A major force in Canadian choral music, York music Professor Stephanie Martin has a long list of compositions to her credit. As the music director of the historic Church of St. Mary Magdalene, and artistic director and conductor of the acclaimed Pax Christi Chorale, she is well versed in the traditional liturgical repertoire of oratorios, cantatas and motets, often set to Latin text.
Her latest work, however, is anchored firmly in contemporary urban life. The YWCA of Greater Toronto commissioned Martin to compose a choral piece to celebrate the official opening of the Elm Centre, an innovative residential community located in the heart of downtown Toronto. Aptly titled “A Place Where I Am Home”, Martin’s song received its premiere performance at the centre’s opening festivities on Tuesday, May 22.
The YWCA Elm Centre offers 300 affordable apartments for low-income women and their families, women living with mental health and addiction issues, and families of Aboriginal ancestry. The building, which occupies a city block bounded by Elm, Elizabeth, Edward and Chestnut Streets, also houses YWCA Toronto’s administrative headquarters, an auditorium, a women’s resource centre, meeting spaces and a restaurant.
Tenants of the new facility were key partners in the composition project. Martin drew a wealth of inspiration and collaboration from a workshop in which they shared their hopes, dreams and experiences of living at the Elm Centre.
“I didn’t really know what to expect from the workshop, and I imagine the residents were just as apprehensive as I was,” said Martin. “We introduced ourselves and sang some campfire songs. Then the women talked about their personal lives, and how they felt about their new home. I was amazed and moved by their outlook, and how freely and openly they shared their stories, both good and bad.”
Toronto jazz vocalist Bonnie Brett, a PhD candidate in York’s Graduate Program in Music and Martin’s teaching assistant, got involved in the project early on, serving as a facilitator, organizer and ultimately as the conductor for the performance.
“Stephanie’s composition is both simple and profound,” said Brett. “The lyrics reflect feelings the tenants expressed about the Elm Centre being a safe, affordable place to live where they could, in a number of ways, be reborn. The song has a melody that is first sung by a soloist or the whole group in unison. Then, on multiple repetitions, additional voices join in, one at a time.”
Adding voices one by one speaks to the community-building embodied by the Elm Centre, as well as the incremental formation of the choir itself.
As the parameters around the performance shifted, Brett found she needed more singers. To add voices to the tenant choir, she reached out to her York network and beyond. The e-mail she sent to her fellow teaching assistants, students and colleagues bore the subject line “I Need Your Voices!”
The response was heartwarming.
Lauren Acton (MA ’01) and Nicole Marchesseau, both doctoral candidates in music like Brett, stepped up. Acton brought along some members of the choir she performs with, the Penthelia Singers. Brett’s longtime friend and fellow jazz singer Georgia Ambros also joined in. Martin’s choir, the acclaimed Pax Christi Chorale, contributed three singers, including York music alumna Mikhai Vergara (BFA ‘11).
The volunteer singers and Elm Centre tenants met for the first time on the morning of the launch, and rehearsed the song just before the ceremony commenced.
“Stephanie’s composition was a highlight of the event,” said Sarah Blackstock, the YWCA’s director of Advocacy and Communications. “So often, when we grapple with issues of homelessness and poverty, we lose sight of the fact that we can also celebrate our victories. The performance of “A Place Where I Am Home” was a moment of absolute beauty and joy that brought the room to tears.”
“It was so gratifying to hear the voices come together,” said Brett. “The friends and colleagues who stepped up to support the project have humbled me with their generosity. And it’s been an amazing experience working with the YWCA Elm Centre residents over the past month. Singing has given them confidence and a real sense of accomplishment.
“The lesson I take from this is simply that music matters. In the midst of my studies, teaching and research, it’s good to be reminded of that.”