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Achill Choral Society presenting ‘Comfort and Joy’

December 2, 2021   ·   0 Comments

By Constance Scrafield

Shawn Grenke, Artistic Director and conductor to the Achill Choral Society is a busy person. He is currently doing his PhD (Doctorate of Musical Arts) and Choral Directing.

“I’ve been in Edmonton since September,” he told the Citizen, while mentioning also that he commutes from Edmonton to his home in Ontario a couple of times a month, where his partner lives and to accommodate his obligations here with his church work, the Elmer Isler Singers (for which he is accompanist and assistant conductor) and other matters.

Of Achill, he said, “What the choir has been up to this fall is they are recording themselves from home for this concert. All online, not gathering in person as yet, the concert is featuring some archival material and all, otherwise, recorded at home. We expect to be in-person in January. Right now, we’re rehearsing spread out, masks and getting outside breaks.”

To mitigate the difficulties of recording from home, he explained that, while it is from home, it’s challenging: “We created a track for them to sing along to, with a lead singer,” admitting, “With tech and Covid-19, everything takes twice as long. For me, the most important thing is keeping the group together. They’ve been together for a long time [founded in 1982] and the plan is for us to start rehearsing together in January. And we are aiming for concert in May,”

That plan is for an outdoor concert. A number of venues are being considered.

“We’ve been out to the Alton Mill [Arts Centre] to look at the Court Yard with the Cover. It’s really nice, lots of seating and still protection if it rains. We’re maybe hoping to use that as one of the venues we’re looking at.”

Mr. Grenke has his own Covid story: as a conductor of the Elmer Isler Singers, he was stuck in Vancouver for a couple of days when the pandemic was pronounced and everyone was grounded.

“The Elmer Isler Singers were stuck in Vancouver, trying to get out [after their last concert was cancelled]. We were stuck for two days. Any type of performing is the first to go and the last thing to come back. The one thing I’m encouraging my choirs is to keep streaming to the online audience.

“Our choir,” he observed, “has an older demographic; you have to be mindful of everyone.”

Of the finances: “Before Covid-19, we were paying rent but we still have to store materials.”

The choir has not been receiving membership fees; members have been asked to pay what they could and “they have been so generous, the numbers are pretty well the same.”

The Achill Choral Society’s Christmas Virtual performance is online from Dec. 15 and runs for two weeks. A person can pre-register; the link is sent to you and people can watch the concerts. It is available for two weeks after the launch date. There is also a means by which people can donate through the website.

“There is lots of seasonal music,” and Mr. Grenke was keen to reveal the inclusivity of the music, “with music for Hanukkah and Winter Solstice. Let’s do a little bit of everything,” he declared.

Central to the concert, he told us, “The virtual piece we’re doing is called Oh Love. It has been learnt and recorded, each person, from home. It is about inspiration and hope, pretty suitable at the moment.”

There is also the Seal Lullaby by Eric Whitacre, which they “started doing that by online singing,” meaning people in little zoom boxes on the screen.

Shawn Grenke explained: “We have one piece like that [faces in Zoom boxes]. The rest are songs in video footage of the concerts. There are their faces, the conductor, pianist, with various members of the choir introducing the pieces. People really enjoyed that – they got to see their friends speaking on the videos.”

Mr. Grenke’s relationship with the Achill Choral Society goes back to 2003 when he sometimes accompanied them. Since 2017, he has been conducting the choir.

He affirmed, “They are amazing group of people. What this has taught us is to not take for granted performing together – you don’t know how special this is until it’s taken away.”

As a personal aside, he related, “I lost my grandmother and not being able to see her for months at a time was hard; when we are able to visit, we were outside and the street was noisy, so, she couldn’t hear us. It was still sad. My father was the only one who could be with her…” 

He thought about older people living alone and thought how lonely that must have been but he made the point that “music is such a healer and I think we have missed that healing and nurturing of it.”

If it could be called a highlight for him, he said, “I think continuing with practices at home and staying in contact with the choir; the choir has embraced change really well.”

Having said which, the choir members who are teachers, after days of being on zoom to teach, they just did not want to plug into a computer again at night but continued practicing to be included.

Still and all, surprisingly, some 10 or 15 people have joined the choir since the inception of Covid-19.

“The choir members have made people feel really welcomed,” attested Mr. Grenke. “It’s been the kind spirit of the choir making them comfortable and I think that’s remarkable.”

Comfort and Joy is a concert, an hour program of about 12 songs. The hope is that the music does give some comfort and joy this season.

“There might be some choir members getting together to listen to the concert,” a pleasant thought conveyed.

Good reasons for signing on to the concert, Shawn Grenke reminds us all that “music nurtures the soul and I think it’s something that we all need. I think we’re closer to the end [of the pandemic] than we might think. People are really tired and I hope this concert gives a little inspiration, some comfort and joy.”

For all the details and the link to the concert, go to Also, please note, new members are welcomed.

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