The Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir. Photo credit: Kaupo Kikkas.The Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir displayed the most unusual strength and control, in a commanding performance February 2 at St. Paul’s Basilica under conductor Kaspars Putniņš. As part of the Soundstreams mainstage series, this marks the fifth time the choir has made an appearance in Toronto. Soundstreams continues to provide top-tier musical experiences and a grand stage for new Canadian works.

The choice of St. Paul’s Basilica was a clever one. For churches in the city, it is one of the most beautiful. In the Roman Catholic canon, only the Pope may bestow the name of ‘basilica’ upon a church. This is done in recognition of an exceptional diocese, beautiful aesthetics, and historical significance. St. Paul’s is resonant and its ceiling cradles sound effortlessly. The choir was magnificent in this queen of Toronto churches.

The choir provided an interesting mix of works by 20th-century Russian Romantics, with Rachmaninoff’s Vespers (from 1915) and Schnittke’s Three Sacred Hymns (written in 1984 but very much in the same style). Naturally, the last chunk of the concert was devoted to the esteemed Estonian composer Arvo Pärt.

The other two key performances at the concert were both world premieres of commissioned works. The first was Three Prayers from the Holy Rosary, written by Riho Esko Maimets, a young Canadian-Estonian composer. Prior to the performance, Maimets explained that he did much searching for the text he wanted to use for this piece. “I spent a lot of time going through classical Estonian poetry...Lawrence [Cherney, Soundstreams artistic director] took me to his synagogue…[and] I spoke with priests from the Russian Orthodox Cathedral,” he said. He eventually settled on the prayers associated with the Holy Rosary of the Roman Catholic tradition.

Maimets’ piece begins so incredibly slow. Only an extremely high calibre choir can deliver an opening with long crescendos and decrescendos set over very few words. The swells demanded over such extended periods of time require a strong, controlled command of one’s voice, and an even more masterful ability to do so with and within an ensemble. The choir proved itself incredibly capable with this feat of endurance.

The second premiere was only a snippet, the last movement of Omar Daniel’s Sõduri Ema. Daniel was certain he wanted to write the piece in Estonian. “[It is] a rare and beautiful language,” he said, continuing that he knew that this concert “had a theme of faith.” To this theme, he added the discovery of Marie Under, “a very famous poet” in Estonia. He chose this particular poem because it speaks of “faith and sacrifice, of something greater than oneself” in the story of a mother seeing her son off to war. The work includes a solo bass and soprano, and is quite bare, stripped and exposed. The piece ultimately leaves me feeling unsettled and gently disturbed. We will have to wait to see a performance of it in full.  

There are many things that this choir does exceptionally well, even beyond their strong execution of compositions. It is truly their dynamic control – an even, measured, manually driven, muscle-infused control of the sound – that stands out the most. At their quietest, their loudest and everything in between, the balance and blend is exceptional. Moreover, their voices match vibrato and overtones in an enviable way. And the added treat is the dark vowels of their vocal production. Locally trained musicians do not have that natural darkness and shape to their sound. The brassy shortness of the Toronto accent is literally 6600km away from the warm darkness of the Estonians. This comes through especially warmly with Arvo Pärt’s Dopo La Vittoria, written in Italian.

This year marks a rather special occasion for both Canada and Estonia. Canadians are celebrating 150 years since Confederation in 1867, while Estonians are beginning the first of three years of celebration for the 100th year since they declared independence. The occasion was met at Thursday’s concert with the anthems of both countries, a church-filled Happy Birthday, and two cakes, one for each country.

Soundstreams presented the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir at 8pm on Thursday, February 2, 2017, at St. Paul’s Basilica in Toronto.

Follow Brian on Twitter @bfchang. Send info/media/tips to choralscene@thewholenote.com.

Composer Salvatore Sciarrino.Salvatore Sciarrino (b. 1947), the world-famous Italian composer, was welcomed to Toronto in a concert at a well-filled Walter Hall on the evening of Sunday, January 29. Sciarrino is the Roger D. Moore Distinguished Visitor in Composition at the Faculty of Music at the University of Toronto, during this year's U of T New Music Festival.

At this, the opening concert of the festival, two of Sciarrino's works were performed: his 1981 Canto degli specchi for soprano and piano and his String Quartet No. 7 from 1999. I asked Sciarrino about the text in Canto degli specchi ("Song of the Mirrors"), by French surrealist Louis Aragon. His reply was brief. “It's just a dream,” he said. And in fact the performance by soprano Stacie Dunlop and pianist Cecilia Lee was entirely dreamlike, the slow, soft, sinewy melody weaving in and out of the stream of frenetic notes from the piano. It was spellbinding.

His String Quartet No. 7 was written as the test piece for the 2000 Borciani International String Quartet competition in Italy. Sciarrino wrote that his intention was “to avoid all appearance of virtuosity” with this work and “for each performer to achieve something unique.”  The single-movement work was performed by the Cecilia String Quartet, and in fact, each of the four players were given moments to shape the music as individual musicians. These moments revealed very sensitive and expressive playing by each of the quartet members. As is true to the Cecilia's established aesthetic, unity of sound was perhaps the higher goal of the performance. The quartet was beautifully played, with violinist Catherine Cosbey filling in for new mother Min-Jeong Koh. Sciarrino seemed very pleased with the result!

