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INTERVIEW | Artistic Director Robert Busiakiewicz Talks About Opus 8 And Canadian Sacred Music

By Anya Wassenberg on July 5, 2024

Toronto choir Opus 8 (Photo courtesy of the artists)
Opus 8 (Photo courtesy of the artists)

Opus 8 is a Toronto-based choir of eight like-minded ensemble singers. They’ve been around for nearly a decade, with a repertoire that incorporates music from the 14th century to the present.

The choir is made up of sopranos Katy Clark and Clara MacCallum Fraser, altos Veronika Anissimova and Rebecca Claborn, tenors Robert Busiakiewicz and Jamie Tuttle, and basses Martin Gomes and Bryan Martin.

Opus 8 recently released their third album, titled Canadian Sacred Music. It’s a treasure trove of little known works.

The pieces span the last 75 years of Canadian sacred choral composition. Some of the composers, like Eleanor Daley and James Rolfe, are known in the choral community, while Ramona Luengen, Violet Archer, and Tom Bell are probably less so. Finding and putting together the repertoire is part of the story.

We spoke to Artistic Director & Tenor Robert Busiakiewicz about the choir and the new release.

Robert Busiakiewicz: The Interview

Robert Busiakiewicz studied at the Royal Academy of Music and King’s College London, and was invited to the Yeomanry of the Worshipful Company of Musicians in 2013. He earned his Masters in Music with a choral scholarship at King’s College, Cambridge.

“Opus 8 is a choir of 8 soloists,” he explains. “We were founded in 2015. I was the founding director.”

As he describes it, it was a meeting of eight friends who’d known each other for some time, and sung in the same ensembles for years. “We really wanted to push ourselves to the limits of our abilities,” he says.

It’s true that singing in multiple choirs can simply result in singing the same repertoire in different settings. “We got sick of singing The Messiah,” he laughs.

In 2025 February, Opus 8 will be celebrating its 10th anniversary as an organization. Looking back, you could say they’ve come a long way. “I remember we paid our first recording technician in beer,” Robert laughs.

As he notes, with a choir of just eight members, a tight group forms, and a great degree of trust. “If one person is slightly under the weather, or one person needs to swallow, we can feel it,” he says, “and adjust.”

Their overall goal is to create a gorgeous sound that avoid any tendency towards generic sounds. “Chamber music can be very personal, very human,” he says. They wanted to avoid an anonymous kind of choral sound. “It’s very human, it’s very real.”

Opus 8 (Photo courtesy of the artists)
Opus 8 (Photo courtesy of the artists)

Canadian Sacred Music: The Repertoire

“There is a running theme, in that these are all pieces that were unjustly neglected,” Robert says.

“It’s not the kind of thing that you can always pop into Google,” he says. “I’m something of a music hoarder.” Every piece, though, has to prove itself relevant, and not just a curiosity. “Does it really speak to audiences today?”

Given Opus 8’s collective desire for musical exploration, the choice of songs was made via finds or recommendations, rather than from the standard choral repertoire. “It seemed natural for us to do this kind of stuff.”

Four pieces on the recording were composed by Derek Holman (1931-2019). Holman was organist at Croydon Parish Church, Assistant Organist of St. Paul’s Cathedral London, and a master at Westminster Abbey Choir School before immigrating to Canada in the mid-1960s. He quickly became part of the music community in Toronto, and worked with many organizations and churches, including the Church of St. Simon the Apostle, which has preserved many of his compositions.

He wrote Advent Responsory in 1996, and the antiphonal Mary Is A Lady Bright in 1964, while still in the UK. Toronto’ s St. Thomas’s Anglican Church commissioned O Lord, Increase my Faith for the 25th anniversary of John Tuttle as Organist and Choirmaster. The work comes to Opus 8 honestly; tenor Jamie Tuttle is John’s son, and he sang as a choirboy under Holman’s direction.

