choral music and the choral community, I’m going to dispense with my usual rants and jokes and get right to as many concerts as possible.

Off the top, a nod to a concert that will be over before the magazine is out: The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir’s “Sacred Music Concert” takes place on Good Friday March 29. The concert includes Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli — likely the composer’s best known work — and Allegri’s Miserere. This composition from 17th century Italy is a haunting setting of the Latin translation of Psalm 51. Choral and plainchant passages alternate with a virtuosic solo quartet. As well, Canadian composer Timothy CorlisGod So Loved the World is premiered here. Based in Vancouver, Corlis is an experienced choral singer that has moved on to composition.

For those who like Handel’s oratorios (and like an alternative to that other minor work of his that always gets performed at Christmas), there are two opportunities to hear Solomon, a work written in 1748. It is full of inventive choral writing and has a number of beautiful solo arias. Oddly, both performances are taking place on the same weekend of April 20–21. Solomon is performed in Oakville by the Masterworks of Oakville Chorus & Orchestra and in Toronto by the Pax Christi Chorale.

Choral Scene 2More Handel in the form of odes, serenades and oratorio choruses can be heard performed by the virtuoso Tafelmusik Chamber Choir, May 1–5 and 7, in “A Handel Celebration.” This concert will be a terrific opportunity to hear the breadth of expression in Handel’s choral works.

For those who would like to hear some choral jazz and gospel this spring, on April 6, We Are One Jazz Choir performs in Beach United Church’s monthly series titled Beach Jazz & Reflection. This concert is funded in part by a freewill offering. On April 5 and 6 the York University Gospel Choir performs at the Ivan Fecan Theatre at York University.

Paul Halley’s Missa Gaia: Earth Mass is a popular work that has been performed many times since it was composed in 1982. To some degree Missa Gaia anticipated the focus on environmentalism that is now part of mainstream social and political discourse, and that has been made all the more urgent because of the increasing threat of global warming. The work is performed by the students of the Cardinal Carter Academy for the Arts on April 3 and 5.

On April 13 the Healey Willan Singers presentEspaña” a Latin-themed concert that includes music by Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos. Villa-Lobos was a brilliant composer who wrote music of both flamboyance and depth. This concert includes his Missa Sao Sabastiao, first performed in 1937. I’m not aware of any recent concerts of Villa-Lobos’ work, so this is a rare opportunity for Torontonians.

On April 20, the Cantores Celestes Women’s Choir presents a concert titled “The Circle of Days.” This includes Fauré’s Requiem, the premiere of Belarusian-American Sergey Khvoshchinsky’s setting of Dona Nobis Pacem, and David Hamilton’s The Circle of Days. The concert takes place at Runnymede United Church and is a fundraiser to help buy sewing machines and other materials for the Ituna community in Zambia.

If things seem a bit loud in Aurora on April 27, the “Aurora Choral Celebration” is probably the reason. I count at least five choirs that will be taking part in this event, which will undoubtedly be fun and lively, and an opportunity to hear many enthusiastic choral singers. Works include Handel’s Ye Boundless Realms of Joy (one of the composer’s Chandos Anthems, written for a church setting between 1717 and 1719) and All The Little Rivers by veteran Canadian composer and choral activist Larry Nickel.

This month provides two opportunities to hear Brahms’ renowned German Requiem. The Etobicoke Centennial Choir performs it on April 6 and the Achill Choral Society performs it on April 28 in Colgan.

Another late-Romantic setting of the Requiem text takes place on May 4, when Chorus Niagara performs the Verdi Requiem in St. Catharines. The opposite of an introspective setting like that of Brahms, this version when executed well is overwhelming, a sonic force of nature like an earthquake or volcano. The concert celebrates the occasion of Chorus Niagara’s 50th anniversary.

On May 5 the Echo Women’s Choir presents an eclectic program titled “Mouth Music” that includes The Road to Canterbury, by American composer Malcolm Dalglish, a setting of Chaucer’s Prologue to the Canterbury Tales, and William Westcott’s In the Almost Evening, a setting of lyrics by Canadian writer Joy Kogawa. Eastern European choral music is a specialty of this choir, and the concert includes songs from Bulgaria, Macedonia and the Republic of Georgia.

Often, the focus on large-scale religious works of the European classical canon can obscure the reality that composers also wrote music to celebrate the joys and pleasures of temporal love. On May 4 and 5 the Cantemus Singers’ “Love Songs,” a concert appropriate for spring, includes works by Josquin, Byrd, Janequin and Schütz. These composers are the backbone of the early music repertoire and this is a rare opportunity to hear their music performed live.

Having just given a lecture on making a living as a musician last month, I am more than usually aware of how difficult it can be to fund music making. Choirs are fighting hard for both audience share and the funds necessary to execute concerts, as ticket sales can never approach more than a fraction of performance expenses.

Two choirs are holding their own fundraisers. On April 6 the Amadeus Choir presents “A Celtic Celebration.” The event includes live and silent auctions. Lydia Adams, the choir’s conductor, also leads the Elmer Isler Singers and is a central figure in Canadian choral endeavour. On April 20 the Toronto Jewish Folk Choir hosts a fundraising concert of solos and songs titled “Sing Me a Song in Yiddish.”

Choral Scene 3Last but perhaps most urgently, Reaching Out Through Music program holds a benefit concert and silent auction on April 20, which includes the participation of the St. James Town Children’s Choir. Many of the families of St. James Town are struggling to provide basic care for themselves and their children. The Reaching Out Through Music was created to provide children with group and private music lessons. For young people in economic need music can be a focus for discipline, self-expression and hope. This is one of the most important areas of musical outreach in the city.