The overarching focus of the concert was on the Karen Kieser Prize in Canadian Music, awarded this year to composer Sophie Dupuis. Dupuis was present to accept the 15th annual Karen Kieser Prize – which is awarded to a U of T Faculty of Music graduate student in composition whose work is judged by a jury as especially promising – and to hear the work performed.

Dupuis introduced her winning work, Perceptions de La Fontaine, based on three texts from Les Fables de La Fontaine, a collection of short tales written from 1668 to 1694 by French author Jean de La Fontaine. “These tales were meant to teach good moral values to children,” she said. “They feature whimsical characters, often animals or gods from Greek mythology. The three tales selected for this piece have to do with perception, more specifically, how one’s own perception of events, things or people might not reflect the truth.” The performance of Les Fables de La Fontaine featured soprano Stacie Dunlop, for whom the piece was written, together with flutist Kaili Maimets, oboist Chieh-Ying Lu, clarinetist Cecilia Tang, and percussionist Carol Wang, all conducted by Gary Kulesha. Dupuis' work is full of vivid personality in the vocal part, as the soloist portrays the many fanciful characters described in La Fontaine's texts. And the instrumental scoring complements the voice with many delightful touches of musical commentary, especially from the flute and percussion.

Former Kieser Prize laureate Kevin Lau also made a brief presentation, screening highlights of his recent collaboration with National Ballet of Canada Choreographic Associate Guillaume Côté in their full-length ballet, Le Petit Prince. Lau spoke candidly, and revealed many details of the creative process in the course of the collaboration. It demonstrated that Kieser Prize winners can, and do, progress to major artistic achievements.

The Cecilia String Quartet. Photo credit: Lisa-Marie Mazzucco.The concert also featured the world premiere of Chasing Beauty, a string quartet by U of T Faculty of Music graduate student Rebekah Cummings. Her work won the University of Toronto 2016/17 String Quartet Competition and was performed by the Cecilia String Quartet. Cummings' Chasing Beauty is a brilliant first string quartet, beautifully fashioned to exploit the medium's potential to both blend and contrast. In her program note, Cummings described “harmonic and rhythmic fragmentation [as] the predominant feature of the piece.” In the work's progression from a playful Bulgarian dance to a lovely lyrical conclusion, the throughline of the work seemed assured and confident. The Cecilia launched this new Canadian string quartet with a polished and enthusiastic performance.

This year's U of T New Music Festival opened with a strong, enthusiastically received program. For information about the concerts to come, see https://music.utoronto.ca/concerts-events.php.

David Jaeger is a composer, producer and broadcaster based in Toronto.

Opus 8.Last Saturday – in a world still reeling after the inauguration of now-president Donald Trump – Opus 8 provided a well-needed program of music centered on the theme of peace. Titled “Dona Nobis Pacem,” the concert was full of liturgical settings of the Agnus Dei. The choir was masterful in sound, warm and balanced in the church, and provided an uplifting power that filled and satiated the soul.

There’s something about singing sacred music in a sacred space – and the Church of St. Mary Magdalene is more important than most in Toronto’s choral music history. Healey Willan, now known for his catalogue of over 800 compositions, was choirmaster and organist at this church for 40 years. Elmer Iseler, who would go on to have a profound impact on the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, the Amadeus Choir and of course, the Elmer Iseler Singers, was also a singer in this church’s choir.

On Saturday’s concert, Richard Dering’s Hei mihi! Domine provided a superb example of fine choral music making, with a controlled decrescendo towards the end of the piece. The echo and resonance of the sanctuary cradled the diminishing sound in the most inviting cocoon. Contrasted afterwards by Leonard Bernstein’s Agnus Dei and Dona Nobis Pacem (from his Missa Brevis), the following works’ strong forte sound was equally pleasing in a different way.

In between every couple of songs, one of the choristers would speak about the programming, giving snapshots of what to expect. This personal touch provided a lovely humanizing of the process, and helped bring some focus to the latter part of the first half, which was harder on the ear with unusual lines, byzantine influences, unusual cadences and dissonant endings in the Wellesz Agnus Dei and the “cacophonous” (as chorister Simon Honeyman calls it) Apostolo Glorioso by Guillaume Dufay.

The incredibly unusually setting of 3 or 4 adjacent semitones providing a sense of questioning and hesitancy in Robert Busiakiewicz’s Agnus Dei from his Missa Sapere Aude. The sopranos had more vibrato than the rest of the choir, which for me stood out particularly in Busiakiewicz’s piece. In music like this, the very specific pitches present a unique challenge for choristers; they require centering and little movement to hear their full effect.

The second half of the concert was by far the star of the show. The polyphony of Guillaume de Machaut’s Agnus Dei from Messe de Nostre Dame dates from the 14th century. The first ordinary mass written by one person, it is full of wonderful ascending and descending patterns. Opus 8 rose to its full potential here, with a lovely, balanced choral sound in the Cipriano de Rore Agnus Dei. Midway through, the voices mix into this cohesive, translucent, vibrating, sugary dessert. It is light and trembles in just the right way.

