Music and Beyond: Dr. Lydia Adams carries Elmer Iseler’s choral tradition in her capable hands

Dr. Lydia Adams doing what she loves, conducting a choir.

Lessons from the road: One time Dr. Lydia Adams was travelling with a production of the Cree opera Pimooteewin: The Journey, by Tomson Highway and Melissa Hui. The story was based on an Indigenous story about crossing the river dividing the living world from the land of the dead to bring back those people who have passed on. The living find out though that all the dead people are having a blast and don’t want to come back.

“We were in Moosonee, Ontario and there was one little girl whose baby brother had recently died. At the end of the performance she went up to her father and said ‘It’s OK now I know he will just be fine.’ She was 11. It was a very powerful moment.

“Sometimes in the middle of things you don’t really realize the impact that what you do can have on somebody. We were trying to get the notes in the right place and at the end of day a little girl who found solace. Her father told me she was having such a hard time with loss of her baby brother.”

The story speaks to the power of music and the education it always brings, Adams said.

She knows of what she speaks. She is the artistic director of one of Canada’s best known professional choirs, the Elmer Iseler Singers, who will perform during the Music and Beyond Festival on July 5.

The Elmer Iseler Singers. Dr. Lydia Adams is wearing the white jacket. Photo Michael Romaniuk

Elmer and Jesse Iseler founded their choir in 1978 and it is now approaching its 40th year. And Lydia Adams has been there for almost all of those years.

She still recalls the first time she heard the ensemble.

“I was home in Cape Breton at Christmas time and the very first concert was on the radio. My mother said ‘You have to hear this choir’ so we sat down and listened to Elmer’s very first concert.”

Little did she know then that she’d be working for Iseler.

They met by chance at a Nova Scotia choir event for which both had been hired independently.

“We arrived and started working together and we clicked. He hired me (as the pianist for the choir).” Adams had just finished her studies in England at the Royal College of Music with David Willcocks.

“I came back to Cape Breton, got hired and played for Elmer for 17 years.

“There is a huge synergy that happens between the conductor and the pianist. The pianist has to come in ready to go. You cannot be learning on the go, that would stop the learning process for the choir. You have to be ready as if you are going to conduct if the conductor has to leave.”

It was good training.

At a certain point Iseler became ill and Adams went on a tour to Newfoundland with the group. Shortly after that he became very ill and she was asked by the board of director to be the interim music director. When he died in 1998, Adams became the director of a choir that remains a finely tuned machine.

“I am in awe at these singers and what they can do. Part of that is me, I can lead them into it but they have to have the ability.”

What makes a good professional choral singer?

“They have to have all obvious things, they must sing well, have an ability to fine tuning, they have to be able to sight read and learn quickly.

“You also need somebody who is a great colleague. That’s almost more important than anything. You have to be someone who will work well within the group. They have to be able to handle eight to 10 hours on a bus with a sense of humour and be ready to sing that night.

“They also need a sense of pride in doing your best in the group.”

If you are an amateur, she says, don’t be afraid to join in.

She conducts the Amadeus Choir of Greater Toronto which is a community choir “in the very best sense of being together,  being colleagues, giving your best, giving with their hearts all the time.” She is also the director of the Western University Singers.

There are estimates that there are 2.5 million choral singers in Canada about 10 per cent of the adult population. But there’s always room for another voice, as Adams would say.

For Adams, she is in her perfect job. She even loves practising.

“I love choir rehearsal. There is something magical about it. The singers all come from different jobs and backgrounds and within five minutes they are focussed on the music. All the stress of their day goes and they concentrate on making community music together. It’s absolutely different from everything else. They are working together as a group to produce something that is really special.”

She’ll return to Ottawa on July 5 when the Iseler Singers will perform in St. Joseph’s Church in Sandy Hill, after having just conducted at the UNISONG festival during the Canada 150 celebrations.

St. Joe’s is the kind of space that lets a chorus stretch its sound and Adams is keen to take advantage. After all a building, a  hall is another instrument to be played.

The show will open with Holst’s Psalm 148. They will also sing: Northern Lights by Ole Gjelo, O Salutaris Hostia by the Latvian composer Eriks Esenvalds, Schubert’s Serenade, an Islamic chant and spirituals and gospels in the first half. After intermission they will present pieces based on the stars and the moon including Song of the Stars by Imant Raminsh based on an Algonquin text, another Esenvalds piece, two pieces by Eleanor Daley, The Stars Are With The Voyager with a Thomas Hood poem for the text and Grandmother Moon, with a Mi’kmaw text.

The programme finishes with folks songs and other pieces from across Canada from east to west that concludes with Kicking Horse River by Jeff Smallman based on a Pauline Johnson poem.

The Elmer Iseler Singers
Music and Beyond Festival
Where: St. Joseph’s Church, 174 Wilbrod Ave.
When: July 5 at 7:30 p.m.


Share Post
Written by

Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.