Jamie is a soloist on An Old Song, a setting of a traditional text called the May Day Carol. It’s part of a longer piece titled Homage to John Aubrey, written for a holiday celebration at Massey College, in the
University of Toronto in 1975. It had been commissioned by Robertson Davies when he was head of the College. After its single performance, the score, in handwritten form, gathered dust at Massey College.

After Davies, John Fraser became Master of Massey College in 1995. Fraser happens to be Robert Busiakiewicz’s father-in-law, and that’s how he got his hands on the score.

“It took me some hours of transcribing it,” Robert recalls. “That was one of the first pieces that I came across.”

The discovery led to the realization that there were hundreds of manuscripts out there in a similar state — lost and in need of rehabilitation.

That’s what led him to Violet Archer. “One that is important to me is a piece by Violet Archer,” he says of his search. “She was known as ‘Violent’ Archer to some critics,” he laughs. Violet Archer composed The Bell, a cantata, in 1949, not long after she finishing her studies with Paul Hindemith and Béla Bartók. The work, not surprisingly, is polyphonic and contrapuntal.

He found her by perusing a catalogue of Canadian composers, in search of women composers in particular. It led him to a CBC recording of 1955. “It was rough, and quite frankly, kind of unpleasant,” he says. He searched until he found a handwritten score, one that was riddled with errors.

“It took me about 15 hours to write it all out on software,” he says. But, as he finally heard it, he was struck by its beauty. “I really wanted to celebrate that.”

Robert wrote to composer Barrie Cabena (b.1933) to ask about one of his pieces. Cabena wrote his motet They That Wait Upon The Lord Shall Renew Their Strength, to text from the book of Isaiah. It’s part of his Three Motets, which he composed for the Bach-Elgar Singers of Hamilton, Ontario, in 1976. Robert says Cabena, now 91, told him he has no recollection of composing the piece.

James Rolfe (b.1961) composed his piece Garden as a commission for Tafelmusik’s 30th anniversary celebration. However, he was unable to make it to the 2011 premiere. His work uses text from the erotically charged Song of Songs from the Bible.

“The piece is so seductive, it sounds like Monteverdi with a modern lens,” Robert notes. “We’d never get away with doing it in church.”

Other works include:

Stephanie Martin (b.1962) took the text from the Acts of the Apostles for her piece Dum Complerentur, written for the choir of St. John Cantius, Chicago, in 2017.

Ramona Luengen (b.1960), earned her PhD form the University of Toronto, where she studied with Derek Holman, another composer whose work appears on the album. Luengen was commissioned by the CBC to write O Lacrimosa for Chanticleer, an award-winning choir. Opus 8 has included the second movement, titled Nichts Als Ein Atemzug, which uses a text by Rainer Maria Rilke.

Tom Bell (b.1962), director of music at St. James Cathedral, set a poem by George Herbert, a favourite collaborator, to music in the work Sinnes Round. The piece was one of the winners of the 2020 ORTUS new music competition.

Eleanor Daley (b.1955) is a well known and prolific Canadian choral composers. Director of music at Fairlawn United Church in Toronto, she set John Henry Newman’s text, O Lord Support Us to music in a commemoration of the late Canadian choral conductor Elmer Iseler,.

Jeff Enns (b.1972) is a native of Waterloo, Ontario. He composed the piece God Be In My Head in 2017 for The Elora Singers.

Canadian Sacred Music: The Album

Robert feels drawn to the work of people like the late Colman, who left beautiful compositions, but simply weren’t so great at self promotion in their time.

“In Canada we’re good at celebrating new talent, but not these kind of legacy artists,” Robert says. “I wanted to lift them up.”

The album was produced by David Fallis, and recorded in January of 2024 at Humbercrest United
Church in Toronto. Watch for an album release concert on September 27, 2024; in the meantime, you can listen to Canadian Sacred Music by Opus 8 on Spotify [HERE].

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