Other pieces on the program included Hosanna to the Son of David by Orlando Gibbons, Schien uns, de liebe Sonne, by Arnold Schoenberg, John Tavener’s The Lamb, and Herbert Howells’ Take Him, Earth, for Cherishing. The Tavener and Howells felt mostly congruent, with all voices moving most of the time together, while the Gibbons and Schoenberg felt messier to my ear – the more text, the muddier the sound, especially in a resonant church.

The choir finished with Josquin des Prez’s Agnus Dei from Missa L’Homme Armé. The gentle opening descending lines were perfectly executed. The work is supported by these ascending bass lines as the higher voices sing staggered, descending melodies. It is a bare composition, naked and exposed, but beautiful – and their performance of it proves that the singers of Opus 8 are stellar musicians.

I do not think that music director Robert Busiakiewicz had planned this concert to align with the American inauguration. I don’t think he could have possibly predicted that the theme of this concert would be so essential with a Trump presidency. But on this day of global protest against a dangerous world leader, it was here, in a church dedicated to a sex worker, that we found some rest and repose. This is the power of art and music: to be what we need, even when we don’t know we need it – and, through the process of creation and sharing, to help us find a way forward, even through the darkest times.

Opus 8 presented Dona Nobis Pacem on Saturday January 21 at 7:30pm. at the Church of St. Mary Magdalene in Toronto. For more information, visit www.opus8choir.com.

Follow Brian Chang on Twitter @bfchang. Send info/media/tips to choralscene@thewholenote.com.

TMC Simposium

Twenty years ago, Noel Edison took the reins of the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir (in which I sing). Even then he knew it as “one of Canada’s great cultural institutions.” Predating every other major symphony orchestra and major arts organization in Canada, the choir has operated continuously since 1894 – and since 2010, it has hosted one of the preeminent training symposiums for emerging conductors in North America. This year, five candidates will workshop with Edison, associate conductor Jennifer Min-Young Lee, the Elora Festival Singers, and the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir over a one-week intensive. The week culminates in a free concert on Saturday, January 28, 3pm at Yorkminster Park Baptist Church in Toronto.

I got in touch with this year’s participants, to talk early influences, choral philosophies and personal musical goals.

Lawrence Abernathy
College Station, Texas

Lawrence Abernathy.Lawrence Abernathy, from College Station, Texas, says, “once or twice a year I like to remind my choirs that one of the most beautiful things about choral music is the anonymity of it all… for a few hours a week your voice is just as important as everyone else around you. You get to be yourself and part of a larger organism at the same time. I believe that the best choirs are those whose members are focused not on themselves, but the collective whole around them.” It is a humble reminder and one that bears often repetition.

“One of the great things about being in sacred music,” Abernathy says, “[is that] our inherent mission is social change. I personally take a lot of care in making sure that the ensembles I conduct are open to anyone regardless of race, creed, or any other perceived barriers.”

Abernathy is director of music ministry at A&M United Methodist Church, right across the street from one of the largest universities in the US. At a whopping 60,000 students, unfortunately, Texas A&M University does not have a degree music program. In the middle of a geographic triangle anchored by Austin, Dallas/Forth Worth and Houston, Abernathy notes that “any music-making I do outside of my job includes a 3-hour minimum round trip commute.” It's a reminder that local choristers, conductors, audiences and musicians are very lucky to live in the robust arts world of southern Ontario.

Hana J. Cai
Rochester, New York

Hana J. Cai.As far as early musical influences go, Elton John was and continues to be a favourite of Hana Cai, an Eastman College graduate conducting student in Rochester. As a child she would sit at the piano wearing heart-shaped glasses rocking out to Elton John. As the only conductor to note the Hamilton soundtrack on her list of influences, Cai isn’t daunted by differences in musical genres. She sings in conventional choirs and in an early music group, but also plays as an accompanist for a popular musical theatre group and a jazz band.

“I’m a musician with an eclectic musical background,” says Cai. “Yes, I grew up playing and listening to classical music my whole life, but I played and listened to a lot of other music too. As a classical musician, the music you do outside of the classical genre can enrich and inform what you put back into your classical music.”

Cai also advocates for accessible concert programming, “especially because not everyone can afford the concert hall experience.”

Dr. Jonathan Harvey
Belchertown, Massachusetts

Jonathan Harvey.For Jonathan Harvey, professor of music at Fitchburg State University, Massachusetts, his parents love to tell the story of watching Purple Rain in theatre when Harvey was still in utero kicking away to the music.

Harvey believes that “community music organizations can be very effective vehicles for social change, primarily because they bring together people from many different backgrounds who would likely never meet otherwise.”

Harvey looks forward to working with the choirs at the symposium. “I try to hold onto that initial sense of exhilaration and joy every time I get onto the podium – the idea that I’m very lucky to be there…I think that the first performance with an ensemble is particularly special – it’s the galvanizing moment, when everything has to click together in a new way.”

 Matthew Swanson
Cincinnati, Ohio

Matthew SwansonFor Matthew Swanson, “performances consist of three simultaneous conversations: a conversation with the audience, with the other performers, and with the composer.” He finds “new thoughts” every time he returns to the podium.

Ultimately, “audiences and communities must have art that is both relevant and well-executed. If either quality is lacking, the impact is lessened and the efficacy of the art comes into question,” he says. The challenge for any conductor is attempting to be the vehicle of that conversation. It is a unique role and a “solitary one,” as Noel Edison often says. The art and skill of communication is essential to an effective conductor.

