The opening Kyrie of the Bach Mass in B Minor is one of the hardest starts of any major work for a choir; with no starting pitch, the precisely placed hard “K” prior to any other sound, and careful phrasing that starts right away – the opening has much to say about how the rest of the performance will play out. Bold and full should be the effect. Bach’s masterpiece is not a light undertaking for any choir. This April, it’s safe to assume that Tafelmusik will take up this estimable work with its usual intense professionalism, deep artistry and impeccable technique.

“This is the seventh time Tafelmusik has [programmed] the Mass, with some 25 performances behind us,” shares Charlotte Nediger, Tafelmusik harpsichordist and organist. Instrumentalists and choristers alike relish revisits to Bach’s work, finding “new details and more depth in the score every time.” Nediger continues: “The Bach Mass in B Minor is a very challenging piece on every level, for all performers on stage …[It] demands an extremely high level of skill, virtuosity and artistry of every single singer, and the combined result is astonishing.”

Ivars Taurins takes the reins with early music soloists. Dorothee Mields, a German early music specialist, takes on the soprano. Laura Pudwell, Canadian, is the mezzo-soprano. English tenor Charles Daniels joins Canadian Tyler Duncan to round off the soloists. The essential horn solo in the Quoniam will be performed by Scott Wevers.

On the performance, Nediger concludes: “To say that it is inspiring is an understatement – it is also humbling, in the best sense. Tafelmusik is an ensemble in which everyone brings absolutely everything they can to every performance, and I think you sense that in the audience.” Nediger herself has an enviable position to take it all in, placed at the heart of the stage in front of the orchestra. With the surrounding forces of Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir, she is uniquely positioned to enjoy the music as she works her way through the intense score.

Tafelmusik performs Bach’s Mass in B Minor April 5 to 7, 8pm, April 8, 3:30pm at Jeanne Lamon Hall, Trinity-St Paul’s Centre and April 10, 8pm at George Weston Recital Hall, Toronto Centre for the Arts.

As discussed elsewhere in this issue, on March 30 at 7:30pm at Metropolitan United Church, the Metropolitan Festival Choir and Orchestra also perform the Mass in B Minor for Good Friday, with a top-notch set of soloists: Ellen McAteer and Gisele Kulak, soprano; Christina Stelmacovich, mezzo-soprano; Charles Davidson, tenor; and Daniel Lichti, baritone. Metropolitan United Church.

Hilary Apfelstadt and the University of Toronto at Lincoln Center

Hilary Apfelstadt, (soon to be retiring) director of choral activities at the University of Toronto, last visited Lincoln Center, New York City, to perform as part of the Distinguished Concerts International New York City (DCINY) concert series for an International Women’s Day concert in March 2014. This month she returns for DCINY’s March 17 concert, conducting the combined forces of singers and orchestra in the major choral work on the program, Luigi Cherubini’s Requiem. Among the 200 singers from across the US and Canada, including the Luther College Choir from Regina, will be singers from Toronto’s Kingsway-Lambton United Church Chancel Choir and a few dozen singers from the four major choirs of the University of Toronto Faculty of Music. The Cherubini shares the ticket with a set of smaller choral works conducted by Martha Shaw, and the premiere of a concerto for flute, harp and orchestra by DCINY composer-in-residence Dinos Constantinides, led by DCINY principal conductor Jonathan Griffith.

Hilary ApfelstadtOf the Cherubini, Apfelstadt says: “It’s a lovely work, a little unusual, in that it has no soloists. The choir is singing almost nonstop. It was performed at Beethoven’s funeral because he admired it so much, but was originally created for the memorial of King Louis XVI of France.” This work follows the standard requiem format, but with Romantic and Classical elements reflecting the transition period beginning in 19th-century European music. The opening two movements are performed without violins. The deeper sound and broad crescendos provide a dramatic edge without the higher pitches. Apfelstadt also notes that the instrumentation lacks flutes, further contributing to a profound bass and heaviness in the music.

Early Romantic ideals are apparent in the bombastic Dies Irae, with the unusual programming of a gong. The same movement also shows a more classical ideal, with fugal runs and strings typical of Mozart and other classical contemporaries. The choir provides the dramatic energy of the piece, consistently singing in chorale throughout. The fugal runs of the Offertorium are particularly exciting.

Apfelstadt is mindful of the intense time commitments and existing rehearsals music students must juggle. “From a pragmatic point of view, when you’re teaching at school, you’re always trying to find things that are vocally challenging, without being overtaxing.” The goal is to set up the students for success and the Cherubini represents “a choral piece that is a challenge, with enough elements in it to be surprising.”

“They seem to like it, have a feel of accomplishment,” says Apfelstadt. “Virtually none of the students have encountered [Cherubini’s] work, or heard much about this composer. It’s really well written, bits remind me of Mozart, bits remind me of Beethoven. And because Beethoven was such a fan of the work, it’s like a stamp of approval.”

