Cantata Singers’ Andrew McAnerney lives a musical life in Ottawa

Cantata's Andrew McAnerney brought British tradition to evening of Benjamin Britten music.

When he was a child in the United Kingdom, Andrew McAnerney was a spontaneous singer. Music just poured out of him.

“I loved singing at home,” he said. “I was always singing whenever I could and I sang whatever I heard so it was Andrew Lloyd Webber or whatever was playing on the radio.”

When young Andrew started to go to school, the singing continued and it turned out he had a talent.

“When I went to school, my teacher heard me and asked me to sing The Snowman: Walking in the Air.

“I must have been five. Somebody heard that and said I should join the church choir. So I joined a parish choir. Then it was pointed out that if I joined the cathedral choir in Gloucester I could get scholarship to the school. I tried for that and became a cathedral chorister.”

He studied choral music at Magdalen College, Oxford, and has sung with ensembles such as The Tallis Scholars. It’s safe to say McAnerney is steeped in the British choral tradition.

“I have sung as a tenor soloist including for 10 years in a row I sang the Messiah at St. George’s, Hanover Square, London which is Handel’s church, with the London Handel Festival.

He’s also been a lay clerk at St. George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle where he was immersed in the Anglican tradition at that royal place. While there he sang for royal services including private ones in the castle and on the grounds of the large park. He also sang at the wedding of Prince Edward to Sophie, the Duchess of Sussex.

After that he turned to a cappella consort singing with Tallis Scholars and the Brabant Ensemble before he realized that “what I really wanted to do was to be a conductor.”

Once you know all that, it makes sense that today McAnerney would be surrounded by song as the music director of the Cantata Singers, the artistic director of the Studio de musique ancienne de Montréal (SMAM) and the director of the Men and Boys choir at Christ Church Cathedral.

But why Ottawa? Let’s just say love had to do with it.

“My wife is Canadian and a federal bureaucrat and that’s why I ended up in Ottawa. We came in 2012 and I became a Canadian citizen in November, 2017.”

He’s fully settled into the city’s music community having been with Cantata for four years, ditto SMAM and he has been at the cathedral for a year or so.

“I was a little apprehensive when I came to Canada because I had been living in London and of course it is a major cultural centre. For music the opportunities are fantastic. But I was delighted by what I found here.

“I think the National Arts Centre is a fantastic resource and I was also delighted by the quantity and quality of amateur music making. That’s really important part of the music life of a city.

“So when I came here and found out there were about 100 choirs and all sorts of levels and there was wonderful music happening at Christ Church and Notre Dame Cathedral and lots of other musical initiatives, I was delighted.

“I’m pleased and proud that I have been able to slot into that and play my part.”

His timing was good. The Cantata job came open with the departure of former director Michael Zaugg as did the cathedral position a few years later when Matthew Larkin left to found the Caelis Academy Ensemble and pursue more performance opportunities. He got the SMAM post at the same time as Cantata. So he’s got a full musical plate.

At the cathedral, he is one of a small cadre to lead the men and boys choir in a century. That group also includes Godfrey Hewitt, father of Angela.

It is a tradition that he is well aware of, he says. His predecessors did amazing things, he said, but problem they have all faced is finding new boy choristers.

“It is always hard to recruit. There are several aspects. First, the field of after-school activities is broad and it is often dominated by sport. You see sport on TV and you hear it on the radio and read about it in the papers. Sport is a big part of life.

“Music doesn’t seem to have quite have the same standing.”

People also worry that it’s too difficult.

But McAnerney knows “it is a skill that can be learned. Of course, there are some people who have a natural aptitude and they are lucky to have a fantastic instrument. But it doesn’t matter. It is a wonderful activity.

“I read somewhere that singing is one of the most done activities in Canada and rightly so because it is socially fantastic. It keeps the brain active and it really is something anyone can do.”

It also builds lasting friendship, he says.

“It is a real community. If people have love of music this is a great place.”

The choir still sings music commissioned by Hewitt and others and McAnerney is adding to the library of new works.

“It is also a living tradition. There are lots of Canadian composers who write for the cathedral choir.”

He addresses his passion for early and baroque music with SMAM.

“I love music generally. But a cappella consort music is something I adore. I did as a chorister when I was singing (John) Taverner and Tudor Polyphony.

“We have a wide range of music in Montreal. That is something that has expanded a lot. SMAM used to have four main season concerts a year. Now we have six and four smaller concerts.”

There is something about early music and Baroque music that seems to click with our times.

McAnerney says it could because the music is accessible, intimate and approachable.

“It is also very honest. There nothing more honest than hearing people’s voices. It’s just who they are. I love that. It is the ultimate instrument.

Cantata Singers is another organization that has a long connection to the music community in Ottawa. It was founded in 1964 by Gerald Wheeler, but he left for Montreal soon after. The man who led the choir next is Brian Law, who led Cantata through many years.

“I think the testament to their work are the institutions we have now. I think it is very important that we have choirs like Cantata. Thanks to Brian Law (and others) it continues to do great work in the city.

“Part of our mandate is to encourage local musicians by engaging local singers and commissioning local composers. We are making sure we play a positive role in the musical life of the city. It’s something my predecessors did.”

He doesn’t sing in concert much these days.

“I am fortunately busy with conducting. I occasionally sing, but I am pleased with my singing career and there are plenty of Canadian singers and local talent who would benefit from that encouragement.

And, he says, “I sing all the time. I do it to demonstrate to choristers. I even closed one of Cantata’s seasons by singing My Love Is Like a Red, Red Rose. It was lovely, but I’m focussed now on conducting.

“I get tremendous pleasure from making music. I love moulding what has been written to an idea that I have in my mind. That is a tremendous pleasure when I can do something like that. It’s exciting when it happens.”

He also enjoys the teaching he does with the boys choir at the cathedral.

“One of things I enjoy about the boys choir is about trying take something that is maybe mundane and make it approachable and interesting, and inspiring people to love it as I love it.”

Since he started started at the cathedral his memories of being a boy singer have come flooding back both good and bad.

“When the kids misbehave they think they are being really sneaky and you don’t notice, but I remember myself doing the same thing, 30 years ago. Now I understand how annoying it is.

“I also remember myself as being a very accomplished boy treble and sure enough at the end I was. But I had conveniently forgotten the years before that.”

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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.