From a region smaller than, but similar to, Toronto, Matthew Swanson conducts in Cincinnati where he regularly preps the choruses of the Cincinnati Symphony and Pops Orchestras. He is a tenor and teaches at the University of Cincinnati College – Conservatory of Music. In his approach to conducting, Swanson says that “the responsibility of an ensemble and its conductor is to determine what kind of art is relevant to a given community and how it can best become a part of [that] community’s life cycle. Fortunately for us, humans have been singing for a long time, and there’s a good chance that one can find a choral work to suit almost any aesthetic preference.”

 Walter Mahabir
Toronto, Ontario

Walter Mahabir.Walter Mahabir came to music through his family. The only Toronto-based conductor in the group, Mahabir was trained at St Michael’s Choir School, but his family – especially his mother and grandparents – provided the real music, constantly singing around him. Mahabir joins the ranks of hundreds of St Michael’s Choir School grads who have gone on to music careers.

Mahabir also believes strongly in accessible music, working as a teacher at the Regent Park School of Music in Toronto. “I hope that through music I can erase social norms, and embrace the ways of thinking that accepts all people regardless of race, sex, sexual orientation, or religious beliefs,” he says. “I want my music to reflect the human experience, and to remind anyone who listens to any choir that I lead that the world could always use more love!”

Abernathy, Cai, Harvey, Swanson and Mahabir began their week at the Toronto Mendelssohn Choral Conductors’ Symposium on January 23, and will present their work at a free concert on Saturday, January 28, 3pm at Yorkminster Park Baptist Church Toronto. Details at www.tmchoir.org.

Follow Brian Chang on Twitter @bfchang. Send info/media/tips to choralscene@thewholenote.com.

Opus 8 in rehearsal. Photo by the author.The group sits around a table in a library singing. It’s kind of adorable. There are eight of them, two voices per section: soprano, alto, tenor, and bass. Opus 8 is two years old now, the baby of choral singers in the city who wanted a new and different challenge. As they sit around, in a circle, it’s like watching a spiritual exchange.

Many of the ensemble are singers of St. James Cathedral’s choir. The church’s music director is Robert Busiakiewicz, also the leader of Opus 8. He’s a British trained tenor, conductor and composer who studied at the Royal Academy of Music, King’s College London, and King’s College, Cambridge University. Busiakiewicz’ fellow Opus8 members have similarly impressive musical resumes – and the partnership between St. James and Opus 8 has allowed the choir to flourish.

Opus 8’s upcoming concert, this Saturday, January 21, lines up with the release of their first CD, titled Melancholy and Mirth. Recorded last summer, the CD includes 13 tracks selected from the singers’ personal favorites across 700 years. The CD is billed as an invitation to experience “the highs and lows of the emotional compass…[leaving] no stone unturned when it comes to the qualms or contentments of the human condition.”

This concert is full of polyphony, mostly liturgical settings of Agnus Dei. The core message here is one of peace, pacifism and harmony. Coming the day after the presidential inauguration of Donald Trump, it is an invocation that feels especially timely.

At this rehearsal, Opus 8 begins with Leonard Bernstein’s Agnus Dei from his Missa Brevis. A not often performed (or well-known) Bernstein work, the piece is dissonant and features a countertenor solo, for which Simon Honeyman takes the reins. It’s actually a giant bubble of sound listening to them, incredibly loud in the bare room, too few books and soft spaces to offset any of the harmonics. I’m not convinced at first on the sounds I’m hearing; there’s just a lot of it at this point.

There isn’t much to say about the rehearsals for Opus 8. When musicians perform at this high a level, it just sort of goes. Clarifications on dynamics and pitches are few. This is an advantage to singing in a smaller group: one can hear oneself within the texture of the music quite clearly. Similarly, one stands out quite noticeably if inconsistent with the group. Mistakes are noted and addressed quickly.

The compositions, while thematically linked, are quite demanding for the ear – but the programming is dynamic. Cognitively engaging for the singers and for active listeners, this concert will be heavy on sound, lots of it, constantly moving – with a lot of those unusual intervals characteristic of medieval and renaissance music.

The choices cover 700 years of music. Excerpts include Guillaume de Machaut’s 14th-century Messe de Nostre Dame (the first known complete setting of the ordinary mass written by one
person); Josquin des Prez’s Missa L’homme Armé from the 15th century; and John Tavener’s The Lamb, to name a few. I doubt many local groups have ever programmed a choral concert like this in Toronto, or at least brought it to fruition.

Opus 8 in rehearsal. Photo by the author.About 40 minutes into rehearsal, the choir pushes their chairs back and stands. They start on Philippe Rogier’s Agnus Dei from the 16th century Missa Ego sum qui sum. That’s when I hear it, the sound. Their voices blend together into this heavenly polyphonic magic. It’s watermelon jello: clear, perfectly settled, vibrating just a bit as you look at it, sweet and gentle, just waiting for you to dig in. The tempo slows unintentionally, as the voices meld together (as Busiakiewicz notes). But it’s there, the sound that every choir, anywhere, tries to reach. Most choirs aren’t successful; Opus 8 is.

