Conductors are often thought of as wizards, holding a wand and casting spells. It doesn’t help that a lot of the incantations are often in mysterious foreign languages. Any good conductor could be a wizard casting spells to create good music. But, behind the furious arm waving you see on stage is careful and thoughtful musicality and intention, deep connection of cognition and muscular movement, and many, many years of refinement in training programs, the hallmark of which is a solid college or university program.
There are a handful of universities in Canada that offer graduate studies in choral conducting. Masters-level programmes are not uncommon, but doctorate level choral conducting education is rare.
The University of Toronto has a unique program that offers the highest level of choral education in one of the biggest choral cities in North America. Doreen Rao held the position prior to Hilary Apfelstadt. At the end of the 2017-2018 teaching year and 8 years, Hilary begins her retirement. The University of Toronto is currently undertaking a search for a replacement to lead as Director of Choral Activities at the University of Toronto including its hundreds of music students, four major choral ensembles, and dozens of graduate students at the Master’s and Doctoral levels.
McGill University and the University of Alberta offer the only other two Doctor of Musical Arts in Choral Conducting programmes in Canada. Geographically, the Doctor of Musical Arts offered at Eastman School of the University of Rochester is the closest. Both schools operate within a similar sphere of influence. William Weinert is the Director of the Choral Activities at Eastman and oversees the Eastman Chorale, Eastman-Rochester Chorus, Repertory Singers, Women’s Chorus, and Voices. He shared some thoughts on Choral music education, the vacancy at U of T, and his friend, Hilary.
“Choruses are everywhere — thousands of them,” shares Weinert. “Until the mid-20th century they used to be conducted by many people with limited training in conducting technique and vocal pedagogy, and limited knowledge of our enormous choral repertoire — people who were primarily pianists, organists, or singers and conducted as a sideline.” Most choral music has deep roots in christian churches. To this day, many strong choral programs are offered by churches like St James Cathedral in Toronto or Christ Church Cathedral in Ottawa. A lot of the big names in Canadian composing also came from similar sacred backgrounds like Healey Willan and Stephanie Martin at the Church of St Mary Magdalene and Ruth Watson-Henderson at Kingsway-Lambton United Church. While great environments for choral performance, church programs lack the pure education focus that a university program offers.
“The appearance and spread of Doctorate in Musical Arts (DMA) degrees in the last 50-60 years has meant a great advancement in all aspects of the choral culture in North America,” says Weinert. The result has been noticeable in the breadth and depth of choral music throughout the continent outside of churches. This has allowed choirs to stand at the pinnacle of classical music like Conspirare, the Los Angeles Master Chorale, New York Choral Society, and countless others. As Weinert says, good training has allowed “conductors to program a broader and more sophisticated repertoire, teach it better, [and] are much better trained at working with instruments.“ It is hard to think of successful choral music without good college programs.
Don McLean, the Dean of Music at the University of Toronto, has much to say about choral music. Over the phone, McLean, an educator and scholar who specialized in piano, shares: “there’s no question that most of us who are in the music business have had significant transformative experience in choral environments. Not everyone can play in an orchestra, but many people can sing in choral. The choral program is an essential program of any major music program,” McLean continues. “Voice is the most natural of the instruments and provides a space for musical growth. At the undergraduate level, it’s a very critical part of building overall musicianship. But the distinctive feature of music at U of T is the graduate program.”
U of T has four main choral ensembles: the men’s chorus, the women’s chorus, women’s chamber choir, and the Macmillan choir. Hilary Apfelstadt created and reorganized the ensembles to allow for graduate students to take a leading role. “The variety of choirs established not only gave a very broad repertoire experience but also the all-important podium time for graduate students,” says McLean. “As the program evolved, it gave the graduate students time and experience to manage ensembles with supervision. Doctoral students are assigned ensembles to lead. The program allows for increasing responsibilities and breadth of experience with extensive podium time.”
The breadth of U of T’s program requires that the successful candidate not only be an excellent conductor but also equally strong in music education. “The music education stream is essential for choral training,” says McLean. Added to this, searching for a candidate to fill as Director of Choral Activities “is complicated because of the graduate level [teaching] expectations, it’s not a junior post. Normally when a senior person leaves, you bring in a junior and begin a renewal process. But with the [needs of the] graduate program at U of T, [the candidate] has to come on with more extensive experience.”
The search continues for a replacement. In the meantime, Hilary completes her time at U of T, having served for 8 years. “Hilary has such solid grounding as a voice person and a broad command of repertoire,” says McLean. “She has done an amazing job of bringing in guests and championing of Canadian composers and, specifically, women composers.” To this, Weinart adds: “Hilary is a model for us all, not only in terms of impeccable musicianship and pedagogy. She offers the wisest advice, and devotes herself to helping colleagues and students in every way she can. She always sees the big picture around any issue, which has earned her the highest respect of the profession, and has resulted in many leadership positions in our most important professional organizations.”
Choral training, provided through solid graduate-level training continues to build new generations of singers. As these programs mature, the challenges change. It’s not about attracting scholars anymore, but the best available. As Weinert says, “the more excellent programs there are, the more we all have to set the bar high — the programs that don’t, simply, don’t get the top students. Hilary’s successor has big shoes to fill!”
Ludwig Van Toronto will announce when the search concludes. In the meantime, catch Hilary in the last of her major performances in NYC and Toronto:
March 17, 7 pm. DCINY presents “Reflections of Light.” Conductors Hilary Apfelstadt, Martha Shaw, and Jonathan Griffiths are joined by choirs from across North America, including Toronto, and the Distinguished Concerts Orchestra. David Geffen Hall, Lincoln Center, New York City.
March 24, 7:30 pm. The University of Toronto Symphony Orchestra and University Choirs present Requiem in C Minor, Cherubini; Lauds for Symphony Orchestra, Versluis; and Symphony No. 2, Brahms. MacMillan Theatre, Edward Johnson Building, University of Toronto, Toronto.
April 6, 8 pm. Exultate Chamber Singers is joined by The Toronto Winds in “We Sing and Play.” Featuring a new work by Matthew Emery for wind band and choir, and choral works by Stephen Chatman and John Rutter. St Thomas’ Anglican Church, Toronto.