Those students who join Apfelstadt in New York will have the privilege of experiencing Lincoln Center from the stage. Here in Toronto, later in the month, on March 24 at the MacMillan Theatre, you can catch the entire massing of the four main faculty choirs, the Women’s Choir, the Women’s Chamber Choir, the Men’s Chorus and the MacMillan Singers, along with the University of Toronto Symphony Orchestra as they present the Cherubini Requiem. With 200 singers and the power of the U of T Symphony Orchestra at her fingertips, Apfelstadt looks forward to this performance capping off her distinguished career at the University of Toronto.


Mar 8 and 9: Soundstreams presents Tan Dun’s Water Passion. David Fallis helms this performance with instrumentalists and Choir 21. Dun has not often composed for choir and this complex work invokes the circular passage and flow of life, intimated by the story of Christ, and evoked by the presence and sound of water. Helmuth Rilling, founder of the Internationale Bachakademie Stuttgart, commissioned four new interpretations of the Passion of Christ from the four Gospels in 2000. Tan Dun was given the commission for St. Matthew’s. Mar 8, 7:30pm at the Isabel Bader Theatre, Kingston; Mar 9, 8pm at Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre, Toronto.

For a more conventional performance of the Bach St. Matthew Passion, Chorus Niagara under Robert Cooper performs it the week prior. Mar 3, 7:30pm at FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre, St. Catharines.

Mar 28 and 30, 7:30pm: The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir presents “Sacred Music for a Sacred Space.” All the choristers (myself included) always love this annual Easter tradition. Performing on Good Friday, in the aural and visual splendour of St. Paul’s Basilica, maintains an annual tradition of emotionally deep a cappella music presented by Toronto’s finest. Artistic director Noel Edison has programmed a horn of plenty including Eric Whitacre’s Sleep, John Tavener’s Song for Athene, Rachmaninoff’s Bogoroditse Devo and works by Bruckner, Mendelssohn, Łukaszewski and others.

Mar 30, 3pm: The Trinity St. Paul’s United Church Choir are joined by VIVA! Youth Singers and the Oakville Choir for Children and Youth in presenting “Good Friday Choral Concert.” Part of the programming is Andrew Balfour’s Take the Indian: A Vocal Reflection on Missing Children, a remarkable piece built from the pain of the Canadian government’s residential school atrocities and the longstanding institutionalized racism and neglect of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. Balfour, himself an Indigenous child taken by and into state care, is artistic director of Camerata Nova, an early, contemporary and Indigenous-infused music ensemble based in Winnipeg. Balfour is being brought in to help prepare the choirs. If sufficient weight is given to the work’s performance, its power and its discomforting narrative, I anticipate a significant and moving display.

Mar 31, 7:30pm: The Guelph Chamber Choir bids farewell to conductor Gerald Neufeld after 37 years at the helm. Neufeld, a longstanding music educator, has taught in the faculties at the University of Guelph and Western University. His final performance will be Brahms’ masterpiece: A German Requiem at the River Run Centre, Guelph.

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There are some big and unique choral experiences this month. There’s a celebration of the 50th anniversary of Healey Willan’s death, the combined forces of choirs from the University of Toronto and York University, a rare performance premiere for Tafelmusik and a new interpretation of Bach’s St Matthew Passion! We’ll return in March with all you need to know about the best of Easter choral music offerings. Stay warm and singing in the meantime.

Willan - 50 years on

Andrew Adair, music director of the Church of St. Mary Magdalene, convenes artists to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Willan’s death. Of choral composers in Canada, Willan was a pinnacle. With hundreds of choral works, operas, symphonies and organ works amongst many others, Willan’s main contribution to Canadian music was through sacred music, much of it created at and for the choir at St Mary Magdalene, where he was music director and organist.

“Willan left a lasting impact on the Church of St. Mary Magdalene through his shaping of the liturgy and music,” shares Adair. “His work at St. Mary Magdalene’s created a very special environment, one which has allowed the music to flourish and survive against all odds.” A lot of Willan’s choral music is a cappella. Adair shares that this is because of the layout of St Mary Magdalene where the choir loft is in the west gallery and the organ on the other side of the building. For a music director who was also the organist, this meant Willan was unable to play and conduct at the same time. This lasting effect means that even today, the choir at St. Mary Magdalene still mostly sings a cappella. Adair looks forward to bringing forward Willan’s accompanied works at this concert.

Adair is joined by organists Simon Walker and Matthew Larkin, each performing one of Willan’s great organ works: the Introduction, Passacaglia and Fugue in E-flat Minor; Prelude and Fugue in C Minor; and the Passacaglia and Fugue in E Minor. Matthew Larkin’s choir of Saint Thomas’s Anglican Church will join the Choir of St Mary Magdalene. February 16 at 8pm; Church of St. Mary Magdalene, Toronto.

