Living in harmony

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McGill Reporter
November 21, 2002 - Volume 35 Number 06
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Living in harmony

When Helen Richard moved to Montreal from Europe, one of her first concerns was to find an organ teacher and an organ to practice on. She got a little more than she bargained for. When she approached the organist and choir director of a Westmount church for lessons his answer was "Do you sing?" recalled Richard.

The soprano, who by day is Academic Planning Officer in the Office of the Provost, traded her voice for instruction and access to the church organ. Now a member of Anima Musica, Richard is one of untold McGill staff, faculty and students who lend their pipes to Montreal's multifarious choirs.

Like many of the choristers interviewed for this article, Richard seems unable to stop at just one. Last June, Richard was honoured to participate in a performance of Nova Scotian composer Scott Macmillan's "Celtic Mass for the Sea" at New York City's Carnegie Hall.

"The posters said it was a world premiere -- it wasn't. But that's how it is, if it didn't happen in New York it doesn't count," she said with a laugh.

Photo Dean Jobin-Bevans directing Voix Libres
PHOTOS: Claudio Calligaris

That concert was conducted by Pierre Perron, who taught at McGill and at Dalhousie University and lives in Nova Scotia. The audience in the storied concert hall gave the performance a standing ovation.

"It was a magical moment. I had no desire to leave that stage. I walked off the stage ever so slowly to take in more of the wonder of that moment and of the beauty and elegance of Carnegie Hall," said Richard.

So how do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice. It's an old joke, but it's true. Singers spend hours each week with each other and on their own, singing, practicing, interpreting and listening to their piece.

Physics professor dik Harris only recently performed at Carnegie Hall. The professor has sung since boyhood in church and school choirs. As a member of the St. Lawrence Choir, Harris often sings with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra.

"Carnegie Hall is phenomenal -- the acoustics are so perfect, every note is very present," he said. "It's a real privilege to be on the same stage that so many great performers have been on. You feel the ghosts."

Harris said that although singing takes a lot of time and commitment (he spent his few free hours during the New York visit marking papers for his classes) he appreciates the switch from his regular duties.

Harris recently made another switch -- from being a tenor to a lower baritone.

"I'm finding I'm able to sing notes I didn't know I had," he said. Baritones sing more harmony, meaning Harris has relearned how to interact with the rest of his choir.

"It took me much longer than I'd thought to make the switch -- it's like my reflexes are all wrong," he said.

Julie Cumming, a professor of musicology also is constantly relearning her music. She specializes in ancient notations that are incomprehensible to modern musicians. Not a trained singer, she lends her voice -- and her music history expertise -- to the Orpheus Singers, a group of about 35 who perform everything from Bach to modern Japanese music. Cumming said the Orpheus Singers, conducted by her colleague Peter Schubert, always challenge and expand the minds of the singers -- and the audience.

"I do the programs for our concerts and I always try to give the historical context, to talk about the relationships between the different pieces," she said.

"We do challenging music so I'm always growing as a musician -- that's very satisfying," she said.

The hands down winner for multiple choir participation is Julie Cumming's fellow Orpheus singer Victor Chisholm (BA'97). The administrative coordinator in the Faculty of Arts currently sings in a wide array of choruses: the Orpheus Singers, Voix Libres, the Renaissance chamber choir De Sphaera Mundi, and the choir at the Church of St. Andrew and St. Paul. Other recent choirs include the St. Lawrence Choir, the Yellow Door Choir, and the synagogue choirs Chevra Kadisha-B'Nai Jacob in Montreal and B'nai Torah in Boca Raton, Florida.

For Chisholm, the reason he participates in so many choirs is simple. He quotes Hermann Hesse: "Perfect music has its causes. It arises from equilibrium. Equilibrium arises from righteousness, and righteousness arises from the meaning of the cosmos."

Not that he's entirely out in the cosmos: "Ultimately, I'm there because of me."

Appropriately enough for a city as diverse as Montreal, Chisholm's singing has given him a world tour -- at least linguistically. He's sung in English, French, Czech, German, Greek, Hebrew, Hungarian, Italian, Japanese, Latin, Polish, Russian, Spanish, Yiddish, and several aboriginal languages. Oh yes -- and wolf.

