Considering Matthew Shepard premiered by Conspirare, February 2016 in Austin, Texas. Photo by JAMES GOULDENThere’s never before been a time like this for the arts community. And we’re all in disarray. I’m feeling disconnected from my musical community, the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir and the wider connected cultural family of the Toronto live classical music world. These are people and friends I spend hours with every week, and hundreds of hours with over the course of a season. They are faces I see and smile with, they are voices I sing with and feel comforted by. But like many of us across the arts community, we’re all separated from one another and the current season for the choir and most other arts organizations is totally up in the air.

A month before you get the magazine in your hands, writers are usually hard at work combing through listings and reaching out into networks to build and develop stories about what matters to everyday people. More often than not, it isn’t an issue about finding something interesting to write about, but rather, how to focus on only a handful of things in the musical chaos and glory that the region has to offer. It is heartbreaking to look at the pages of listings with close to 100 listings, knowing that none of them are coming to fruition. This has never happened before. 

We had so much to talk about this month too. I wanted to talk about Oakham House Choir’s Elijah. I wanted to talk about Considering Matthew Shepard with Pax Christi Chorale. I wanted to talk about preparing for Easter music. I wanted to talk about choral music and how much I love ensemble singing. 

Pax Christi’s David Bowser and I had even met and the interview is sitting on my phone, recorded, the two of us delving into the powerful story of a gay man beaten and left to die because he was different. We talked about how Craig Hella Johnson was so moved by this that he decided to put it into music and develop an oratorio over many years. We talked about how significant it was for a choir to pick up music like this and be challenged musically and spiritually by it. And we talked about the power of choral music to tell powerful stories like this that leave us changed as musicians and audiences. 

“Rests and silence are how musicians make music truly magical.”

But we won’t get to hear Considering Matthew Shepard this season. And we may not hear any more concerts. In the Mendelssohn Choir, we were preparing an austere Healey Willan piece, written to commemorate service people who died in World War I, How They So Softly Rest. It hums in my head as a memory of the sounds of what would have been the signature performance that the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir is known for, its annual “Sacred Music for a Sacred Space” concert, always performed on Good Friday.  

I can’t bring myself to take my sheet music out of my knapsack. Even though I have nowhere to go, it doesn’t seem right to take it and put it away.  

All our rehearsal halls and all our concert halls will be dark for the next little bit. And that’s okay. There’s an important adage in performance that goes something like this, “Anyone can make noise and hold notes, but rests and silence are how musicians make music truly magical.” Composers can write the loudest, most powerful, thick, heavily orchestrated chords, but they are often only powerful because of what precedes them or proceeds from them – a rest. And eventually, all music does come to silence. But this isn’t the end.

The spine-tingling moments of anxious waiting between the old 20th-Century Fox fanfare and the Star Wars theme. The silence after the three iconic opening notes of Beethoven’s Fifth. The great silence before the final two “Amens” of Handel’s Messiah. Silence is part of the great music we all love and rests mark so much of what we know in music. The world in isolation is no different. We’re on a grand pause right now. This isn’t the silence at the end of a song, it’s the dramatic silence before something wonderful. We have beautiful sounds ahead of us. We’ll see you back at rehearsal and in concerts soon enough. 

Follow Brian on Twitter @bfchang.

Send info/media/tips to choralscene@thewholenote.com.

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Author: Brian Chang
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