The Mozart Requiem: The Music of Unity

With the rich history, detail, and artistry available to students in Toronto, I’m excited to see inter-university programming. I’m particularly interested in the joint events between Lisette Canton and Daniel Taylor and the combination of ensembles from York University and the University of Toronto, a model for future collaborations.

Lisette CantonCanton’s ensembles, the York University Chamber Choir and Ottawa Bach Choir, are joining forces with Daniel Taylor’s musicians at the University of Toronto Schola Cantorum and the Theatre of Early Music. Along with an orchestra made up of Tafelmusik performers and soloists, the combined forces will perform two performances of Mozart’s Requiem.

“Dan Taylor and I have a similar philosophy on music,” Canton shares, “that it carries a universal message of hope, transcending all religions and cultures, and unites us all. And it is this philosophy that has prompted us to collaborate on various musical productions for the past two decades.” Through their longstanding connection, Canton and Taylor brought their ensembles together in 2014, performing the music of the Coronation of King George II in 1727 (the coronation that established Handel’s Zadok the Priest as a standard at every coronation since.)

 “Collaborations of this nature are so important – for the students, professionals and for the community – in that they unite us in a common musical goal and become bigger than the sum of the individual parts. And when the music is as powerful as the Mozart Requiem, these become life-changing experiences,” says Canton. Choristers and instrumentalists alike have long known the unique power of the Mozart Requiem. While incomplete, the experience of performing the work can be incredibly significant. “Mozart’s beloved Requiem is one of those works in the choral canon that continues to inspire every generation,” Canton says. “Its widespread ability to reach to the depths of human emotions on this most universal theme makes it a timeless work of dramatic and spiritual intensity that moves us to greater depths of understanding.” Many choirs perform this work in full or portions of it frequently. For many musicians, it has become musical vernacular.

York University Chamber Choir“Once the students graduate – especially in a city as large as Toronto – they will continue to work together in common settings, ensembles, and as soloists,” Canton says. The nature of music requires collaborations, sometimes wonderful and transcendent, other times a bit messy – but necessary to the task of musical creation. She continues: “Our job as mentors/conductors is to initiate these contacts and guide up-and-coming performers in meaningful concert experiences, as well as to help them find potential opportunities and career directions. Beginning these connections during their university experience only ignites their passion for the art of music and helps them to forge significant friendships and professional connections.”

The Mozart Requiem: conducted by Dr. Lisette Canton: March 3, 7:30pm. Church of the Redeemer, Toronto; conducted by Daniel Taylor: March 4, 7:30pm. 7:30pm. St Basil’s Church, Toronto.

A Rare Premiere Performance by Tafelmusik

Tafelmusik has a Handel premiere: Alexander’s Feast, or the Power of Music. This old set of music by Handel was set to words by Newburgh Hamilton based on an earlier text from John Dryden. Ivars Taurins leads the orchestra and Chamber Choir in a performance of this work celebrating Alexander the Great’s conquest of the great Persian city of Persepolis. Charlotte Nediger tells us that the original performance was done to coincide with the feast day of St Cecilia, the patron saint of music. “The aim of St. Cecilia odes is to celebrate music,” says Nediger in the program notes, “and it is evident here in the range of orchestrations in the airs and choruses, and by the inclusion of two concertos – one for harp, representing Timotheus’ lyre, and one for organ, representing “the divine Cecilia.” With soprano Amanda Forsythe, tenor Thomas Hobbs, baritone Alexander Dobson, harpist Julia Seager-Scott and organist Charlotte Nediger. The work includes the well-known Concerto for Organ in G Minor and the Concerto for Harp in B-flat Major. February 22 to 24, 8pm; February 25, 3:30pm. Koerner Hall, Toronto.

Evoking the Passion – Bach Reinterpreted

Chorus Niagara, under Robert Cooper, takes on Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. Everything about this performance sounds intriguing. Not only is the Passion a large work, with two orchestras, six soloists, children’s and adult choir, Cooper is leading a semi-staged production. “More and more, choral performances are wanting and needing some extra musical design to guide you through the experiences,” shares Cooper, who has a theatre background himself. Cooper has worked with Joel Ivany on other stagings of works normally done in straight performance. The staging will be set by Torontonian Aria Umezawa, who is currently an Adler Fellow at the San Francisco Opera in direction and is the artistic director of Opera 5. It will be interesting to see how Umezawa’s contributions reflect her mentorship by Peter Sellars; Sellars famously staged a Berlin Philharmoniker performance of the St. Matthew Passion in 2010.

Robert Cooper conducts Chorus Niagara and the Chorus Niagara Children’s Choir with the Talisker Players; James McClean as the Evangelist; Michal Robert-Broder as Christus; Maeve Palmer, soprano; Lillian Brooks, mezzo-soprano; Zach Finkelstein; and Stephen Hegedus, bass. March 3, 7:30pm. FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre, St Catharines.


