Ottawa Choral Society: A new season brings new challenges and opportunities

The Ottawa Choral Society season for 2017-18 will feature a collaboration with the choir of Ecole Secondaire de la Salle, an Ontario premiere of a new Canadian work, a performance by renowned baritone Russell Braun, a Christmas collaboration with Chamberfest and a joint celebration of Mozart with the St. Lawrence Choir of Montreal and the McGill Chamber Orchestra.

Sounds like a lot has been packed into four concerts by the music director of the 120-voice choir, Jean-Sébastien Vallée.

The choir, now entering its 77th season, is making good on one of Vallée’s main objectives, he said in a recent interview.

“One of my main goals for the second year was to collaborate with more groups,” he said.

As a result the first concert, which takes place Oct. 21, will feature a joint concert with the de la Salle choir.

Jean-Sebastien Vallée

“I wanted to bring younger singers together with those who have been doing that for a few more years.

“We performed several concerts featuring Canadian music this past season but I still wanted to do something toward the end of 2017 to close out Canada 150. And working with de la Salle gives us opportunity to do music that features two choirs.”

The concert will feature a new piece by the respected choral composer Mark Sirett. The piece, Louez l’Eternel, premiered in Montreal and will get its Ottawa debut next month. It was commissioned by the St. Lawrence Choir of Montreal.

This December OCS will feature a quieter, more contemplative performance. Last Christmas the concert included a lot of brass and the larger-than-life presence of the tenor, and host, Ben Heppner. This year, Vallée says, the evening will be underpinned by strings for a more intimate sensibility.

In Terra Pax by Gerald Finzi is the centrepiece with the well-known Canadian baritone Russell Braun and soprano Caitlin Wood as soloists. In Terra Pax is one of Vallée’s favourites. The show will also present a version for string orchestra of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on Christmas Carols. Braun last worked with OCS when he sang the role of Elijah in a performance of Mendelssohn’s massive work in 2016. In Terra Pax will be performed Dec. 14 and 15. The audience will also get to give voice to the season as they did last year with a selection of familiar carols.

The March 17 concert will bring two requiem masses front and centre. The first is Gabriel Fauré’s well-known piece. The other is by the British composer, Howard Goodall. His Eternal Light: A Requiem uses Latin text alongside English poetry.

“This piece partners well with the Fauré. I conducted this program about five years ago. People told me after that they had come for the Fauré but left uplifted by the Goodall. It speaks to us in a different, and very modern way.”

The OCS season ends with the renewal of a collaboration with the St. Lawrence Choir of Montreal.

“They used to do a lot of things with the OCS but it’s been at least a decade since the choirs have worked together. I thought it was time to do something again. A big plus is that we get to perform in Ottawa and Montreal. It’s exciting for everybody to change cities.”

The show on June 1 will feature a performance of two pieces by Mozart, the Requiem and the Davide Penitente which is a reworking of the Mass in C minor, but with a text in Italian.

One of the soloists in this final concert is baritone Iain MacNeil who won a second prize in the 2016 OCS New Discoveries competition. The grand prize winner from 2014’s competition, tenor Charles Sy, will also perform. He is now at the Juilliard school

This will be Vallée’s second season with the OCS. He has other commitments including as the director of Choral Studies and chair of the Conducting Area at the Schulich School of Music at McGill and leading the choir of St. Andrew and St. Paul, a professional ensemble in  Montreal.

“I knew the work people like Jordan de Souza and Iwan Edwards did with OCS. It has been great to discover the group, to know who they are, what they do and what has to be done  to bring them to the next level.”

Vallée has also worked in California as director of Choral Studies at California State University in Los Angeles, among other posts.

He is a prize-winning choir conductor and has degrees from Laval University, Sherbrooke University, the University of California, Santa Cruz. His doctorate in conducting is from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

As his resumé shows, he is choir obsessed.

“I have always loved choral music. I love text and poetry. I love vocal music. I have something special for voice.”

He especially likes the teaching side of being a choral director.

“It’s not just about the music. It’s about people coming together to discover the music together, to learn it, to improve the way they perform. I really love the challenge of making them better as a group.

OCS has already conducted a round of auditions earlier this month and there is a second round coming at the end of the month.

This is a choir with a reputation to uphold, something of which Vallée is well aware.

So in auditions, he is looking for “someone I feel has the potential to grow with us. It does require a basic musicianship and experience and the passion to want to make it happen.

“I work with a professional choir in Montreal and we do concerts and recordings. Even with them, there is teaching. They may not kn0w that’s what I am doing. Professionals don’t like to be taught. Sometimes we have to hide the fact we are teaching but we want them to be better at what they do.”

Joining an institution with the legacy that the OCS carries brings a certain perspective.

“We do have some singers who have been with the choir for more than 40 years. It’s a living thing. You have to nourish it and foster and support things so that it grows and moves with time.

“I think we have to focus on the people. I will bring a vision. (But) I’m trying to empower people. I want hear what they say. It can’t just be me saying that the OCS has to be this or that.”

You’re invited: The Ottawa Choral Society is inviting choristers from across the region to come to the Kitchissippi United Church on Sept. 30 from 1 to 4 p.m. for a friendly rehearsal of Mozart’s Requiem and the Davide Penitente. For information on the OCS, the 2017-18 season and auditions, please see:

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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.