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PRIMER | The Orpheus Choir Of Toronto Know How To Celebrate International Women’s Day

By Brian Chang on March 5, 2019

The Orpheus Choir of Toronto has taken the theme of International Women’s Day wholeheartedly and channelled it into four brand new compositions by female composers with words from female authors.

March 8, 2018, at 7:30 pm. The Orpheus Choir of Toronto presents: Raising Her Voice celebrating International Women’s Day featuring four new compositions by Canadian women in partnership with four female authors from Diaspora Dialogues. Grace Church on-the-hill, Toronto. Details, here

International Women’s Day 2019 has the theme “Balance is Better.” Orpheus Choir of Toronto has taken the theme wholeheartedly and channelled their creative energy into not one, but four brand new compositions by female composers with words from female authors. In partnership with Diaspora Dialogues, the Orpheus Choir strives to find a better balance by presenting these new works on International Women’s Day, March 8, 2019.

Only 12% of choral compositions are written by female composers according to a 2018 study by Vicki Baker. The gender imbalance is most noticeable in the choral world where women often make up more than 50% of mixed-voice ensembles. Part of active inclusion requires direct, substantial, sustained investment in correcting the imbalance.

“We at Orpheus are thrilled to build a project which gives a stage for new and emerging women in the poetic and choral arts,” said Chair of the Board Tamiko Barker. “It matches perfectly our organization’s commitment to promote new voices, to use the choral medium as an agent for social change, and to engage audiences with our ‘expect something different’ experience.”

Orpheus, along with Diaspora Dialogues engaged four female poets and four female composers in new commissions. Poets Shadi Eskandani, Priscila Uppal, Phoebe Wang, and Yaya Yao are joined by composers Christine Donkin and Tawnie Olson mentoring Anika-France Forget and Katerina Gimon. Artistic Director Bob Cooper has led the mentoring program alongside Apprentice Conductor Elise Naccarato.

“As Orpheus’ Apprentice Conductor (and first female apprentice!), this project is extra special for me,” shares Naccarato. “Two of the four commissioned works are by emerging female composers Katerina Gimon and Anika-France Forget. The opportunity to conduct works by my peers is a great privilege.”

“We are all around the same age and the start of the next generation of conductors/ composers. I am thankful to Orpheus for providing an opportunity for me to meet and work with these two amazing young women whom I look forward to working with for many years to come!”

In November 2018, the project brought instrumentalists together with choristers to give life to the partially completed compositions. A rare moment, unique to the composition process, is the first time you hear the work brought to life by actual live musicians. Composition software is improving in its ability to synthesize sounds, but the visceral interpretation of music, before its completion gives invaluable and rare insight. Most composers don’t get the chance the test out their works before they are published.

The composers and librettists had a chance to hear their words and music brought to life and then take those notes back as they refined their final versions. The Choir began rehearsing in earnest with the final editions in January 2019.

“We recognize the lack of opportunities for most artists to continue to receive critical feedback and mentorship once they leave a school setting,” says Managing Director Lisa Griffiths, a champion of the project. “Professional development is imperative to an artist’s continued career success. Beyond commissioning four works from female composers, we are investing in their futures by putting mentorship front and centre.”

“We wanted to provide a robust experience for all of the artists involved,” said Orpheus Choir Artistic Director Robert Cooper. “Our hope is that each artist is able to strengthen her craft throughout this process with this rare opportunity to receive critical feedback and mentorship. We are also providing a learning opportunity for our audience on creating new choral works, from ideation to premiere.”

For its part in the collab, Diaspora Dialogues President Helen Walsh had this to say: “Diaspora Dialogues is delighted to partner with the Orpheus Choir of Toronto, another organization that recognizes the value of mentoring in nurturing and developing talented emerging artists, and a project that offers the opportunity to writers for another avenue in developing their art and careers.”

The Works

Commission #1 is titled “beneath/sound” by Katerina Gimon with words from Yaya Yao’s poem “sound” from her collection of poetry titled Flesh, Tongue. Cooper describes the work: “From the outset of Katerina’s work, we are on a journey of aural exploration as she thoughtfully builds a choral soundscape between high tension and mysterious silence. Katerina asks the singers to improvise and takes them on a fascinating journey of textural discovery.”