Feb 10, 7:30pm. The Grand Philharmonic Choir presents Gloria, a presentation of Leonard Bernstein’s challenging Chichester Psalms, Poulenc’s Gloria, and Timothy Corlis’s Psalm 150. St Peter’s Lutheran Church, Kitchener.

Feb 11, 2:30pm. Georgian Music is hosting Dr Hilary Apfelstadt and the Exultate Chamber Singers. Apfelstadt, a champion of Canadian choral music, has programmed works by Canadians Healey Willan, Eleanor Daley, Ruth Watson Henderson and Stephen Chatman. The Choir will also perform Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus and Eric Whitacre’s Five Hebrew Love Songs. Grace United Church, Barrie.

Feb 16 and 17. The Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony Orchestra presents “Sing-Along Musicals,” a fun family concert. With classic selections from The King and I, Oklahoma!, the Sound of Music and Mary Poppins just to name a few, the Grand Philharmonic Youth Choir will provide the vocals. Bring the family and have a fun time singing along at the Centre in the Square, Kitchener.

Feb 25, 4pm. The Toronto Children’s Chorus presents “Rainbows and Icicles.” With special guests, the Claude Watson School of the Arts Boy’s Choir, the various TCC choirs will perform beloved songs from films and musicals like Mary Poppins, the Muppets and the Aristocrats. North Toronto Collegiate, Toronto.

Mar 3, 7:00pm. The Mississauga Festival Chamber Choir presents “Phantom Unmasked.” The 1925 Phantom of the Opera was made as a silent film. Andrew Downing, a Canadian composer, has set it to music for orchestra and choir. Quite a few choirs have performed this work as it proves popular with audiences. The Mississauga Festival Chamber Choir performs and is collecting non-perishable food donations. RBC Theatre, Living Arts Centre, Mississauga.

Mar 6 and 7, 7:30pm. The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir presents “MacMillan and Pärt.” Two years ago Soundstreams hosted Scottish composer James MacMillan in Toronto as part of its mainstage. Macmillan himself took the helm in a presentation of his masterpiece Seven Last Words from the Cross. Noel Edison, artistic director of the choir brings this work to life with a smaller contingent of singers. The choir in full performs Arvo Pärt’s Berliner Messe. Pärt’s unique meditative music will wash over interested audiences. Church of the Holy Trinity, Toronto. clip_image001.png

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Welcome to this double edition of Choral Scene! By the time you get your hands on this magazine the holiday season will be well under way. Carols will get in your ear, festive sounds will echo out and bells will be a-ringing throughout the region. I hope you’ve got your concert tickets in hand. If not, hurry up and reserve your place in these amazing concerts before you’re disappointed. Balancing out the holiday season, I’m also going to highlight some interesting performances you should check out in the choral world into the new year. We’ll be back in February, just in time for Chinese New Year on February 16, 2018 – the Year of the Dog! But I’m going to highlight a few performances well beyond the date that you might want to circle in one of the seasonal calendars you will doubtless be acquiring in the coming weeks.

Stage Coughs

But first, from a chorister’s perspective, some thoughts on the dreaded cough and wintry illness for singers!

In November’s WholeNote, Vivien Fellegi wrote about major injuries and musicians and noted that 84 percent of musicians will have to deal with a significant injury affecting their ability to make music. If you ask any vocalist to name their performance terror, it usually involves being sick around performance time. Four years ago, during an especially illness-fraught Messiah run at the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, the flu and cold hit our soprano and bass soloists. Eventually, a sub for the bass needed to be called in to finish the run. Members of the choir were hit as well. Good performers put on a good show even when adverse conditions exist, but even then, there’s only so much one can do when your body is under bacterial or viral attack.

This past October, I got a pretty bad viral throat infection. It cleared, but the residual cough and throat irritation continued for a few weeks. The result was a lot of rehearsals spent sitting in the back, humming along as we began going through Suzanne Steele and Jeffrey Ryan’s Afghanistan: Requiem for a Generation. My voice returned in time for the Remembrance Day performances but there was coughing during the performance I just couldn’t control. A persistently irritated throat, diminished lung capacity, wonky musculature around the vibrating air and sudden bursts of coughing made it hard to rehearse and perform. It’s quite upsetting to find your instrument unreliable. Something is physically making your voice not work and it is quite distressing, because when it is your body, nothing can really make the healing process go faster than it takes.

And Audience Echoes

Let’s be clear though, illness sucks even if you aren’t a performer. If you’re in the audience, sometimes the tension of trying not to make a sound makes you uncomfortable to the point where you’re no longer enjoying the music and instead just trying to be silent. I know many of my colleagues feel very strongly about audience noises. Some barely notice, but some take great issue with coughs and shuffles and the noises that crowds of hundreds of people make just by existing.

For me, any good performer can do their job, even when there is noise; the aural presence of the audience adds an ambience to the overall process of performing. Performing without an audience is just glorified rehearsal. Real audiences are made of real people and they make noises. They react to the music and they respond in kind. Think about how the energy in the room changes when everyone stands for the “Hallelujah Chorus” in Messiah – there is a visceral, physical and emotional change in the room. You don’t have to be a music aficionado to notice it, or more importantly, to feel changed by it. I like when there’s an audience, especially a big one, and I think most performing arts organizations would prefer you’re there, even if a bit noisy.

