Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol has been made into several movies and is often the subject of annual readings by local prominents. But such is the depth of the work that creators want to tackle its enduring message of generosity and hope.
This year in Ottawa, the Caelis Academy Ensemble is telling the story of Ebenezer Scrooge with a new piece of music and a libretto created by Ottawa composer Andrew Ager.
For Matthew Larkin, the founding artistic director of Caelis, this project is the continuation of a friendship that goes back some 30 years.
“It was his idea to choose the theme of A Christmas Carol. I have always been pretty excited by his talent. Andrew has a unique ability to turn things around really really quickly.
“I equate that to my own experience as a performer. That’s kind of what I do well and to some extent what Caelis does as well. We turn projects into something presentable pretty quickly.”
Larkin is a much sought after pianist and organist in Ottawa and beyond.
“I find myself as a performer always running from one prep to the next. I do have to really organize my time but I like to think I can get myself up to speed in a similar way.”
Speed of creation is not necessarily a trait for which composers are known. But there are some who can and did.
“I’m doing a lot of Messiahs these days and I’m reminded that Handel wrote that oratorio in under three weeks,” Larkin said.
When you are a relatively new ensemble, commissioning a piece of music is a major step. The choice is important in terms of making a good investment with precious resources in a successful musical performance. It helped in this case that Larkin and Ager had worked together recently on a production of the opera Frankenstein at the Carleton Dominion-Chalmers Centre.
“I was really taken with the libretto to Frankenstein. I wasn’t sure what to expect, to be honest. We all kind of know the story but obviously there is more to it than simply a monster gets created and oh crap what have I done.
“(Ager’s libretto) was really full of theological tangents and references throughout. These were incredible to me. I asked him where he found the libretto and he said ‘I wrote it.’ Andrew knows so much about the back story of the subject he is writing about, he’s capable of pulling these things off.”
There have been innumerable versions of A Christmas Carol. Larkin knows that.
“There is one famous package that makes its way around where famous people read parts of the story and people sing carols around the reading. That’s the boiler plate version of the story. Everybody loves that sort of thing.”
When Larkin started Caelis, Ager came to a couple of concerts.
“He was interested in the idea of producing something for us if we were willing to take him on commission.”
Eventually Ager said he was interested in the Dickens story.
“My first reaction was that it has been done. But he reminded me that he would not choose a subject just to recycle old stuff. He said he would have his own take which would be unique and exciting.”
Sometimes you just have to trust somebody. Plus, “we felt we had a good opportunity to present a Christmas event in a new way,” Larkin said.
Larkin knew it would be a stretch for his 40 member choir made up of young and old choristers. And that’s a good thing.
“Some have some theatrical experience, but most don’t. So this is an opportunity to use a musical voice in an interdisciplinary way. You aren’t simply singing.
“I always coach people to remember that they are performing when they are presenting classical music for people who have come to watch. Nobody wants to see a bunch of people woodenly sing from a score.”
But it can be difficult for choristers to let go of the discipline of singing in an ensemble. You have to keep your eye on the conductor. You have to listen and you can’t freelance.
“To set all that aside and run around a stage while presenting music is something that people in musical theatre and opera do easily. But it has to be learned.
“The mandate of our group from the beginning was to offer people interesting experiences and that goes beyond standing on stage and singing concerts. This work presented us with a chance to take a tangible run at this kind of interdisciplinary thing.”
Larkin received the music this past summer. It is scored for a small ensemble including string quintet, French horn, percussion and organ which Ager will play.
He’s cast a colleague from Opera Lyra days, Christopher Mallory, as Scrooge.
There will be some costuming of a small number of characters as well.
“I would call it semi-staged. Andrew calls it an entertainment. It’s not a musical, or an opera.” But, “we have three ghosts, a (Bob) Cratchit, Tiny Tim and a couple of reprobates who come in and out.”
Larkin is conducting and Suzanne Bassett is stage directing as she did in the opera Frankenstein.
This is a major commission for Caelis.
“I have not gone around looking to commission pieces. But every now and then someone will present something as an idea. You look at it and consider factors such as can I afford this? You can get in trouble with commissions. When you ask someone to write a piece, you hope it will be something within the scope of the choir and within the time frame you have to prepare the piece and so forth. Those are important things.”
Ager’s understanding of the practical side of projects such as this helped a lot, Larkin said.
“We can’t hang around banging out notes.”
Caelis has done more than 30 performances in its two years. Some are small and some bigger in scale.
“It’s the way it has worked out. Opportunities come along. I don’t have entire group doing everything. Everybody in the choir has other commitments as well.”
He is fortunate that all involved are committed to the idea of Caelis, but he said, “you never know how long things will last.”
That’s why, “every concert is like a last one. I put everything I have got into it and that’s what I expect from everybody else.”
When he announced Caelis, Larkin had a vision of also creating a music school on the lines of the Anglican cathedral schools in England. That’s on the back-burner now, he said, largely because of a lack of money.
“People think it’s a good idea but doing the work to create it is another thing. Today the focus is on the concert choir, outreach and the pursuit of excellence. So far that’s been a wonderful experience.”
He is finding the freedom to do his own stuff.
“There have been things I have done that I wouldn’t have had the time or the energy for if I was still working for the Anglican Church. I do sincerely miss that work. I miss the community and the routine. There are risks that come with the freelance life.
“I do intend to go back to church musician when right opportunity comes around.” But for now he is focused on Caelis and working with the community of musicians in Ottawa.