There’s also a piece of Busiakiewicz’s from a 2013 commission he prepared for Massey College. He explains that “one of the things this piece explores is how to place three adjacent notes together and try and make it sound beautiful.” The song has many suspensions, longer tonal lines with various voicings moving in and around to create the intended effect. It’s unsettling and incredibly challenging.

Later in the rehearsal, Busiakiewicz speaks to me about his approach to choral music. For him the goal is to “present repertoire not being heard or being heard at a high level in Toronto...and to provide the highest quality performance to as wide an audience as possible.” He also speaks of choral music as being able to do anything: not just “soft and lovely” but also having the capacity to be “shocking” and “disturbing”. His own composition embodies this, a sacred setting that I find musically disturbing. That isn’t a judgment on its merit, but its effect.

Ultimately, Busiakiewicz’s programming aims to “keep the choir engaged and interested.” It works. I am engaged listening to them rehearse. My brain is working overtime, listening, processing, analyzing, thinking and identifying. I see the members of the ensemble working the same way. They’ve clearly latched onto something. Not everyone spends Friday nights rehearsing; but these eight musicians do, so there’s definitely something there, around the table in the library.

Opus 8 presents Dona Nobis Pacem on Saturday, January 21, at 7:30pm at Church of St Mary Magdalene in Toronto. For more information, visit www.opus8choir.com.

Follow Brian Chang on Twitter @bfchang. Send info/media/tips to choralscene@thewholenote.com.


Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. Credit: Dale Robinette.

A bittersweet love story, a song-and-dance musical and an aspirational fable of dreamers pursuing their ambitions, Damien Chazelle’s ebullient La La Land jumps off the screen from its breathtaking first scene and never lets up. Embracing an aesthetic that unites the Jacques Demy/Michel Legrand musicals The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort with the lush Technicolor Gene Kelly films of the 1950s, Chazelle and his musical soulmate Justin Hurwitz (they met at Harvard as teenagers) plunge us into an alternate universe that is part retro and part contemporary, where the fantasy is grounded by the reality of the showbiz life.

Mia (Emma Stone) is pursuing an acting career; Seb (Ryan Gosling) is a jazz pianist, rooted in his love of classic mid-20th-century music, “pure jazz.” They meet briefly in that first scene, a surreal six-minute song-and-dance number on an LA freeway during a traffic jam. Over the next two hours their relationship with their art and each other develops with the help of a half dozen tunes, two of which, Audition and City of Stars, are particularly memorable. In fact, six weeks after I first saw the film at TIFF, I still remembered the understated, sinuously melancholic melody of City of Stars.

Emma Stone. Credit: Dale Robinette.Last summer Hurwitz spoke to Variety about his process and how some of the best songs in the movie happened the most effortlessly: “City of Stars started at the piano with me just working on demos for Damien, sending him ideas until something really sparked…We went through a lot of ideas, but I can’t really think of any music I was listening to at the time that I was thinking of when I was writing it. I was just composing it from an emotional place and thinking about the tone. I would say the tone is hopeful, but melancholy at the same time. And it kind of goes back and forth between cadencing in major and cadencing in minor, because I think that’s kind of what the song is about. You have these great moments and then you have these less great moments in life and in Los Angeles and we see it happen in the story. I was thinking about that idea a little bit and just trying to compose a melody that I thought was shapely and beautiful.”

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. Credit: Dale Robinette.Just as La La Land is Chazelle and Hurwitz’s third feature together (after their brilliant debut, the black and white Nouvelle Vague-inspired musical Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench and their breakthrough hit Whiplash), it’s also Gosling’s and Stone’s third collaboration (Crazy, Stupid, Love and Gangster Squad), unusual these days. While they’re not exactly Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, their naturalism and star power more than make up for it. If you’re keeping score, Gosling’s a little surer of foot than Stone but her singing skills surpass his. The fact that both Audition (Stone’s career-making plaintive showstopper: “Here’s to the ones who dream, Foolish as they may seem”) and City of Stars were recorded live as they were filmed is telling, if not extraordinary.

Ultimately, it’s Chazelle’s and Hurwitz’s vision that makes it all work. Mia and Seb even have their own theme; it begins inauspiciously and simply on the piano, grows and recurs as the narrative demands, and changes like the four seasons in which the film is set. You may even be humming it as you leave the theatre walking on a cloud.

La La Land is currently playing at a number of Cineplex Cinemas.

Paul Ennis is the managing editor of The WholeNote.

The Exultate Chamber Singers at their holiday concert.Carols are unique to the holiday season. At this time of year, they’re on the radio, humming in the back of our heads, in the malls as we shop, and often on the street being sung or played by musicians across the city. These ubiquitous songs cover every emotion possible: sad, happy, joyful, peaceful, funny, odd, and so much more. And it’s a challenging thing to program carols; people want to sing, people want to participate. Many choirs do just that and invite you to sing along!

In the smattering of concerts I’ve attended and performed in the last few days, communal singing has featured quite heavily. And why not! It’s fun, joyous—and how often can you find a venue with 1000 people singing?

On Wednesday, December 7, I sang in the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir’s performance of Festival of Carols under the baton of Noel Edison. Audience participation always features quite heavily in these productions and it’s good fun. Already a large choir of 130, the choristers were joined by the Salvation Army staff band and organist David Briggs. For anyone who has been to Yorkminster Park Baptist Church, it has one of the largest organs in the city, with a huge sound. Participating in these carols is fun and pleasing—especially if you’re lucky and can hear yourself over all the instruments.