So, into this season of coughs, hacks, sneezes and other wintry ailments we go. Be healthy and get your flu shot! And be kind to the singers in your life, especially if we Purell ourselves religiously and take precautions to stay away from potential illness. We’re worried sick about losing our voices!

The Governor General’s Messiah

The newly installed Governor General, Julie Payette, once sang in the Tafelmusik Chamber Choir. She famously carried a recording of Tafelmusik’s Messiah with her into space. Her Excellency’s love of music will surely serve her well in her position as a grand patron of the arts in Canada.

Tafelmusik Chamber Choir - Photo by Sian RichardsTafelmusik’s annual Messiah continues to provide a period interpretation in the inimitable Koerner Hall, December 12 to 16. Ivars Taurins leads the ensembles. Presenting one of the smaller Messiah performances annually, Tafelmusik also presents the largest Messiah in town with its annual “Sing-Along Messiah” at Massey Hall, where 2,700 fans join the orchestra and choir in a grand tradition under the baton of the great maestro himself, Herr Handel (aka. Ivars Taurins), December 17 at 2pm.

A Solid Choral Holiday at the TSO

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra (TSO) has an exceptionally choir-filled holiday season.

Home Alone in concert is being performed live with the Etobicoke School of the Arts Concert Choir, conducted by Constantine Kitsopoulos, November 30 to December 2. This beloved movie is very much a holiday favourite and one of John Williams’ most magical scores. “Somewhere in my Memory,” nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song, has become a choral classic for the season.

Then, joining the TSO for the first time, Resonance Youth Choir from Mississauga makes its debut in Roy Thomson Hall on December 10 at 3pm. Only in its second season, Bob Anderson’s choir will join Tha Spot Holiday Dancers and TSYO Concerto Competition winner, cellist Dale Yoon Ho Jeong. Sing-along classics Jingle Bells, Joy to the World, Hark! The Herald Angels Sing and more are part of the program, as well as an excerpt from Saint-Saëns Cello Concerto No.1. David Amado, music director of the Delaware Symphony and the Atlantic Music Festival, leads the groups. The main presentation will be live accompaniment of Howard Blake’s score to the holiday favourite film The Snowman.

No holiday season is complete without the TSO Pops Concert, featuring the Canadian Brass and the Etobicoke School of the Arts Holiday Chorus. Lucas Waldin conducts. The program December 12 and 13 looks magical, including bits from The Polar Express film, unique Canadian Brass arrangements like White Christmas, Go Tell it On the Mountain, The First Noël and carols arranged by TSO Pops conductor Stephen Reineke. (Waldin, who works with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, was most recently in Toronto conducting the hugely popular and totally-sold-out TSO Carly Rae Jepsen performance.)

Last but not least, the TSO and Toronto Mendelssohn Choir presentation of Messiah promises to be as grand as ever. Matthew Halls, British early music specialist, takes the helm. This performance has an impeccable set of soloists: Karina Gauvin, soprano; Krisztina Szabó, mezzo-soprano; Frédéric Antoun, tenor; and Joshua Hopkins, baritone. December 18 to 23 in Roy Thomson Hall. (Barring an uncontrollable relapse into viral coughing, I’ll be there in my usual place in the Mendelssohn tenor section.)

The New Year

With most musical programming seasons running to the end of June, I’ve decided to highlight one performance from each of the next few months. They might make great gifts if you’re thinking ahead, and there are some you’ll surely want to secure seats to before they sell out.

January: Annually, at the end of January, the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir hosts one of the most important training intensives for emerging conductors anywhere in North America. Under the supervision of Noel Edison, five symposium participants are exposed to a rigorous schedule of about 20 diverse songs from global choral repertoire and tested by the chamber-sized Elora Festival Singers and the symphonic, full Toronto Mendelssohn Choir. The week culminates with a free concert and a chance to see these conductors in action on January 27 at 3pm, Yorkminster Park Baptist Church, Toronto.

February: The Orpheus Choir presents “Nordic Light.” The Northern Lights, also known as the Aurora Borealis, have long captured the imagination and spirit of peoples in the far North. Indigenous peoples in Canada have an especially strong connection to their presence. Ēriks Ešenvalds, Latvian composer, has written Nordic Light Symphony. He will be in Toronto to introduce the work prior to the performance. This is the Canadian premiere of the work and a chance to experience Ešenvalds’ ethereal, atmospheric and deeply satisfying work, February 24 at 7:30pm, Metropolitan United Church, Toronto.

