Eleanor McCain and her ensemble, Music Director Lydia Adams
and The Elmer Iseler Singers
Review by David Richards
Toronto ON May 7th 2017
It has been a long time since I have heard the Elmer Iseler Singers in concert without the company of the Toronto Symphony or the Amadeus Choir. I recently attended their Messiah and a performance of the Fauré Requiem with the TSO. However, last night at Jeanne Lamon Hall in the Trinity St. Paul Centre, the choir presented its own concert, O Canada! 150th Celebration!
I looked forward to this concert. It would take me back to my roots, the beginning of my love of choral music. I was seventeen when I attended a performance of Elmer Iseler’s Festival Singers of Toronto in the brand new Walter Hall in UofT’s Faculty of Music. The music of Byrd, Palestrina, Willan and Vaughan Williams haunted me for days, weeks, and even months afterward. When, soon after, Elmer Iseler became one of my professors, my life’s direction changed. I was hooked on the kind of choral sound and the sort of choral music he inspired in many of the undergrads.
Last night’s concert also took me back to my roots as a chorister and choral conductor. There was music on the program that I had sung or conducted in my twenties and thirties. Even without the opening timpani and strings of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Godfrey Ridout’s O Canada stirs the patriotic heart strings as it modulates into a rarely heard second verse in which the tenors soar into a majestic descant.
The Elmer Iseler Singers have just returned from a tour of Western Canada. Last night, the concert took the audience on a trip across the country from Newfoundland to British Columbia with stops along the way in Nova Scotia, Acadia, Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba and the North West Territories. Twenty-three choral pieces were interspersed with two sets by the celebrated Canadian vocalist Eleanor McCain. Together with her four-piece band that included Don Breithaupt on piano, Justin Abedin on guitar, Pat Kilbride on bass, Mark Kelso on drums and EIS on backup vocals, McCain sang songs from True North: The Canadian Songbook, her latest recording and publishing project. McCain's two sets included Canadian iconic songs such as Ian Tyson’s Four Strong Winds, Leon Dubinsky’s We Rise Again, and Sarah McLauglan’s Angel in convincing fashion. Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah was delivered with passion.
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McCain’s True North: The Canadian Songbook is a collection of Canadian pop and folk songs set to orchestra honouring Canada’s 150th Anniversary. It consists of a double CD along with a bilingual coffee table book that captures the landscapes of the country along with behind the scenes images from the project.
Conductor Lydia Adams chose a program that would neither tax the choir nor the audience in this celebratory concert. The very familiar Song for Canada by Paul Halley and the Rita McNeil favourite She’s Called Nova Scotia with choir soloist Gisele Kulak was mixed with such up-tempo pieces as the French Canadian folk song J’entends le moulin and Kicking Horse River. Kulak displayed a warm lyrical voice in her solo work. The emotional Acadian hymn Tout Passe arranged by Adams and In Flanders Fields written by Adams both contained some of the most expressive singing of the concert.
The highlight of the performance for me was Hussein Janmohamed’sSun on the Water. Inspired by the light reflecting off Lake Ontario at sunrise, the piece referenced the diversity of Canadian society. A sensitively composed piece that used both Islamic and Christian sounds to create the sense of complexity, it reached a climax with a major chord exclaiming “Exaudi Domine!”. The moment of wonder and hope was poignant. Janmohamed is a bass in the Iseler Singers and a doctoral student in the Faculty of Music, University of Toronto.
In the 1960s, the Festival Singers, the forerunner to the Elmer Iseler Singers was Canada’s only professional choir. It is a tribute to Artistic Director Lydia Adams, the musicians and the organization that EIS continues to lead the way in today’s crowded choral landscape. Next season will be the choir’s 39th year. A four- concert Toronto series will culminate in a tribute to Elmer Iseler (1927-1998) in a program entitled Joyful Sounds: Twenty Years Later.
The Elmer Iseler Singers can next be heard tomorrow, Monday May 8th at 7:30pm at Metropolitan United Church. The program entitled Get Music will include three Doctoral student conductors from UofT performing two choral works with the Cawthra Park Secondary School Choir and the Resonance Youth Choir.
ELMER ISELER SINGERS celebrate Canada 150 with ELEANOR MCCAIN!
Music Director Lydia Adams and The Elmer Iseler Singers