Article by Kiley Venables – 2022 NYCC Alto
After over two years of virtual concerts and rehearsals and frustrating closures, it would be easy for the magic of choral singing to be lost amid costs, risks, and logistical nightmares. But choirs are above all else about connection, and we need that now more than ever.
It was my great privilege to sing with the National Youth Choir of Canada in 2022—my second time, but after a gap of six years. Like many of my colleagues, I auditioned in the fall of 2019 and expected to sing in May 2020. The cancellation of NYCC during that first lockdown felt cataclysmic; I knew what I was missing.
As it became clear that we would attempt a choir in 2022, I began to rehearse the music, even when it made no sense without the rest of the choir around me. The pieces were challenging and would demand the concentration and collaboration of the full artistic team. From the frantic rhythms of Eric Whitacre’s “Little Man in a Hurry” to the slowly building chords of Hussein Janmohamed’s “Sun on Water,” from the trumpet calls of the fiendishly difficult “La Guerre” by Clément Janequin to the joyful celebration of Sydney Guillaume’s “Nou Se Limyè”—none of these pieces could be fully experienced alone.
On May 8th, the forty singers of the 2022 National Youth Choir slowly trickled into the residences at UOttawa. There would be many restrictions placed on us to protect us as much as possible: we would wear masks to sing, our social time would have to take place outdoors, and we would not billet like previous choirs had. Some of the choristers had waited months, and others years, and we were ready to sing together for the first time.
The program chosen by Jean-Sébastien Vallée for the 2020 choir had only become more urgent. In his program notes, Dr. Vallée wrote: “This program is both a reflection on our society and a tribute to our world – a world where music allows us to find common ground and look towards a better and more inclusive future.” Each of the four sets in “Make Me a World” spoke to urgent issues of social justice and human connection, each opening with a setting of the Agnus Dei prayer and its call for peace: dona nobis pacem. These four composers wrote their music in different centuries but reached for the same text to express four very different moods: Josef Rheinberger’s pleading; William Byrd’s reassurance; Rupert Lang’s comfort; and Frank Martin’s yearning.
Between these touchstones, the music explored how people live together—and how they should. Set one ended with Laura Hawley’s “Rise up my love” and J.S. Bach’s “Brich dem Hungrigen dein Brot”: wildly different pieces, but each a call to connect in a complicated world. Carmen Braden’s “Crooked by Nature” depicted a dialogue between misogyny and feminism, ending in a powerful war speech by Elizabeth I of England—only to segue immediately into Clément Janequin’s onomatopoeic depiction of 16th -century war, “La Guerre.” Roderick Williams’ passionate “O Guiding Night” and Sydney Guillaume’s celebratory “Nou Se Limyè” both spoke to the search for meaning from different angles; Nicholas Kelly’s sweeping “Wind Rising in the Alleys” and Saunder Choi’s powerful “The New Colossus” addressed current social change with new settings of older poetic works. Our concerts usually ended with Matthew Emery’s “Breathe,” a gentle tribute to victims of Covid-19. Even the structure of the music was dialogue: between soloists and choir; between parts in a fugue; and between double choirs.
Our personal connections made these musical connections possible. Apprentice conductor Thomas Burton and collaborative pianist Irene Gregorio generously shared not only their musical talents but their own stories with us. Tour manager William Duffy shouldered the stress and panic of Covid logistics so that we could focus on the music. And I can never adequately express my thanks to our conductor, Jean-Sébastien Vallée, for everything he gave us: his patience in rehearsal, his passion for the music, his humour in small moments, his sensitivity in big ones, and his perseverance in waiting four years to share these magical days with us.
It was an even more emotional two weeks than I remember from my experience in 2016. Our discussions of the two new commissioned pieces, Andrew Balfour’s “Music Is Vibration” and Shireen Abu-Khader’s “I Forgive,” struck chords so deep we needed a break to hold each other in shared consolation. There were times when we held a chord together so lovely that I had to fight back tears. The tour was shortened, and some choristers had to self-isolate. We took Covid rapid tests every morning, hearts pounding with fear that we had already sung our last note together.