March: Soundstreams presents Tan Dun’s Water Passion. Choir 21, soloists and instruments are conducted by David Fallis. I’m deeply intrigued by the program. Billed as a reimagination of the Bach St. Matthew Passion. Dun’s East Asian musicality will weave a blending of the words of Christ through the theme of water, guided by Eastern musical traditions. From Mongolian overtone singing to Peking Opera to the sound of water, this promises to be an experience, March 9 at 8pm, Trinity-St. Pauls Centre, Toronto.

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Heading into the month of November remembrance, I’ve highlighted two performances: the first is by Chorus Niagara and the Orpheus Choir, and the second by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra with guests. The major works in these two performances commemorate two very different wars separated by 100 years, World War I and the war in Afghanistan. War continues to inspire stories, and to invoke teaching, reflection and discussion. But as we head towards Remembrance Day, it is worth reflecting on the fact that sonic remembrance has the power to evoke things that words alone can not. There are many options available to listeners across the region, particularly early in the month, to experience this, in the offerings of great composers and musicians alike.

Later in the month, on November 22, Dr. Hilary Apfelstadt, an icon in the choral world, director of choral activities and professor of conducting at the University of Toronto, releases her new book on the life of Ruth Watson Henderson, I Didn’t Want To Be Boring. Apfelstadt’s book tells the story of this remarkable musician, gathered through interviews over several years. With over 200 choral works, Watson Henderson’s story is anything but boring.

Lastly, at the tail end of my “quick picks” I have included a few early holiday concerts. Make sure you check out the full listings and get your tickets early. Holiday performances often sell out and are amongst the most fun performances you can find anywhere!

Last Light Above the World: A War Litany

November 4 at 7:30pm, Chorus Niagara presents the world premiere of Last Light Above the World: A War Litany by Allan Bevan. “I scoured war diaries,” shares Bevan on the Chorus Niagara Facebook page, “looked at war art, read letters and other war correspondence, and delved into the large body of poetry written by people involved.” From these sources, Bevan created a story of a couple. “He has gone off to battle, and she is left to consider it. They become the conscience of the work, the ones who portray the human cost of the war.” Shaw Festival actors Hailey Gillis and Colin Palangio bring this couple to life.

Robert Cooper helms these performances with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and soloists Maeve Palmer, soprano; Lillian Brooks, mezzo-soprano; Anthony Varahidis, tenor; and Alexander Bowie, bass. Bevan has written the soloists as “spirits” who represent the “dead” referred to in the famous lines of John McCrae’s In Flander’s Fields “We are the dead…” Bevan continues: “Last Light does not pretend that there are easy answers, it is not a simple comforting… In the poetry of WWI, generally speaking, war is neither glorified nor vilified, it is simply recorded: all its horror, sacrifice, as well as its unexpected beauty, compassion and forgiveness.”

The Orpheus Choir of Toronto, also conducted by Robert Cooper, performs the same work in Toronto on November 5 at 3:30pm, Grace Church on-the-Hill.

Afghanistan: Requiem for a Generation

It has been almost 16 years since the official, Parliament-sanctioned intervention by the Canadian Forces in Afghanistan began. In those days of constant war headlines and combat deaths, our country was at war on the other side of the planet. Afghanistan was a war unlike others, constantly changing and evolving, fought against an often unstructured and asymmetrical enemy. For those of us who read the news here in Canada, this war also strongly shaped our country in the last decade and a half. The war in Afghanistan has opened discussions on a great number of complex issues like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the role of the Canadian Forces in international conflicts, military investment, American imperialism, racism, child combatants, pacifism and so much more.

Art, music included, has done much to allow and facilitate some of these conversations,with its power to evoke contemplation and create change. Into this discussion, on November 9 and 11, we insert Afghanistan: Requiem for a Generation, including 130 choristers from the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, 50 from the Toronto Children’s Chorus, guest musicians from the Canadian Forces, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and soloists. The first half of this concert also features Canadian Forces guests on pipes, bugle and text.

Tania Miller, music director of the Victoria Symphony Orchestra, takes the helm for these performances. Miller was the first woman to lead a major Canadian orchestra, ever, and her tenure began the year following the start of the war in Afghanistan. She is joined by Measha Brueggergosman, soprano; Allyson McHardy, mezzo-soprano; Colin Ainsworth, tenor; and Brett Polegato, baritone.

The words come via Suzanne Steele, Canada’s war poet, who served in Afghanistan. Jeffrey Ryan put the words to music, including text from the requiem mass, alongside Steele’s poignant words which are often set in repetition: “if we could give you two days, just two days...;” “My son, my daughter, can you hear me?”

In the breaking open of lives lived and lost during war, music can help bridge the experiences and provide a united focus. Ryan describes his music as “a love letter. Not just to one person…but to each of us, to our country, and to a generation that will be paying for this war emotionally or financially (looking after the injured and next of kin) for another generation.” As Ryan concludes in the program note: “Afghanistan: Requiem for a Generation marks one particular war for one particular generation, but its message is universal and timeless.”