This year’s communal offerings featured Once in Royal David’s City, O Come All Ye Faithful, God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, and The First Nowell. Perennial favorite, Hark the Herald Angels Sing, also made an appearance. This is one of my favourite carols, and the version most people know was written by the choir’s namesake himself, Felix Mendelssohn. This is the place to go if you want earth-shaking bass from the organ vibrating through your soul. Unfortunately, though, these concerts end up being a bit of a screamfest, trying to articulate and be heard over insurmountable noise from the organ and brass band. Sadly, choirs will always lose against a brass band.

On December 9, I caught Exultate Chamber Singers under Hilary Apfelstadt, which presented A Time for Celebration: A Canadian Christmas. Hilary programmed Stephen Chatman’s Christmas Joy, a medley of several traditional carols of British origin. With over 15 years of choral singing under my belt (half of my lifetime), I’m not often surprised by a new carol. In the medley, however, Noel Nouvelet and Lo! How a Rose, e’er Blooming were new to me. Accompanied by a brass quintet and organ, this was not a screamfest; it was so pleasant. The choir also presented a rare sing-along version of Timothy Corlis’ O Magnum Mysterium, and finished the concert with a new arrangement of Silent Night by chorister and composer J. Scott Brubacher—a beautiful treat, with a haunting bridge set to a rolling melody throughout the choir on the word “sleep”.

Apfelstadt has done an exemplary job featuring Canadian choral writers both old and new in her programming. Exultate is one of those choirs in which the artistic strength of the organization is met with equal talent amongst the musicians. The blend is formidable, and most of all, there is restraint. These choristers are always effective at singing with a wide dynamic range without losing intensity and intentionality, and—with the exception of one stray tenor from time to time—are balanced at every volume.

Exultate performs in a small church on the University of Toronto campus that I did not know existed: St. Thomas Anglican Church. This gem of a building features minimal soft fabrics, no carpet, and lots of wood. The vaulted ceiling carries the sound upwards where it rings. The resulting effect was a warm, present, resonant sound, where even with an organ and small brass quintet nothing was overpowering. Such a difference from the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, with the 30-person brass band and giant organ deafening everyone. A community affair, Exultate’s boisterous intermission of food and camaraderie and post-concert drinks at the Duke of York—the traditional post-show pub for anything at the U of T Faculty of Music—were a delight.

Moving on to Kitchener, on December 11 the Grand Philharmonic Choir provided another new addition to my ear at their Christmas Homecoming concert: the carol See Amid the Winter Snow. The adult choir was joined by the other three choirs in the organization: Viva (ages 7-9), Voce (ages 10-14); and the Grand Philharmonic Youth Choir (ages 14-23)—all together, over 200 choristers. The youngest choir’s performance of Chatter of the Angels was incredibly charming.

The feature was Jonathan Dove’s There was a Child, a collection of poems set to music and selected to commemorate the death of a young man of 19. Here, the choir was accompanied by the Kitchener Waterloo Symphony Orchestra, soprano Jacqueline Woodley, and tenor Andrew Haji.

The children’s choirs provided a jovial, playful sound through some of the poems, highlighted by melodies in the bassoon and clarinet, while the adult choir provided the meat of the choral work. Unfortunately, even with a book of lyrics in hand, the choir was mostly inaudible throughout the entire performance. The choir was set back about ten metres from the edge of the enormous stage; no voices could’ve cut through that much distance over an orchestra, not even 200 of them. I also felt that the placement of percussion adjacent to the audience was inappropriate: the bass drum was overwhelming, the cymbals startling, and even the triangle felt intrusive throughout this performance.

After the concert there was a lovely spread of baked goods, coffee, juices, and tea. Baking, good music, and happy people are a good mix. There was so much to eat, I imagine that there are some avid bakers among the 200+ performers. The strength of this family of choirs continues to provide a model for effective arts administration and synergy.

All of these concerts demonstrate that carols—perennial though they may be—can be refreshing, fun, and joyous. Effective conductors will program music that invigorates and excites both their audiences and their choristers. This is certainly no easy task, to take some of the most overperformed music ever written and make it seem new and exciting, but a good artistic director sees merit in carols, old and new. After all, we only get to sing them once a year.

Follow Brian Chang on Twitter @bfchang. Send info/media/tips to choralscene@thewholenote.com.

The Grand Philharmonic Choir in concert on Sunday, December 11. Credit: Catherine Unrau Woelk.Kitchener, ON – The biennial Leslie Bell Prize was awarded to Mark Vuorinen, artistic director of the Grand Philharmonic Choir, at the choir’s Christmas Homecoming concert on Sunday December 11, 2016. Granted by the Ontario Arts Council (OAC), the award is a $10,000 prize that recognizes exemplary emerging choral conductors.

Vuorinen has long been part of the arts in Kitchener-Waterloo. As the artistic director of the Grand Philharmonic Choir and assistant professor at Conrad Grebel University (the home of the music program at the University of Waterloo), Vuorinen contributes to a robust arts environment in the Kitchener-Waterloo area. Before completing his master’s degree from Yale in conducting and a doctorate in music from the University of Toronto, Vuorinen also studied at Wilfrid Laurier University as an undergrad.