Gimon has been named one of 30 hot classical musicians under 30 by CBC music. Having studied at both Wilfred Laurier University and the University of British Columbia, she worked with mentor Tawnie Olson on this project. Yaya Yao is a Toronto-born multi-disciplinary artist whose’s book Flesh/Tongue is described by Author Marjorie Chan as work that “skillfully navigates a tale of the diasporic. In her poems we travel, we reflect, lost in a journey of migration, of family, of origins, of ourselves.”

Commission #2 is titled “careful careful” by Christine Donkin with words from the poem of the same name by Priscila Uppal. Uppal, who passed away in 2018 has this to say about the wider idea of poetry: “the power of poetry is difficult to measure or quantify and yet you know its power when you witness its effects. Poetry first triggers something inside of you, then expands to fill your whole being, and then facilitates a palpable release of emotion.”

A chorister described this work as an “amazing portrait of a sensitive human heart, and what a counterintuitive way to set this to text! If you showed me that poem and said you wanted to set it in a playful, flippant, defiant way, I wouldn’t expect it to work – yet it absolutely does!”

Donkin is a BC based composer who teaches at the Victoria Conservatory of Music and has a host of published works for voice, instruments, and both. Uppal passed away in September 2018 before the project could be completed. A Professor at York University at the time of her passing, Uppal also served on the Board of Directors for the Toronto Arts Council.

In 2015, on the subject of her cancer diagnosis Uppal told the CBC’s Matt Galloway, “I think a very undervalued and powerful tool is the imagination. When you’re facing something like [cancer], many people like me feel disconnected and alienated from themselves — from their bodies, from their coworkers, from their loved ones, from the world. The imagination is actually a way to repair and reconnect and heal those connections to yourself and other people.”

This concert will be held in Uppal’s memory.

Commission #3 is titled “A Prayer for Return” by Annika-France Forget with words from “Homecoming (40 Days of Mourning)” by Shadi Eskandani in her collection, Contusions. “Passion is at the core of Forget’s score,” says Cooper, “lush harmony, emotional questioning and a deeply felt synergy with Eskandani’s poem. It’s a challenging sing provided by this young composer, but we are rewarded with her heartrending close.”

Eskandani describes her body of work as ”locating self within the margins of our experiences, where conflicting and complex versions of ourselves are at play. My poetry embraces shadow versions of ourselves within intersections of our trauma, violence, loss, joy, passion, love and beauty to highlight instances of humanity in its rawest form.”

Forget is studying music at the University of Toronto but already has three awards for compositions for voice from the Canadian Federation of Music Teacher’s Associations.

Commission #4 is “Two Tea Bowls” composed by Tawnie Olson to the words of Phoebe Wang from a poem of the same name. “How wonderfully Tawnie has captured the simple minimalism of Phoebe Wang’s brief poems,” says Cooper, “with a clarity and austerity of her own invention! It is exposed singing, but achieving the mystical mood is our reward.”

Phoebe Wang’s work has garnered her over 18 awards for her poetry. In a blog post from May 2018, Wangs’ thoughts about her place in the context of art was particularly hopeful, even if humble: “doubtless I’ll still have mornings where every limb feels undeserving. Yet if I am to continue to stand in front of a group of young people to shift their ideas about who poetry belongs to and who gets to create it, I had better start with adjusting my own expectations.”

Tawnie Olson is a New Haven, Connecticut based composer from Calgary. Olson is an Adjunct Professor of Music at the Hartt School of Music at the University of Hartford. Her Doctoral thesis at the University of Toronto was a setting of The Seven Last Words of Christ set for soloists, chorus, and chamber orchestra. One of her other numerous compositions was the powerful No Capacity to Consent written for Third Practice, a Washington D.C.based vocal ensemble. In the work, Olson obtained permission to use the text of the legal complaint made in the case of a pregnant woman who was arrested and allegedly raped by a corrections officer in Ferguson, Missouri.


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