On a Canadian National Treasure: Ruth Watson Henderson

Ruth Watson Henderson has had a storied career as a performer on piano and organ. Having served 29 years as the accompanist of the Toronto Children’s Chorus, with the Festival Singers under Elmer Iseler, and as a church musician, her prolific contributions to choral music have been incomparable. Dr. Hilary Apfelstadt has spent years interviewing and researching Watson Henderson for her new book I Didn’t Want To Be Boring.

Ruth Watson HendersonTo commemorate the book launch, the Canadian Music Centre is hosting a concert on November 22 featuring soprano Amy Dodington, accompanied by Watson Henderson herself, and joined by members of the Elmer Iseler Singers and the Exultate Chamber Singers as well as by Apfelstadt. Three days earlier at Kingsway-Lambton United Church, November 19, Dodington will sing Watson Henderson’s Prayer of St. Francis accompanied by the composer herself in an unofficial book launch and 85th birthday celebration.

In an excerpt, Apfelstadt describes Henderson: “Initially a highly gifted young solo pianist, Ruth became a collaborative artist whose work with choral ensembles led to her development as a composer whose music is frequently sung and respected for its craftsmanship and expressivity. And along the way, she embodied the term “working mother” as she raised a family of four, built a career as a practising musician and successful composer, and held a church music director position until the age of 80. As I write, she is 84 and still composing music. Hers is a remarkable story.” The paperback copy of the book is available in stores November 22.


Nov 4, 7:30pm. The Guelph Chamber Choir presents “Celebration 150.” The Guelph choral community’s contribution to Canada 150 commemorations brings together five regional choirs: the Guelph Chamber Choir, Guelph Community Singers, Guelph Youth Singers, Rainbow Chorus of Waterloo/Wellington and the University of Guelph Symphonic Choir.

Nov 10, 8pm. The Kingston Road Village Concert Series presents “Remembrance Day Concert with Scott Good and Friends.”

Nov 11, 8pm. Barrie Concerts presents “Songs from the Great World Wars,” featuring the UTSC Concert Choir and conducted by Lenard Whiting.

Nov 11 and 12, 8pm. That Choir presents their annual first concert of the season “That Choir Remembers,” featuring the music of Eric Whitacre, Eleanor Daley and more.

Nov 12, 4:30pm. The Cathedral Church of St James presents “Service of Remembrance,” featuring the large choral work of Sir Charles Hubert Hastings Parry, Songs of Farewell, a collection of six songs composed in accapella polyphony. These songs will be presented as part of a religious service.

Nov 15 and 16, 8pm. The Toronto Symphony Orchestra presents “Oundjian Conducts Vaughan Williams.” Marking one of the signature performances of the TSO with Oundjian at the helm in his outgoing year as music director, the orchestra is joined by Louis Lortie, piano; Sarah Jeffrey, oboe; Teng Li, viola; Carla Huhtanen, soprano; Emily D’Angelo, mezzo-soprano; Lawrence Wiliford, tenor; Tyler Duncan, baritone; and the Elmer Iseler Singers.

Nov 29 to Dec 3, Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir presents “Four Weddings, a Funeral, and a Coronation.” Promising a Baroque-inspired soundtrack to festivities, these performances mark the first choral performances for Tafelmusik this season. Musical celebrations written by Purcell, Lully, Handel, Pachelbel, John Blow’s Anthem for the Coronation of James II and Charpentier’s Messe des morts are all on the program.

Dec 3, 3pm, the Harmony Singers of Etobicoke present their holiday concert, including many pop and classics favourites. The choir is also singing We’re in the Same Boat Now, written by former Premier Bob Rae. The Singers also provide an annual scholarship to a student at the Etobicoke School of the Arts who performs with the choir. This year, that recipient is Martina Myskohlid.

Dec 5 and 6, 7:30, the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir presents “Festival of Carols” featuring the Salvation Army Canadian Staff Band. The often-sold-out concert is being presented over two nights to accommodate extra patrons. 

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Perhaps more than any other subset of collective music-making, the choral scene is subject to the dictates of the average working individual’s personal calendar, weekly and monthly. A case in point: of the 25 to 30 upcoming choral concert listings I perused in preparing to write this column, all but one fall on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday. And none dare intrude on the sanctity of the October 7 to 9 Thanksgiving weekend!

CCOC at 50

Karina Gauvin, former CCOC chorister graces the CCOC Gala - photo by Michael SlobodianThat one, by the way, is a bit of an exception to the rule in terms of the nature of the event as well as the weekday on which it falls. The event in question, October 26 (a Thursday) is a gala concert at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Canadian Children’s Opera Company (formerly known as the Canadian Children’s Opera Chorus). And while the company’s several choirs will doubtless shine, there will be solo star turns by some of Canada’s opera elite, either former members of the CCOC themselves, or parents of past or present choristers. (Regular choral scene columnist, Brian Chang spoke of this event and other highlights of the CCOC’s upcoming season in the previous iteration of this column, so I won’t go into more detail here.)

