The Winnipeg Singers -- Lessons and Carols
Sunday, November 27, 2022
By Jessie Rivest
I was one of the last to be seated in the nearly sold-out theatre. Betty, beside me, asked what I knew about Winnipeg. I said “Well, I know they have the most restaurants per capita, and they’re the frontrunner to be named a Music City, ahead of Toronto and Vancouver.” We discussed how the Winnipeg arts scene is flourishing with talent and is highly underrated. We shouldn't have been surprised when Pat Wray, Executive Director of the Winnipeg Singers, let us and the audience know that the choir had received multiple international recognitions, including "Best Choir Award" at the Barcelona International choral festival. The group is in the planning stages of its next international tour.
Vocalists floated onto the stage one by one, singing I Wonder as I Wander (Loomer), a striking entrance that let us hear some of the beautiful individual voices that made up the 24-person ensemble. The concert was segmented into five Lessons, which Donnalynn Grills led with contemporary anecdotes that set a conscious tone between the singers and the audience. For instance, Gabriel coming to Mary to let her know she was going to have an unusual birth experience. How could that apply to today? Sudden changes can present gifts of possibility, and magic we feel over the holidays can effervesce throughout the entire year, were only some of the thought-provoking applications. Gabriel’s Message (Balfour), amalgamated overtone singing from the bass section with the familiar melody, creating an affecting sonic experience.
Artistic Director and Conductor Yuri Klaz has some of the highest pedigree you can imagine, such as “Honoured Artist of Russia”. His direction was impeccable; at one point I wondered “did the choir have a special meeting to decide who was going to put the “s” on the end of words?”—they were so crisp and together, but far from militaristic. Soul sailed through the vowels, as Klaz highlighted each section at the appropriate moment to honour the music. It was like watching a painter of sound. At the end of Away in a Manger (Ramsey), it was as if Klaz was unrolling a delicate scroll across the sky to evenly distribute the decrescendo. Truly magnificent.
Each choir section, particularly the first sopranos, were incredibly pristine and well blended—very challenging to do when up in the rafters in full voice. The tenors also displayed that they knew how to harness great power with great responsibility. Soloist Criag Kremer let his strength shine in In the Bleak Midwinter (Parrotta), as did soprano Ainsley Wray with outstanding clarity and control on the tag-like ending.
In Noel Nouvelet (Wiebe) the singers suddenly transformed into handbells with a billowing undercurrent of running “dugga doo’s”. The laser-exact ictus signalled the basses to end with a single “dmm” which warmed the hearts of the crowd. “Wow!” and “Beautiful!” were being said all over the house throughout the afternoon; it was nearly impossible for the audience to keep their exclamations to themselves. The Winnipeg Singers are just that good.
Another highlight was the choir splitting into two ensembles to lead carolling sessions in each half of the programme. While some of the carols were not super well-known, most of us were able to chime in on the refrains, which was fun!
Kudos to the KCCA for their persistence in organizing such a phenomenal group to bless the Okanagan with a visit. I’m really excited to know that they are pivoting to a new venue, the Evangel Church, in 2023 —1600 seats, free parking for members, and acoustics with raised roof are plenty of silver lining. The Kelowna Community Theatre has a shortened ceiling over the performers and a ton of carpet, not ideal for choirs.
We will have to get the Winnipeg Singers to return to the new venue so that we can savour those ringing chords and hold applause until the conductor’s hands slowly come down, resting humbly at his side.