“I think that Kitchener-Waterloo punches above its weight as far as arts and culture is concerned,” says Vuorinen. “It allows for a large organization like [the Grand Philharmonic Choir] to perform not only the staples of the literature, like Handel’s Messiah and Mendelssohn’s Elijah, but also to take risks with beautiful new works.” The choir continues to provide high-calibre premieres of stellar choral works, including the Canadian premiere of Jonathan Dove’s There was a Child on this concert, and a premiere last month of James Whitbourn’s Annelies.

The concert saw over 200 choristers perform, accompanied by the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony Orchestra. These two arts organizations continue to have a synergistic relationship. Vuorinen highlights Britten’s War Requiem, Mendelssohn’s Elijah, and the upcoming Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, all three of which are combined performances of the choir and orchestra.

Jessica Deljouravesh from the OAC presented the award at the concert, where the OAC jury described Vuorinen as “an impressive musical communicator…a strong leader…[who] has enhanced the presence of choral repertoire in Kitchener-Waterloo, both inside and outside of the concert hall.” Luisa D’Amato, executive director of the Grand Philharmonic Choir and family of choirs, seconded this sentiment while introducing Vuorinen, citing a “sensitive musicality, enormous work ethic, relentless insistence on high standards, and the deep humanity [that]  informs everything he does.”

In his acceptance of the award, Vuorinen said that “conducting is by no means a solitary effort. While there is a lot of time spent alone in preparation and learning, the act of making music is a shared one.” His speech came after the newest and youngest voices in the Grand Philharmonic Choir family, Viva and Voce, finished their performance. With a robust community of singers and talented leaders, Vuorinen’s place at the helm of these organizations exemplifies his commitment to sharing music.

The Grand Philharmonic's concert "Christmas Homecoming," where Mark Vuorinen was presented with the Leslie Bell Prize, took place on Sunday, December 11. For more information about the choir, visit www.grandphilchoir.com.

Follow Brian Chang on Twitter @bfchang. Send info/media/tips to choralscene@thewholenote.com.

Electric Messiah BannerElectric Messiah's soloists (L-R: Jeremy Dutcher, Christine Duncan, Carla Huhtanen, Gabriel Dharmoo). Photo credit: Claire Harvie.I enter the Drake Underground with some friends. We’re here for Electric Messiah, and none of us have any idea what is in store for us. The room is lit red, chairs askew with a few centered in the room. The instrumentalists are around the perimeter of the space facing inwards. The buzz isn’t just from the Cab-Merlot I’m sipping: there’s a hum from a track playing on the speakers and an energy in the room. All the performers are wandering around the space talking to people. There are about 50 people altogether, the space full but not cramped.

The performance begins with the turning on of a lightbulb. Nature sounds, live scratching, a funk organ and guitar come together to start off the adventure. Jeremy Dutcher begins with Comfort Ye. It is loud and aggressive, and is literally in your face. The abrasiveness of the performance and the power of his voice demands attention. Shortly, the rest of the vocalists join in one by one, in various languages. Gabriel Dharmoo, a Quebecer, stands out; his raga-inspired, French-improv chant is evocative.

You’ll have to forgive me, I don’t usually pay attention to the words that soloists sing in Handel’s Messiah. I have an inkling of what the emotion is and some of the words pop through, but in Roy Thomson Hall, the choir cannot hear very much from soloists facing the audience. This performance gave me a chance to experience the solos in a way I am not normally able to.

Jeremy Dutcher’s sensual rendition of Ev’ry Valley Shall be Exalted made me recognize the innuendo of the lyrics. The sexual connotations of making the rough places plain and “exalting” ev’ry valley are indelible in my mind. Much later, Christine Duncan and Gabriel Dharmoo began the songs Why do the nations so furiously rage together and Thou shalt break them. Conventional performance of these two often removes their urgency, their invocation of war and their evocation of terror. Duncan and Dharmoo started the songs but ended up yelling violently at each other. The invocation and evocation were chillingly clear.

Insistency frames this work, gives it its engine, and drives its power. The artistic choices are strong and effective; the work felt urgent and flowing. Pieces felt like a cup under a running faucet, waiting for a moment to overflow before reaching equilibrium. I think of Carla Huhtanen’s interpretation of How Beautiful Are the Feet. Normally performed in G minor, the piece was moved down into a solid mezzo register (C minor?). Half the song was performed at this lower range, which intrigued me, leading me to want more and more. Finally, Huhtanen returned to the written key and finished beautifully.

Electric Messiah. Photo by the author.Effective performances, for me, leave me with a sense of yearning. I believe that a good performance should never give you everything you want. This Messiah left me wanting to explore and know more. The minimalist instrumental accompaniment – organ, guitar and turntables – never felt lacking; the organ inhabited a much-valued presence in the music and paired well with the similarly funk-inspired guitar. The scratching and spinning added a new depth and presence, and contributed to the insistency and urgency of the performance.

Movement artist Lybido provided a dance interpretation of Jesus Christ that was particularly thought-provoking because it could have almost passed unnoticed. Inscrutable and esoteric, moving around the fringes of the room, one had to look for him, to work at seeing him. Point being, in our day and age we wouldn’t recognize Jesus if he were right in front of us. There is a great metaphor in making the actual Messiah peripheral, dancing around the room. In this case, we can only make the connection if we choose to. Recognizing the Messiah isn’t the dancer’s responsibility; it’s ours.