Finally, I would like an opportunity to write more extensively about the phenomenon of the show choir, and will do so at some point. This combination of singing and stage work may well be the future of choral music in North America. Show Choir Canada conducts its national championships on April 20 and 21 in the Queen Elizabeth Theatre at Exhibition place. This is an event that will be excellent for children and may be a way to inspire their interest in choral singing. 

Ben Stein is a Toronto tenor and theorbist. He can be contacted at Visit his website at

1806 Choral SceneLast month I argued that classical music’s shift, from cultural pinnacle to just one of many multicultural entertainment options, was a good thing. But classical musicians who love, believe in and make a living from playing music that has to fight with increasing difficulty for listeners’ ears and market share, may feel differently. What are the challenges for these musicians in a new century?

One advocate for this tradition is veteran Canadian conductor Robert Cooper. And one possible solution to the question above is exemplified by Cooper’s work with the Orpheus Choir of Toronto.

A tireless musical dynamo, Cooper conducts Chorus Niagara and the Opera in Concert Chorus as well as the Orpheus Choir. A personal aside: he was the first conductor I sang for, in the Toronto Mendelssohn Youth Choir, the youth wing of Canada’s Toronto Mendelssohn Choir.

My prior experience of music centred around folk guitar and the Beatles, and my first encounter with choral music, from the Renaissance to the modern era, was both exciting and disorienting. But Cooper was an excellent choral ambassador for me and other young musicians. I remember being struck at the energy of this diminutive but authoritative figure who insisted on precision, focus and depth of engagement.

Cooper was also for many years the producer of CBC’s Choral Concert, along with host and fellow conductor Howard Dyck. Between them these musicians introduced the country to the world’s excellent choirs and promoted the work of Canada’s best ensembles.

Cooper celebrates his tenth anniversary as conductor or the Orpheus Choir this year. Asked about his work with Orpheus, he points out that the group is for hire as a recording ensemble and can handle pops and carol concerts — the meat and potatoes of any working ensemble. But Cooper has led the choir towards repertoire that he finds the most interesting — the lesser-known works of great composers and works by contemporary composers who are a modern extension of that tradition.

Modern choral composers have, for the most part, left behind the modernist experiments of the early to mid-20th century and are writing in idioms that extend the possibilities of tonal music, rather than eschew it. On March 22 the Orpheus Choir performs a double bill of two substantial but approachable modern works, English composer Howard Goodall’s Every Purpose Under the Heaven and young Latvian Ēriks EšenvaldsPassion and Resurrection.

Goodall has enjoyed a very successful career and is a well-known choral personality in Britain. His television lectures on music carry on the Bernsteinian tradition of using modern technology to educate new generations on music history. His music is instantly accessible, but challenging to execute well and stylishly.

This concert is the Canadian premiere of Every Purpose Under the Heaven, which was first performed in 2011 at Westminster Abbey. It was commissioned to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible, likely the most renowned translation of this text yet written. While later versions drew on more accurate scholarship, the King James is a cultural touchstone that has drawn and inspired musicians and writers for centuries.

The Ešenvalds  composition, Passion and Resurrection, is an intense work that blends tonal elements with turbulent rhythms and harmonies. Compared sometimes to the choral works of Arvo Pärt, it seems to sidestep elements of romantic and modernist musical gesture and combine instead elements of folk music, Northern European liturgical chant and an individual spiritual vision. The composer has often worked with the Latvian State Choir, considered to be one of the best choral ensembles in the world.

In a nod to the increasingly important role of theatre in choral presentation, and a welcome change from the dry-as-dust concert hall paradigm that we all endured last century, the Orpheus Choir’s rendition of Passion and Resurrection will use sound and lighting design to heighten and enhance the music making. And as an added bonus, the composer himself will also be travelling to Toronto to attend the event and give a lecture about his work.

Concerts to note: This is the time of year that concerts often take place on Good Friday and include requiems and masses. Church choirs often marshall their forces for appealing and interesting concerts, many of which have free admission or very reasonable ticket prices. Please have a look in the listings to see what is being offered. Some unusual concerts of note:

The Hart House Singers perform Dvořák’s Mass in D on March 17. Admission is free and food donations to the U of T Foodbank are welcome.

On March 19, the touring Grinnell Singers, from Ohio’s Grinnell College, presents a concert that includes A Bluegrass Mass. I’ve never heard this work, but I love it already. This concert is also free, and takes place at the Franciscan Church of St. Bonaventure in Toronto.

Does Toronto hold special appeal to Ohioans? Ohio’s Avon Lake High School Chorale also performs a free concert at Kingston Road United Church on March 22.

On March 23 the Mohawk College Community Choir performs works by two late 19th century European organist/composers: Maurice Duruflé’s very appealing Requiem and Josef Rheinberger’s setting of the Stabat Mater. The Metropolitan Festival Choir also performs the Duruflé work on Good Friday, March 29.

For those who would like to further explore French choral repertoire, the Victoria Scholars Men’s Choral Ensemble performs “The French Connection”on March 3, with music by Caplet, Debussy, Fauré, and Poulenc.

On March 5 the Toronto Children’s Chorus takes part in “Fujii Percussion and Voices,” an event presented by Soundstreams. This concert sounds fascinating. Canadian musicians team up with the virtuoso Fujii family of Japan to perform modern works by Canadian and Japanese composers. The Fujii family are percussionists who specialize in the sanukite, a mallet instrument fabricated from an unusual volcanic stone located in the Sanuki region of Japan. 

Ben Stein is a Toronto tenor and theorbist. He can be contacted at Visit his website at

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