Calgary Philharmonic Chorus: Looking Back on 60 Years
By Olivia Sawyer, Helen Isaac, Drew Kotchan, and Tristram Chivers
As the Calgary Philharmonic Chorus celebrates its 60th year, we reflect on the journey of this group of volunteers who share a passion for music. The choristers have had the opportunity to sing with several Chorus Directors and many guest conductors and collaborate with hundreds of top musicians and artists. Their love for music and community has taken them through various changes and challenges, and the Chorus, over 120 voices strong and one of only two dedicated groups to sing with a major orchestra in Canada, has developed into a valued part of the Calgary Phil.
The Calgary Philharmonic Chorus was formed in 1963 by Haymo Taeuber, the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra’s Music Director, who conducted the Chorus until his departure in 1968. The 70-voice ensemble’s first performance with the Orchestra was in March 1964, when they joined other choirs in a performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. In 1968, the Chorus was disbanded when Haymo Taeuber left the Orchestra and was restored in 1970 with Lloyd Erickson as Chorus Director. Erickson directed the choir from 1970 to 1975 and 1977 to 1979, during which time the Chorus was again dissolved for two years.
Susan Fulmer, an alto from 1968 until 2016, recalls, “At the beginning, in the late 60s and early 70s, a chorus was mustered whenever the Orchestra decided to do Messiah (not every year, more like now-and-then). An invitation went around town to choirs for interested parties to attend rehearsals on Sundays with Lloyd Erickson conducting. We’d rehearse for a few Sundays, Lloyd would hand us over to whoever was conducting the concert, and we’d have one or two rehearsals with the Orchestra. Then, we gave it our best shot.”
In 1979, the Chorus was re-formed as the Calgary Philharmonic Chorus, and part of the Calgary Phil. Fulmer continues, “When the Calgary Philharmonic Chorus was founded, the search for a conductor was on. The Calgary Phil organization recruited Terry Fullerton, Professor of Music at the University of Calgary and already the conductor of a really good choir at the Cathedral Church of the Redeemer. Over the next 20 years, he groomed an eager, if raggedy, bunch of singers to a more than 120-voice professional-quality instrument.” Fullerton tells us, “Among the many wonderful memories I have as Chorus Director, the highlights would be the Giuseppe Verdi Requiem performed during the Olympics and the three performances of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 in Calgary, Winnipeg, and Edmonton.”
During Fullerton’s time as Chorus Director, the Chorus contributed to many notable events, including the opening of the Jack Singer Concert Hall in 1985 and the Olympic Arts Festival in 1988. The Chorus sang in Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 for the opening of the Winspear Centre in Edmonton in 1997 and again in Winnipeg in 1998 to help celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra and 75th anniversary of the Winnipeg Philharmonic Choir, and in world premieres of choral works by Imant Raminsh and Krzysztof Penderecki in 2000 at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity. As described by Sheila Cook, a Chorus soprano since 1983, the travelling and performing have created many friendships through a collective passion for choral music, “So many memories … performing Gustav Mahler’s Eighth Symphony for the opening of the Jack Singer Concert Hall, then in Winnipeg with Bramwell Tovey and in Edmonton for the opening of the Winspear Centre have forged many lifelong friendships.”
David Ferguson brought with him years of experience as a music teacher, choirmaster, and conductor when he took the reins as Chorus Director in 2000. Unfortunately, the Calgary Phil entered bankruptcy protection in 2002, and the Chorus had to fight for its survival to remain part of the organization. Part of the Orchestra’s recovery plan in 2003 was to elevate the Chorus to become an integral component and strategic instrument of the Calgary Phil.
After the restructuring, Rosemary Thomson was appointed as Chorus Director in 2003 and served until 2010. During her tenure, Chorus members travelled to St John’s, Newfoundland, to participate in Festival 500, and after her departure, Chorus members sang in three Okanagan Symphony concerts she conducted in Penticton, Kelowna, and Vernon.