Hearing a work that I know so well, performed in a different way – in snippets, in pieces, with modifications, with edits – kept me engaged and excited. If you are fan of Handel’s Messiah, I recommend that you catch Electric Messiah. Pay attention to the way it makes you feel, and then see your typical Messiah, and pay attention to how that makes you feel. I believe you’ll find yourself enlightened by both, and possibly renewed. There is much to love about Messiah; let it continue.

Soundstreams’ Electric Messiah, based on Handel’s Messiah, is at the Drake Hotel Underground December 5 to 7. For details on the performers and the show, visit https://www.soundstreams.ca/performances/ear-candy/electric-messiah/.

Follow Brian Chang on Twitter @bfchang. Send info/media/tips to choralscene@thewholenote.com.

The Lord of the Rings at Roy Thomson Hall.The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring premiered in Canada on December 19, 2001. That year I started high school and it was the first time I took a music class in a real music program. That Christmas, one of my friends gave me the soundtrack for the movie. I fell in love with it and have loved it ever since. For me, my entire musical history has been inspired and shaped by this soundtrack. With “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring In Concert” at Roy Thomson Hall, December 1 to 3 with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, I’ve been able to perform the film’s music onstage as a chorister. It has been one of the greatest privileges of my life as a musician.

The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir’s scores arrived early in the season and we rehearsed the choral portions from early October. As prepared as we can try to be with entries at this stage, once we join the maestro and the orchestra during the week of the show, the whole game changes. This is when the real work begins.

This Monday through Wednesday were our rehearsals at Roy Thomson Hall. The instrumentalists and choir rehearsed separately until we combined on Wednesday evening. Our dress rehearsal, Thursday afternoon, was the first time the entire production was put together. The Thursday performance was only the second time we’ve ever completed the full production. At time of writing, two more performances are ahead.

This is not easy music. Entries are sudden and challenging. Often, the choir comes in after a long pause or break with no reference for the starting note or chord, and the texture gets thick in the writing, with cluster chords of three or four notes per section. And as choristers, we are working diligently, even if we’re sitting and waiting – paying attention to cues for standing up to sing. The Canadian Children’s Opera Chorus is also part of this production, and they spend a good chunk of the movie just waiting. Those talented kids are patient.

For productions like this one, the chorister sheet music doesn’t have a full score of what is going on among the instruments or on the film. Our scores contain the vocal parts and an orchestral reduction, and we rely mostly on aural cues – this trombone part, or that sound, or this entry from the violins – to know when specific things are meant to happen, like when to stand. Making a road map of sounds and cues is an important part of being a good chorister. (One of my cues is Frodo gasping!)

There are big pieces in the soundtrack that require stamina, concentration, listening and excellent technique. The male voices have the hardest and longest section of choral singing in the entire score – Khazad-dûm. Onscreen, there are Orcs, Balrogs, crumbling staircases, pulling of beards, Gandalf falling, all sorts of things. Chances are likely you’ll hear the taiko drums, the bass drum, brass chords, and most of all – the anvil. Used together, these instruments give an effect of military precision, danger, heartbeats, unsettling fear and heroism, sometimes all at the same time. Cutting through all this noise are the voices of the men. “Articulation is the way through the orchestra,” says Ludwig Wicki, the conductor. So we articulate our Orcish “Hu” and “Lu”.

Ludwig Wicki.

Wicki, from Lucerne, Switzerland, is a wonderful maestro. His ear for the music and for specificity is unlike any other I have ever worked with. He is precise and consistent and incredibly good at getting what he needs. Where most would hear a massive dissonant cluster chord, he hears an A-flat that is under pitch. Where most would hear a beautiful horn line, he hears a missing D. He’s quite amazing. 

I appreciate a conductor who values film music. Wicki demands accurate pitch, correct vowel placement, dynamic range and expressivity – everything you’d expect from a choral masterwork and more. Because the languages Tolkien invented in The Lord of the Rings – Quenya, Dark Language, Dwarvish, and more – are unknown to us, choristers are not quite sure how to sing them. Wicki tidies this up as he rehearses, changing sounds to match what is needed. He is demanding because this is not music that one coasts through; this is challenging work that keeps even experienced choristers on their toes.

Wicki specializes in contemporary film scores, especially live film concerts. He was the first to conduct The Lord of the Rings trilogy in this format. Wicki also understands what composer Howard Shore has created. “He has created a special language. Two composers have done this, [Ennio] Morricone and [Howard] Shore,” says Wicki. There's also a Canadian connection; Howard Shore is Canadian.

With three sold-out performances, there are several thousand people who will have been able to say they experienced the Lord of the Rings film concert experience. For any live film concert series you see, buy tickets early; they often sell out. Stay tuned to www.thewholenote.com and we’ll keep you apprised.

“The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring In Concert” is in Toronto at Roy Thomson Hall from December 1 to 3, in three sold-out performances featuring the TSO and Toronto Mendelssohn Choir. For more information on this and other film music shows in Toronto this season, check out Brian Chang’s November choral column for the magazine.

Follow Brian on Twitter @bfchang. Send info/media/tips to choralscene@thewholenote.com.

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