"That was a modern composition -- 'The Mi'kmaq Honour Song' by Lydia Adams. The women sang in Mi'kmaq and the men made animal noises," he said.

Helen Richard also relishes singing in other languages, particularly German, and recently joined a small Finnish singing group. She enjoys Finnish for the "great vowels and sound and mystery of the language which I do not know."

Sharing Chisholm's affinity for the unconventional is Alexis Codrington, a Pharmacology PhD student who sings in a gospel choir. Called the R.O.C.K. --"Revolutionary Ordained Christ-ians Kickin' it" -- the group sings with a live band and performs gospel music with a hip-hop bent, by modern songwriters like Kirk Franklin.

"I like to sing, but it's also for the fellowship between the members. We're mostly students, and all of us are in different ways on the path to being better Christians."

The R.O.C.K. is not affiliated with any particular church. In fact they make a point of singing at their members' different churches. They also performed for the Queen on her recent visit to Ottawa, although Codrington only joined the choir after that concert. Although she's only been in the choir for a few weeks, she's already hooked.

"I leave here on Tuesdays for rehearsal, really looking forward to it," she said. Each rehearsal also includes a Bible study session at the end.

"It's not just about the music or the singing. We try to keep the whole reason we're coming and what we're singing about and who we're singing about," she said.

Late November is an increasingly busy time for many choirs, what with Christmas or end-of-year concerts. But while Harris is hoping to sing Handel's Messiah with the MSO, and Cumming is practicing for English Renaissance Christmas music, Dean Jobin-Bevans, associate sirector of the McGill Conservatory of Music, is preparing for a more sombre occasion.

Jobin-Bevans is the artistic director and co-founder of Voix Libres and its associated men's chorus Les Hommes de Choeur. Now in its fifth year, Voix Libres's largest concert every year is a fundraiser for local AIDS organizations on the occasion of World AIDS Day. This year the choir will be performing with the MSO on December 2 with the Association des Musiciens de l'Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal (the players' association of the MSO), in support of La Maison du Parc.

Also the interim musical director at the Church of St. Andrew and St. Paul, Jobin-Bevans does not get to sing much with choirs.

"You can't escape the administrative aspect in a choir, but you have to have the musical chops as well," he said.

Proving that McGill's choral community has only about one degree of separation between its members, Jobin-Bevans will be taking on another voluntary director's task -- leading the annual ad-hoc Christmas carollers through the James Building on December 20.

"We're a group of regulars, and a week before the holidays we sing carols throughout this building. We love to sing in the stairwells because it resonates like a bell," said Helen Richard, who has participated in the sing-along for the past few years. The group includes former vice principal (research) Pierre Bélanger, acting McLennan Librarian Kendall Wallis and Kate Williams, who is both the director of the University Relations Office and the main organizer of the annual event. (To join, call Williams at 398-6748.)

Not quite as informal as this group is the Yellow Door Choir, which long ago outgrew its Aylmer Street origins. Kay Johnson, an administrative assistant in the Canadian Institute for Telecommunications Research, is the only remaining founding member of the 20-year-old choir.

"It started with a group of us who sang in more formal choirs as a hobby. This was something we could have more say in," she explained. "If you really like opera, you can do opera."

In addition to opera, the choir's 35 members have done jazz, classical, country, pop and folk.

"We have a reputation of being eclectic," she said. "We may be a little less polished, but we're no less entertaining."

Johnson's own musical interests come from her upbringing.

"I grew up in a family where we all sing -- both of my sisters are singers as well," she said.

Music is also a family affair for Julie Cumming. The musicologist's husband sings in a choir called Octet Plus, and her elder daughter sings in the Choeur des Enfants de Montréal, which her younger daughter also plans to join. The family that plays together stays together -- rather than choruses of "are we there yet?" Cumming said that on long road trips her whole family plays a game of trying to guess the names of tunes that the others sing. Now that's family harmony.

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