Podium 2012 Article
Follow this link or read below for a wonderful article by William Littler on Podium 2012.2012/06/04
OTTAWA—When Joel Tranquilla stepped before the Elmer Iseler Singers recently to compete for the $12,000 Sir Ernest MacMillan Foundation Award in choral conducting, paper signs suddenly popped up from the pews in Ottawa’s Knox Presbyterian Church, proclaiming “softest,” “sweetest,” “most beautiful” and “Go, Joel.”
The signs were held up by members of one of this country’s most admirable yet least known musical institutions, the National Youth Choir. A project of the Association of Canadian Choral Communities, the choir brings together every two years singers aged 18 to 25 from across the country (up to four from each province and territory) to work with one of our leading choral conductors.
This year’s conductor was Ivars Taurins, founder-director of Toronto’s Tafelmusik Chamber Choir. His concert with these young singers turned out to be one of the highlights of the Association of Canadian Choral Communities’ biennial meeting, Podium 2012.
But Ivars Taurins did not conduct the whole concert. Assisting him was the artistic director of the Windsor Classic Chorale and Chorus Master of the Windsor Symphony Orchestra, otherwise known as Joel Tranquilla.
It was a measure of their admiration for this young, New Brunswick-born maestro (he is still at work researching Canadian choral repertoire for a doctorate from Michigan State University) that these young choristers turned up at the competition en masse to cheer him on. His task was not an easy one.
Also competing as finalists for the award were Elaine Choi, newly appointed director of music at Toronto’s Timothy Eaton Memorial Church, and Melanie Marlin, who currently works with choirs in Hamilton and Niagara as well as the Toronto Children’s Chorus.
To my ears, the award could have worthily gone to any of the three. What distinguished Tranquilla’s rehearsing and conducting of the Elmer Iseler Singers was his ability to draw out a performance rather than simply a reading of the music at hand, which ranged from Johannes Brahms to three Canadian composers, Healey Willan, Ruth Watson Henderson and Sir Ernest MacMillan.
Arguably the most versatile and influential Canadian musician of his generation (he died in 1973), Sir Ernest affected so many aspects of our musical life that the foundation established by his family in his honour rotates its awards. This was the first time the subject was specifically choral conducting, and could there have been a better choice?
Choirs have long been the backbone of music-making in this country, Sir Ernest himself having numbered the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir among his major directorships. What the four days of concerts and talks at Podium 2012 demonstrated was the robust health of choralism in Canada and the talented level of its leadership.
In her morning talk, The View From the Podium, Hilary Apfelstadt, director of choral activities at the University of Toronto, reminded her listeners that the root word for conductor in Latin means both to lead and to care. If anything, the second quality appears to be even more critical to choral than to orchestral conducting, involving as it so often does, working with vulnerable amateurs.
Mind you, as Iwan Edwards, director of the superb female ensemble Concerto Della Donna pointed out to one of his colleagues, the distinction between professional and amateur in choral singing continues to shrink.
Yes, Lydia Adams’s Elmer Iseler Singers continue to represent professionalism of an extremely high level among Canadian choirs. But to hear Elise Bradley conduct the Toronto Children’s Chorus and Zimfira Poloz the Hamilton Children’s Choir and High Park Choirs of Toronto was to experience amateur music-making that transcended such modest categorization.
Poloz, by the way, shared with her listeners the information that she arrived in Canada 13 years ago from her native Kazakhstan without speaking a single word of English. She has since become one of our authentic vocal magicians.
If Tranquilla isn’t yet able to pull metaphoric rabbits from choral hats, the Elmer Iseler Singers gave him the kind of response that helps explain why he was the jury’s choice to win the MacMillan Foundation award.
“I was in the American Boychoir at 10,” he acknowledged. “And was voted to be conductor at graduation. I guess I caught the bug early.”
That is the way it often is in choral music. Happily, there seems to be no cure.