Timothy Shantz took over as Chorus Director in 2010 and continued to raise the professionalism of the Chorus. Around this time, Ellen Borak (soprano since 1996) and Allen Borak founded the Borak Forte Program to support the development of the Chorus. Ellen Borak talks about these professional standards, “I have always believed in three principles: great choral-orchestral repertoire needs to be heard, it should be performed at the highest level commensurate and worthy of the orchestra, and it should happen right here in Calgary.” Sheila Cook also reflects on the unique professional and performance position of the Chorus, “I like to think we are in a unique position to be affiliated with a world-class orchestra. The Chorus sings a great diversity of repertoire, and I continue to learn more about choral singing each season.”
Shantz and the Chorus travelled to Chicago in 2015 to present a concert in the Rockefeller Memorial Chapel and sing at a special Canada Day reception hosted by the Consul General of Canada in Chicago, Roy Norton, in the magnificent Chicago Cultural Center. During Shantz’s tenure, the Chorus performed in several world premieres, notably Afghanistan: Requiem for a Generation by Jeffrey Ryan with text by Suzanne Steele (2012), Stephen Chatman’s A Song of Joys with text by Walt Whitman (2014), and Randolph Peters’ Intensely Alive, a new work commissioned specifically for the opening concert of the Bella Concert Hall (2015).
The opportunity to take on challenges, whether recording themselves at home during a pandemic or learning difficult new music, is one of the many reasons members stay with the Chorus. Kay Harrison, who has been in the Chorus since 1981, says, “One thing that keeps me involved and motivated relates to my construction background, as I really enjoy the challenge of working on something from scratch with an ever-changing group of like-minded people, and developing a work to be performance-ready by a date that is set in stone.”
The challenge of tackling new works coincides with the high standards of professionalism and performance that the choristers embrace. “It has been an exhilarating experience and a privilege to sing many masterpieces of the choral repertoire with one of the best orchestras in Canada in the company of highly talented and enthusiastic singers,” says Tristram Chivers, a tenor who joined the Chorus in 1983. The Boraks funded the Endowed Chair for Chorus Director in 2019 and comment “We have now ensured many years of great choral singing to come.”
With Shantz’s transition to the University of Alberta, Dr. Mark Bartel was appointed Chorus Director in 2020 and faced the challenge of directing the Chorus through the pandemic. Choristers endured, even recording Laura Hawley’s I Rise in their cars in the summer of 2021. When asked why they continue to sing, many people speak about their love for music and how the challenge of bringing new or previously performed works to life keeps them engaged. Richard Wanner, who has sung bass with the Chorus since 1987, says “It’s the creative power of the human mind that is the essence of the experience for me.”
While themes of personal growth, leadership, and performance are present in choristers’ stories, nothing is more prevalent than the themes of community and friendship. Many people cite their memories, friendships, and connections to others as driving reasons for singing with the Chorus. Keith Wyenberg, who has sung in the chorus for 40 years, tells us, “My time in the Chorus has been wonderful. The wonderful music, the friends that I have made, and our fun trips were really great and I look back on them with fond memories.” Wanner continues, “I have many other reasons for wanting to continue singing into later life: the friendships with fellow choristers; the emotional lift from singing together; the tremendous pleasure of performing with an outstanding orchestra; being able to share this wonderful experience with my wife.”
The Chorus experience has been enriched by shows such as A Tribute to Queen, Video Games Live, and Lord of the Rings, along with singing festive holiday carols at the Salvation Army, the Mustard Seed, Calgary Drop-In Centre, the Calgary Food Bank, and more. The Chorus has collaborated with Alberta Ballet for Mozart’s Requiem, and Orff’s Carmina Burana, and sings in many languages, including Latin, English, Cree, French, German, Italian, Hungarian, Russian, Mandarin, and Elvish.
While the choristers can tell many more stories, from electrical fires backstage to on-stage shenanigans, it is their passion for music that will keep creating new memories for years to come. Terry Fullerton sums up succinctly: “Congratulations to the present and past members celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Calgary Philharmonic Chorus. Imagine, thousands of hours rehearsing and hundreds of hours performing with the Calgary Phil. Well done! May you continue to bless Calgary with wonderful singing for another 60 years.”
On Friday 21 April 2023, the Calgary Philharmonic Chorus celebrates its 60th anniversary of the Calgary Philharmonic Chorus with Let Voices Resound, a unique concert experience featuring the Chorus performing centre stage at the Jack Singer Concert Hall, joined by Cantaré Children’s Choir and special guest soloists.