As for Mr. Chang, he is on brief hiatus from this column while, as all good tenors should, once in a while, he throws himself into supporting a candidate in one of the political leadership races that are as predictable a feature of the fall landscape as homecoming choral concerts featuring alumni as soloists, and occasionally even en masse, as will be the case with the CCOC gala October 26.)

Those of you who like your choral columns less prone to meandering will be relieved to know he is scheduled to return in November!  


While on the topic of alumni, though, one might be tempted to argue that the number of alumni who can free themselves up to participate in a youth and/or children’s choir’s fall homecoming concert is likely to be inversely proportional to the number of them who have kept up their music. But this is to undervalue the strength of the ties that bind individuals to the ensembles in which they discovered for the first time the particular power of lending one’s voice to a common musical cause.

Two such concerts come to mind. Saturday October 21, the Toronto Children’s Chorus (Training Choirs, Choral Scholars, staff and a fistful of distinguished alumni will foray from home base at Calvin Presbyterian Church on Delisle Avenue to the visually and acoustically radiant environs of St. Anne’s Anglican Church on Gladstone Avenue for a 3pm concert titled “Autumn Radiance,” featuring Ryan Downey, tenor, Giles Tomkins, bass-baritone and Stan Klebanoff, trumpet. The choir is heading into its 40th season in 2018/19, so one would imagine that this will be the start of a concerted campaign to reach out to the thousands of individuals who honed their appetite for music-making under their auspices.

And a week earlier, on Friday October 13, a throng of St. Michael’s Choir School alumni will make pilgrimage (if it isn’t too strong a description) for a 7pm Founder’s Day Concert at the newly restored St. Michael’s Cathedral Basilica on Bond Street. Note the placement of the apostrophe in “Founder’s” by the way. The event still honours the singular memory of Monsignor John Edward Ronan, who founded the Choir School in 1937.

According to the SMCS website, tradition has it that the day after the Founder’s Day concert, the SMCS Alumni Association comes together to “sing Mass as part of an alumni homecoming, followed by a reception and open mic night at which the alumni share their talents, and catch up with friends old and new.” With alumni like Michael Burgess, crooner Matt Dusk, opera stars Robert Pomakov and Michael Schade, and Kevin Hearn of the Bare Naked Ladies among their ranks, one would think that the mic would hardly be necessary!

Period Ensembles

All kind of patterns emerge when you use the Just Ask! search function in our online listings to look for music of a particular type instead of ploughing through acres of print. One pattern, among many that caught my eye going through this date range just for choral music, was the number of period choral ensembles among them.  

Oct 14 at 3pm Melos Choir and Period Instruments in Kingston presents “A Tea and Recital: Virtuosic Vocals 12th-18th Centuries” covering the evolution of western bel canto singing from the monastery to the Baroque opera house. And if I really hurry back I can boot it back to Toronto by 7.30pm in time to hear the Tallis Choir, under the direction of the ubiquitous Peter Mahon perform “Six Bach Motets” to kick off their 40th anniversary concert season. Or if I am running late, take in Opus 8’s “A Musical Bestiary” at 8pm, offering works from Monteverdi to Stockhausen. Moving on, Oct 28 and 29, U of T early music vocal ensemble, Schola Cantorum, with Baroque orchestra offers up a period treatment of Handel’s Messiah under the expert direction of Jeanne Lamon and Daniel Taylor, at Trinity College Chapel. Also on Oct 29 at 10:30am Royal York Road United Church celebrates the “500th Anniversary of the Reformation” with Bach’s Cantata No.79 “Gott der Herr ist Sonn und Schild” BWV79. And the same day at 3pm Toronto Chamber Choir offers up a program titledThe Architecture of Music (Kaffeemusik),” with works by Dufay, A. Gabrieli, Charpentier, Purcell, Telemann and others. Finally, Cor Unum Ensemble on November 4 and 5, also at Trinity College Chapel offers up polyphonic madrigals and “a string band of 16th-century Italy.”

The Big Choirs

And that, dear reader is no more than a flag on the tip of a choral iceberg growling its way towards us. Because, make no mistake, we are at the point when all of the region’s large choirs, professional and community alike, are gearing up for at least one serious undertaking before December’s seasonal frivolity sets in. October 21 Grand Philharmonic Choir offers “Big Choruses: From Brahms to Broadway.” Oct 29 Pax Christi Chorale’s new music director gets a first chance to show off the fruits of his new labours in a program titled “Romantic Masters” featuring Bruckner, Brahms and Beethoven, and a stellar array of soloists. Chorus Niagara (on November 4) and Orpheus Choir (on November 5), both under Robert Cooper’s direction, offer up “Last Light Above the World: A War Litany” featuring the premiere of a searing new work by that name. And the list goes on. (As I mentioned at the outset, perusing the listings I found myself with a good 25 to 30 concerts worth writing about, or better still, attending.) Check them out for yourself.

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