These challenges bonded us, but so did moments of laughter and joy. We performed in Ottawa, Kingston, Manotick, and Toronto; we grew every performance in expressiveness and artistic intention. Anyone who has sung in National Youth Choir will know how the running jokes proliferate, and this year was no different. We shared smiles expressed only with our eyes over our masks; we communicated memes and logistics through a magnificently active 40-person group chat; we celebrated birthdays; we colour-coordinated outfits; and we found ways to make our Covid test pictures every morning so
entertaining that tour manager William Duffy organized a bracket-style competition for the best one.
Our relief to be together and singing allowed us to be sentimental, knowing how quickly the ending of the program approached and how bittersweet that final concert would be. The first thing we sang together was Stephanie Martin’s “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” which perfectly captures that wistful hope to stay in a perfect moment. Dr. Vallée led us into the same song on the most difficult morning of the rehearsal week, and anytime that we needed to remind ourselves that we were here, singing together. As the rehearsals drew to a close, we found ourselves singing it everywhere. We would settle into a circle, wrap our arms around each other, and sing: at midnight on the steps of Tabaret Hall on the UOttawa campus; on Parliament Hill, with tourists looking on; with the alumni at our Podium concert; at the end of our Podium masterclass; and in Toronto’s busy Yonge-Dundas square, to send Ryan Doyle on his way.
When I asked my colleagues what the choir had meant to them, connection was the theme above everything else. Emma Yee, an alto representing New Brunswick, wrote to me that “NYCC 2022 was truly a life changing experience. I learned so much and made so many incredible friends across the country that I hope I will keep for the rest of my life. I am happy that anywhere in Canada I go, there are folks I have shared this experience with whom I will be able to sing with, work with, and hang out with.” The choir group chat has already been filled with pictures of different combinations of choristers singing together back home, or simply visiting each other. After two strange years, it feels like we are a part of a
wider community again, and the future is filled with music. Chenuka Lakwijaya, a tenor representing British Columbia, summed it up beautifully: “The 2022 NYCC experience unearthed every singer’s yearning to connect in song and heart. I felt safe and supported throughout, connected by beautiful music and conversation.”
Usually, the National Youth Choir experience ends with a full weekend at the Podium Festival, but this year half of the choir could not stay. We had started our time together in Ottawa on May 8th with a rolling series of hellos, and we ended as we began, with a slow trickle of goodbyes as choristers left Toronto. The half that remained took in everything we could: the seven incredible concerts that followed our own, the many fascinating sessions at the conference, and the chance to meet with inspiring singers, conductors, and composers. We enthusiastically participated in every opportunity for community singing, including at the Toronto Mass Choir concert and in the song sharing sessions led by Shannon
Thunderbird and Sandy Horne. After 11pm at the closing reception of Podium, the last fourteen of us wrapped each other in a hug and sang “Nothing Gold Can Stay” one final time.
Back now to ordinary life—but with the Bach runs stuck in my head, and a lingering joy to take with me. Weeks after we sang that last note together, I am still filled with gratitude. I know those thirty- nine other singers I met in May will go on to do amazing things, in music and beyond. But even though we have years of music and life ahead of us, there is something about this program that will never be replicated. In two short weeks together, we layered personal and artistic connections over each other until they could not be extricated. In the plaintive chords of the Rheinberger and the final, unified breath of “The New Colossus,” we overcame the obstacles that had kept us apart for two years and shared our joy
with our audiences and each other. I am no longer a youth by the NYCC definition, and I already envy everyone who will sing in Montreal in 2024—this time is precious.
Late in rehearsal week we were having trouble with an entry in Frank Martin’s introspective and achingly beautiful “Agnus Dei.” Dr. Vallée raised his hands for us to try again, and into the brief silence, said: “No fear, only music.”
We sang together.
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