A note from the bass register ascends to meet the tenor, alto and soprano, some of which are descending in pitch, others hovering, but all of which are forming changing, wavering chords — sometimes sombre, sometimes vibrant.
Suddenly, the sound that had been flooding the hallway of Memorial University’s school of music stops.
“Lean into the b flat,” says National Youth Choir conductor Jeff Joudry.
Soon after, four separate, single notes are struck on the piano, an indication of where each section of the quartet choir should be, and the voices re-entered the hall.
The National Youth Choir is comprised of 41 youth age 18 to 25 from all over Canada. On Monday, they were rehearsing a new composition by Newfoundland’s Michael Snelgrove titled “We Came Ashore,” which will be premiered on July 1 as part of the Podium conference.
Podium on the Edge: Singing from Sea to Sea to Sea, a conference of all things choral, will be held in St. John’s this year and will feature music from around the globe that spans centuries and multiple genres.
This is the first year the conference will be hosted in Newfoundland.
Since 1982, Podium has been hosted every two years by Choral Canada in partnership with a provincial choral federation. Though Newfoundland didn’t have a provincial choral federation, the concept of hosting the conference was too appealing for Ki Adams to pass up, so he decided to start one, which will be launched during the conference.
“It really took leaders in the community like Ki and Andrea (Rose, co-chair) who decided we’re just going to go for this,” said Kellie Walsh, one of the co-chairs.
But that was just the initial spark.
Since then, so much work has happened, with so many people involved, it’s hard to keep track. Adams goes through the list of events. There are 65 presentations, five highlight concerts and six spotlight concerts.
“There is just a wide range of opportunities for celebrating singing together,” Adams said. “We’re trying to look at breaking open what it means to sing together. Is it just people standing on risers and singing? Or is it something bigger than that?”
Referencing statistics from Choral Canada, Walsh said the percentage of people singing in Canada is staggering — about 3.5 million Canadians sing in a choir.
June 29 is Podium’s opening night and the spotlight will be on Newfoundland, old and new.
“We put the invite out and 14 choirs said, ‘We would love to show the country what we’re all about,’” Walsh said. “We also decided that we wanted to highlight the richness of our folk culture and our folk singing. … (We) commission(ed) choral arrangements of six Newfoundland and Labrador folk songs.”
The program for the gala should prove to be an experience at once immersive yet expansive, and personal yet communal. The reason for this seemingly contradictory description is, on top of the 14 choirs, 500 people, the Atlantic String Quartet, and a traditional band led by local composer and musician Duane Andrews, the audience will be given a piece to learn that night, which combines a song from Newfoundland and a song from Labrador. The audience will join performers in singing at its premiere.
“I think (the gala) is a huge legacy part of this conference, the idea of singing as life and storytelling here,” Walsh said. “It was happening in the kitchen with kids singing with families (and) in the schools. Choirs are really becoming an important vehicle for taking on … cultural growth and continuing to tell our stories.”
Leading up to Podium, a related event called the International Symposium on Singing and Song II, June 27-29, will host an Open Dialogue Series. The series will host several guest speakers from around the world on topics like “Indigenous Ways of Knowing and Making Music,” “Singing and Songs in Northern Contexts,” and “Music, Health and Social Justice,” the latter of which will involve Stephen Clift, a professor with Sidney De Haan Research Centre for Arts and Health in Canterbury, U.K. The centre studies the effects of singing and music on physical and mental health, particularly with regard to illnesses like dementia and Parkinson’s.
“(He’s) a leading global authority on this,” Adams said. “What we’re trying to do is fuse theory and practice. We talk about research that was done (and) scholarship around singing.”
“The unique opportunity to engage with (someone like) Stephen Clift, when would a graduate student ever get a chance to sit down and have lunch with Stephen Clift?” asked Kiera Galway, project manager for Podium 2018.
Research into music and health is also being conducted in St. John’s.
Jane Gosine, a professor at MUN, has started studying health and well-being through singing and music. Gosine started the Better Breathing Choir, a choir designed for people with respiratory difficulties. Together with Walsh, and a number of other partners, “Lauda” was also started.
“Lauda is a neuro-diverse choir bringing together kids that are neuro-typical and neuro-atypical,” Walsh said.
The choir is a place where kids who are on the autism spectrum or dealing with severe anxiety can engage and sing with other kids.
“(For) any child that wouldn’t necessarily function in what would be a typical choir setting, we’ve started this choir,” Walsh said.
While there are some of the usual performance venues like the St. John’s Arts and Culture Centre in the program, Podium has partnered with a separate project called “… float …,” which will take place at Mount Scio Savoury Farm. Audiences will be guided around the farm, past art installations and actors, until they reach one of several choirs that will perform.
Of particular importance to Walsh is a group of schoolchildren from Indigenous communities in Labrador who will perform — the Ullugiagatsuk Choir. Being so far from Walsh, who is involved with the group, they don’t get to rehearse often. But when they do, it’s all systems go.
“The joy, the hard work … those kids worked for six and a half hours, with a 45-minute break, never took a cellphone out, never rolled their eyes, never sighed when they had to repeat something for the 40th time because we only have this time together,” Walsh said. “I went to my other choristers and said, ‘We’ve got a lot to learn,’ because we have our normal choir expectations (where) you meet once a week, every single week.
“When you have kids who love singing, that are exceptional, incredible human beings … and they have to practice on their own and only get to come together a couple of times, they truly recognize how important that is and how special that is. It’s really breathtaking and special.”
Tickets can be purchased at Fred’s Records or online at www.podiumconference.ca/concert-tickets/. Tickets for the first two highlight concerts will be on sale at the St. John’s Arts and Culture Centre box office.