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Elmer Iseler Singers stage a composers workshop at the Canadian Music Centre

May 2, 2024   ·   0 Comments

By Constance Scrafield

Last Saturday, April 27, Caledon’s Elmer Iseler Singers (EIS) invited six new composers to the Canadian Music Centre. 

“Saturday was really exciting,” said Lydia Adams, EIS conductor and artistic director, “to meet with the composers and a poet and work on their pieces.”

She marvelled, “You put out a call and these responses come back from across the country. They’re prepared to get on a plane and come to Toronto. It shows the need for these educational incentives.”

Adams wanted to say how much the EIS appreciates the Takla Foundation for supporting the EIS initiative. Takla Group is a family-based foundation in Caledon. 

As well, “The Canadian Music Centre has been a great space to work. The connection is a very positive one,” said Adams.

Six “marvellous” composers came, with different ideas, wondering about their own compositions: a composition needs to get into singers’ voices. 

One score sounded like a round, all different ways in different octaves, we were told. 

Likewise, “If something trips this choir up,” Ms. Adams informed us, “you can be sure that would trip most any choir – visual or awkward – rewrite or visualize.”

Experimentally, one used the placement of the vowel. One case was all syllables.

There was praise for this: this composer’s family shies away from difficult conversations. So, they were not all words. 

“It was great,” said the conductor. “Beautiful dynamics.” 

The EIS has been doing workshops since Dr. Elmer Iseler was conducting, having founded the choir in 1979. Following his death, Ms. Adams has been the conductor and artistic director since 1998.

Micheal Colvin, inspired by the poem, Sure on a Shining Night, “has done beautiful work on the text; he has chosen the Elysian part of that poem,” Ms. Adams instructed us.

Michael Colvin, who has a 25-year-plus career opera tenor, recently came back from performing in La Scala in Milan, Italy. He has sung in London UK, Spain and France at l’opera de Paris. He performs frequently in the Canadian Opera Company’s productions.

Choral music was “my early training at church,” Colvin said. “I do love it – it’s no coincidence that I am composing music for choir now. What a thrill it was to do this workshop.”

From the age of 11, he knew his life was in singing.

“I went to the COC studio under Richard Bradshaw,” Colvin told us. 

In the absence of performing during the Covid shutdown, Mr. Colvin had only written pop songs. Suddenly having this free time, he filled the time to compose more seriously, writing a version of “If Ye Love Me” by Thomas Tallis.

Without any formal training in composition, “The well of inspiration is very deep because I had so many influences,” Colvin offered, adding shyly, “Still getting used to calling myself a composer.”

He sent Sure On This Shining Night to Adams to apply for inclusion in the workshop.

“I’ll be honest, I wrote as a side hustle while I was singing in Salzburg. With long hours of empty time, I wrote Shining Night,” Colvin told the Citizen.

As he started to cut back on his singing, Mr. Colvin said he would like to do more composing.

His invite to the workshop created a huge boost for his interest in mentorship. Adams put him in touch with composers Matthew Emery and Stephanie Martin as mentors.

Colvin added, “Lydia let me conduct my piece with the choir; it was amazing.”

While more opera roles are booked, but mainly characters for comic relief or the “bad guy,” his interest in composing is strengthened by signing up with Matthew Emery. They are looking to compose to have their music performed. Mr. Colvin’s sudden progress in composing has “taken me by surprise,” Adams admitted. “Sometimes, it’s easy to write that hook; the challenge is where to go next with the piece.”

This is an interesting and fortuitous time for Mr. Colvin.

Philosophical about his composing, “Basically, I’m doing okay or fooling myself. You need to surround yourself with people who will tell you the truth, like it or not.”

Steven Webb is another of the six composers. Working on his Ph.D in composition at the University of Toronto, part of his submission is his “Plant Music.” Essentially a percussion production, in the end, plants are fitted with instruments and indeed prove they make music:

“Having the opportunity to work with the EIS,” he began, “to write a piece and use this opportunity to work with such a high-level choir, was an extremely good place to try ‘The Going’ by Thomas Hardy and work through what worked.”

Mr. Webb has worked with quite a few choirs across the country but never had the opportunity to work with EIS.

He too admits to the ongoing need to hear his work sung. Sometimes, that feels like it would work but once you hear it sung, there are differences. 

What surprised him at this workshop, was the musicality and dedication of the singers, willing to get off the score and try new things and experiment, which was really helpful.

The Going is about the lives of everyday people, about saying goodbye.

“It is overwhelming, a bitter sweet good bye of a son at the time of going to WWI, which Hardy wrote on the day a friend died,” he related. “It’s short, one stanza long, so I had to work at pulling every emotion out.”

Steven Webb’s work so far has attracted an invitation to be performed in September at a concert at the Canadian Music Centre.

In September too, an album, electronic, all based on percussion, is coming out.

He comes from a musical family out of South Africa, where he took traditional piano exams, taking a classical route. In Canada, he did music at the University of Manitoba.

Not satisfied with playing the music of others led him into composition.

When he remarked, “My music really reflects my outlook on life,” we asked what that is.

“Cautious optimism in these challenging times,” he replied. “I create art to inspire and bring us together and inform and educate. I make art to very much show I am interested to capture the human experience.”

Mr. Webb hopes to have had the opportunity to work with groundbreaking choirs as he “very much enjoys working with other people.” 

He has a first album coming out and is doing more. He says he wants to contribute to Canadian musical output.

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