Twenty-five years ago, give or take, a choral fundraiser to rebuild the tower of St. James’ Anglican Church on Union Street with all-comers invited to participate. The Cantabile Children’s Choir lines the walls of the sacristy as Mark Sirett waves his magic wand from the altar steps. Where Have All the Flowers Gone? performed in angelic surround-sound and not a dry eye in the house on the closing chord.
Someone has to follow that, and the Queen’s German Choir has drawn the short straw.
We take the stage, a rag-tag bunch of Friday afternoon enthusiasts comprising interval-swoopers, chainsaw throat-singers and premature-ejaculationists always ahead of the downbeat. We are led by Professor Bill Reeve, a fine bass-baritone who welcomes everyone to the choir whether they can pronounce German or not (usually not). We are to sing Selig Sind, die da Leid Tragen from Brahm’s Ein Deutsches Requiem, an attempt on Bill’s part to sew a silk purse from the ears of Gadarene. He has strived heroically with us during rehearsals but knows our limitations and exhorts us, now, that we should, at the very least, aim to begin together and end together. Astoundingly, we accomplish this despite the chaos in the middle, and we take a bow to muted applause, the audience believing that we are the post-Cantabile comic relief.
Outside, the stones of the Church tower are scattered on the lawn. I choose the largest of them and crawl underneath.
But Bill has introduced me to an addictive drug, and two years later I join the Melos Choral Ensemble, an SATB chamber choir whose director, Dr. David Cameron, is a stickler for enunciation, ensemble, subtle dynamics and delivery of an authentic performance. Joining Melos is hubris on my part. I can’t recall an audition - perhaps I’ve eradicated it from memory – but it’s likely I conned my way in under the pretence of being a tenor. No choir in the world denies membership to a tenor, irrespective of gender, age, skill or the ability to pay fees. Tenors are hen’s teeth; they are unicorns; they are as rare as Trumpian decency.
David introduces me to Bairstow, Howells and Willan. They are all of English extraction, yet I have no idea what they are talking about. Their music is cubist, curvilinear and counter-intuitive; they don’t play by the rules; they shift key and time signatures every few bars so that I wonder why they bother with bar lines at all.
I don’t get it.
I record rehearsals and sweat over their scores and I still don’t get it.
I plink away on my keyboard and am no further ahead.
And then I am astounded. How is such music possible? Who could have conceived anything so intricately beautiful? Instantly, rehearsals shift from anguished cacophony to the subtle shaping of a gloriously surreal soundscape. I want more of this. So much so that I remain a Melos member for the next 18 years. It’s an arrogant imposition on my part tolerated with kindly indulgence by David, and I attempt to repay the debt by volunteering on the Melos board – Singers’ Representative, Vice Chair, Chair, Past Chair – I get to ride by mucking out the stables.
But, as with several other aspects of my life, I decide I need professional help. The period between confusion and competence is too distressing. I need to spend less time in the wood-shed.
Enter Ian Juby, advertised in the Whig Standard as a singing teacher. Ian is an amiable and supportive coach who tells me to intone like Count Dracula and to hold my head as if I have Frankensteinian bolts through my neck. I wonder if I’m learning to sing or auditioning for a horror movie. He says I should fill the balloon around my belly with breath and squeeze the last of it out during sustained phrases with a tightening of the butt muscles. He has me doing lip-drills and intoning vowels like Tony Soprano. It seems I’ve been doing everything wrong, but Ian, the eternal optimist, is confident that I can get it right. Everyone with a voice can sing, he insists, and every semester his high school students perform the most brilliant Broadway musicals to prove him right.
Later, I come to realise I’m being taught by a guy who has strode the operatic stage, who has a hand in virtually every musical event to hit Kingston, who plays a mean trombone, piano, guitar etc. etc. and who directs the Kingston Choral Society in everything from Gilbert and Sullivan to Carmina Burana. It seems I’m taking lessons from Bernstein to improve my performance with Britten. I should feel intimidated, be struck dumb, but Ian, despite working with Kingston’s best musicians, is also willing to assist the halt, the sick and the lame.
I test his legendary patience for the next twenty years.
My capabilities improve but I must leave Melos. Business travel precludes regular attendance and I’ve learned that you can’t contribute effectively to a choir unless you commit fully to rehearsals. Every member counts because every voice shifts the balance, and Dr. Cameron has a right to expect consistent choral dynamics.
I join Ian’s Men’s Choir, the Kingston Capital Men’s Chorus, which has a less demanding performance schedule. The music is less demanding too, though I remind myself that even singing scales in unison is hard to do well. Still, cowboy ballads, Canadian folk songs, Elvis and Broadway classics are less daunting than Durufle. And there’s Scott Davey too, a virtuoso pianist who adds to every performance with his improvisational brilliance. The problem when singing with Scott is that I’m tempted to stop and listen.
I miss the complex classical works. I want to sing Elijah again, and Beethoven’s Ninth, and the Mozart and Brahms Requiems. Like heroin, you can’t do these things just once. So, I join the Kingston Choral Society, asking Ian if twenty-plus years of voice lessons could be considered an audition. It’s another sneaky move on my part because the thought of a formal audition loosens the muscles of my nether portions which, as any good voice teacher will tell you, should remain always under firm control.
So, here I am, almost thirty years after responding to that irresistible call for assistance - German Choir Needs Male Members.
On Monday nights it’s Ian, Scott and the Boys of KCMC, and on Tuesday nights a very different Ian directing the mixed voices of the Kingston Choral Society. I wouldn’t miss either for the world, both choirs manifesting the synergy unique to choral singing: one voice; one section; four sections; eight sections - incrementally the whole expanding to become vastly greater than the sum of its parts, with the very best performances allowing a glimpse of the infinite.
It sounds like religious hyperbole from Stephen the Heathen but, nonetheless, even an entrenched agnostic like me has felt the faint glimmer of God while singing the Bach B Minor Mass and experienced a rare insight into eternal genius. That’s why I stay the course. These are gifts bestowed by three long-standing friends who would be too modest to acknowledge the immeasurable contribution they have made to the richness of so many lives, singers and audiences alike.
So – Bill, David and Ian – Thank you!
Dr. Steven Hunt