York Chamber Choir makes its European debut with concerts in Paris and Vienna

Lisette Canton (far left) directs the York University Chamber Choir at La Madeleine

The York University Chamber Choir led by Professor Lisette Canton capped its 2011-2012 season with a major milestone: an invitational tour to France and Austria.

The whirlwind trip, May 24 to June 4, marked the choir’s European debut. Invited to sing at the famous Paris landmark, La Madeleine, and the historic Peterskirche in Vienna, the ensemble picked up additional engagements in both capitals as well as in the Austrian cities of Salzburg and Linz. With nine formal concerts packed into their 10-day tour, the choristers found the inspiration and energy to give another eight impromptu performances in informal settings such as markets and tourist attractions.

Lisette Canton (far left) directs the York University Chamber Choir at La MadeleineLisette Canton (far left) directs the York University Chamber Choir at La Madeleine

Compliments poured in along with the applause after each performance.

“We were very happy to host your choir,” said Denis Gautheyrie, conductor of the Chœur St-Denis and the Conservatoire de Montreuil, near Paris. “The public and our choristers deeply enjoyed the artistry of your performance.”

Johannes Dietl, conductor of MACH 4, a male chorus with whom the York Chamber Choir shared a performance at the medieval parish church of Gumpoldskirchen near Vienna, was so impressed with the Canadian group that he invited them to participate in the prestigious international choral competition Ave Verum in Baden, Austria, in 2014.

The chamber choir comprises 21 undergraduate and graduate students from all years of study, selected by stringent audition.  Accompanied by pianist and contract faculty member Mélisande Sinsoulier, they perform under the baton of Canton, a nationally renowned choral conductor who directs York’s Concert Choir and men’s chorus as well as the chamber choir, and oversees graduate studies in choral music.

To showcase the choir’s versatility and accomplishment to its discerning European audience, Canton selected a diverse repertoire of 20 works ranging from the 16th to the 20thcentury, sung in four languages, and responsive to the cultural significance of the tour venues.

The choir performed in the Salzburg’s beautiful Mirabelle Garten

Mozart’s Missa brevis in F, K. 192 was chosen as a tribute to Salzburg and Vienna, where the composer lived. Saint-Saëns worked at La Madeleine in Paris, where the choir performed his Ave verum corpus. Many of the concerts took place in Catholic churches, so the program featured eight Latin motets and a Latin mass as well as other challenging works such as J.S. Bach’s motet Lobet den Herrn and several a cappellapieces. With a nod to the choir’s North American base, Canton also included a piece by Eric Whitacre and two spirituals she knew would be big crowd pleasers in Europe: Soon Ah Will Be Done in an arrangement by Canadian conductor Diane Loomer and Witness arranged by Jack Halloran.

Sarina Masih, a music major in the Faculty of Fine Arts, said she was “blown away” by every city the choir visited. “It was magical, seeing the places where the music we’re singing was created,” she said.

Music graduate Ana Luisa Santo (MA ’12) found the trip a humbling and overwhelming experience – in a very good way. While touring Linz Cathedral, she said, the choir learned that one of the Bruckner works in its repertoire (Locus iste) was composed specifically for that venue.  Seizing the moment, the choristers performed the work on the spot.  “I felt almost as if I were singing along with every voice that had ever sung that piece in that place,” Santo said. “Many of us were moved to tears.”

Performing in the beautiful Ursulinenkirche in Linz, Austria

Chorister Matthew Whitfield, a third-year student studying organ at York, performed a Bach Fantasia and Fugue as part of the Chamber Choir’s program at the Ursulinenkirchein Linz, playing on the same organ used by Bruckner.

For Alison Joy Denise Muir, who has just completed her English degree in York’s Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies, a highlight of the tour was the choir’s impromptu performance at the Church of St. Karl Borromäus in Vienna’s Zentralfriedhof – the cemetery where many celebrated composers, including Beethoven, Schubert, Strauss and Brahms, are buried. “It was one of the most acoustically live places I’ve ever sung in,” said Muir. “The delay was an incredible seven seconds long. We had to insert longer pauses between the measures of the pieces we were performing, so the sound could have time to dissipate.”

The choir took a break from performing to enjoy the evening sights in Paris

“From giving fabulous concerts in historic and superbly resonant spaces – often the original settings for the music – to getting to know everyone outside of the concert experience, this was one of the best international touring experiences I’ve had,” said Canton.  “The trip brought the singers closer together, and they forged deep friendships, which in turn contributed to a much tighter, enriched performance ensemble and experience.  With so many concerts in such a short time, the choir not only demonstrated an impressive endurance, but above all, an amazing level of professionalism. They sang wonderfully.”

While this was the York University Chamber Choir’s first trip across the pond, Canton herself is a veteran touring artist.  The founding artistic director of the critically-acclaimed Ottawa Bach Choir (OBC), she has led the OBC (joined by several York students) on three European trips in the past seven years. In 2009 and 2011, she took the York University Singers to New York City to perform at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center, respectively.

“The fact that the York choirs have performed on the world stage on their own in a professional capacity is a huge achievement,” said Canton.  “They’re now being invited to tour and participate in competitions and festivals the world over. It’s a testament to the quality of instruction our students receive at York, and the overall high calibre of our music program.”

The resounding success of the Chamber Choir’s European tour reinforces the growing international reputation of York’s vocal and choral music programs and opens new opportunities for the University’s rising young singers.