Choral music

Some of the Bytown Voices singers in full voice in spring of last year Photo: Courtesy of Bytown Voices

Casual Glebe remark produces decades of song

By Bob Brocklebank

“The King’s Singers are not coming to Ottawa so we will have to make music ourselves” – that declaration was enough to get Janice Gray started. It was 1991 and Janice, a resident of First Avenue and a former music educator in Quebec, sensed an interest in forming a community choir.

A small group of less than a dozen Glebites gathered in Gray’s living room to tackle SATB (four part music – soprano, alto, tenor and bass). It signaled the birth of The Glebe Singers.

The premise for the choir was a community group of amateurs coming together on the basis of enthusiasm rather than by audition. Some knew plenty about music; others could not read a note and were totally dependent on learning their parts by listening to cassette tapes (cutting edge technology of the time).

Concerts were held in local churches at Christmas and in late spring. Members of the choir went carolling in the Glebe, including in the Loeb (now Metro) produce section and in the courtyard of the now-under-reconstruction Fifth Avenue Court.

As the choir grew, rehearsals moved from Gray’s living room to her basement and eventually to St. Giles Church. Ann McNamee was hired as piano accompanist and became a pillar of the Glebe Singers. Not only was she an accomplished musician, she had family ties to Jamaica.

Through her connections and her successful search for seat sales, members of the Glebe Singers travelled in 1995 to Jamaica where they were hosted by members of the National Chorale of Jamaica. This is a chorus of talented vocalists who perform at official ceremonies and also give concerts around the island. A series of exchange visits followed, with the Jamaicans coming to Ottawa and the Canadians going to Kingston, performing together or in separate concerts. Many strong friendships grew out of these visits.

In 1999, the Glebe Singers were faced with a need to change emphasis as it was becoming difficult to recruit enough male singers. There was a split. One group continued as an all-female chorus (or SSA in music terminology). The second group, including men from the Glebe Singers, their spouses/partners and women who preferred SATB singing, ventured to form a successor choir.

The new SATB group convinced McNamee to take up the direction of the Bytown Voices, a name adopted after much discussion. At that time, she was music director at Trinity United Church on Maitland Avenue and arranged for the new choir to practise and perform there. This meant the Glebe members of this new choir had to travel to the “far west” (beyond Bronson).

The exchanges with Jamaica continued – the Canadians showed no hesitation in going to Jamaica in the winter while the Jamaicans preferred to visit Ottawa in late spring or summer. It should be reported that the Canadians held up well in Jamaica but on a sultry late spring evening in Ottawa, it was a Jamaican who fainted from the unbearable heat!

After some five years, a period in which finding men, especially tenors, continued to be an issue, McNamee left the choir after she was recruited to become a faculty member at the Edna Manley School of Music in Kingston, Jamaica. This led the choir to choose Bob Jones as director/conductor. Jones was organist at St. Basil’s Church just north of Trinity on Maitland, and he arranged for the Bytown Voices to move to that church for rehearsals and most performances. Over the 10 years Jones led the choir, the membership stabilized and the scarcity of tenors became less of an issue. Jones was also the musical director of St. Luke’s Church on Somerset Avenue. This meant some rehearsals were held in that pleasant acoustical space, and choir members learned to appreciate noodle restaurants in Chinatown.

The current director of the Bytown Voices is the dynamic Joan Fearnley, a noted soprano soloist and director of the children’s and women’s choirs at Notre Dame Cathedral. Under her leadership, with the support of an outstanding accompanist, Carla Klassen, the choir has grown to some 70 singers.

The Bytown Voices remains a non-audition community choir, performing in winter (pre-Christmas) and spring concerts. The choir also frequently entertains at a retirement home, performing some of the works from its most recent public concert. Rehearsals are at St. Basil’s Church on Maitland Avenue. The choir normally enjoys a break over the summer months.

The next performance of the Bytown Voices will be April 26 at Woodroffe United Church. This will be a celebration of 21 years in the choir’s present form and almost 30 years since it was conceived in the Glebe. The concert, featuring Vivaldi’s Gloria, will be the first time the Bytown Voices are supported by a small orchestra. While the concert will include a new piece written by a talented young choir member, some of the sheet music from which the Bytown Voices will be singing is stamped “Glebe Singers,” recalling the choir’s roots.

[Editor’s note: This concert has been cancelled due to the cononavirus.]

More information about becoming a member of the Bytown Voices or purchasing concert tickets is found at bytownvoices.com.

Bob Brocklebank is a Glebe resident, former chair of the Glebe Report board and long-time member of the Bytown Voices.

The Rideau Chorale PHOTO: SANDRA BAUER

All those sixteenth notes

By Janice Manchee

Bach is probably going to make me cry. Not the man – the Mass. The one in B minor.

It’s not the beauty of the music, although there is that. It’s all those sixteenth notes. In a row. And the weird tonal gymnastics. And the breaking into eight-part harmony. It just may be too much.

I sing tenor with Rideau Chorale. We’re an auditioned choir with members from across Ottawa and Gatineau that started about four years ago. We grew out of the Ottawa Folklore Centre choir and many of us, well at least me, have our roots in folk music.  That means it’s a bit of a shock to the system to sing what’s actually written on the page. Especially when it’s written by one of the great composers.

Our choir has been tackling various challenging works by Mozart, Handel, Vivaldi and a smattering of modern British composers, and mainly, I’ve been doing okay. But I should have known what was coming.

In December, just before the holidays, choir director Roland Graham took precious minutes – quite a few in fact – out of rehearsal to tell us this Mass is about four times as hard as Handel’s Messiah. We needed, he told us, to work hard to learn our parts. Bach could not be faked.

This warning, plus the 243-page score, landed me at my computer the next day. We have MP3s that help us learn our parts so we can actually work on bringing the music together at rehearsals. These tools generally help and they are helping. I just wish they’d help more.

After two months of practising, a lot, I really wanted to know what Bach was thinking when he wrote this thing.

The Mass was completed over Bach’s life, with one section, Sanctus, performed in 1724. It wasn’t until 1749, a year before his death when he was already blind, that the full work was completed. The Mass was never performed in his lifetime, but has served as a musical touchstone for many composers.

Why a Lutheran would write a typically Catholic Mass apparently remains the subject of much academic debate.  But then, I’m not religious and here I am singing about the crucifixion – in Latin.

Bach’s Mass affirms his Christianity. The music moves from solemn statement of belief, to dancelike praise, to swelling glorification. Whatever your beliefs, the majesty and splendour of the music cannot be denied. Maybe Bach just wanted 243 pages to get down all that music he was hearing in his head.

As I struggle, a source of joy is hearing pieces and parts come together at our rehearsals – at first tentatively and then more and more surely. That and our director’s sometimes surprised delight when we get it right.

I am, along with my choir mates, going to nail this music. Bach’s Mass in B Minor will be performed in Ottawa for the first time in over five years on May 14 at Carleton Dominion Chalmers. Stay tuned.

[Editor’s note: The May 14 concert has been postponed until the fall.]

Follow the adventures of Rideau Chorale at rideauchorale.org.

Janice Manchee sings tenor in Rideau Chorale.

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