Ottawa Choral Society: Asitha Tennekoon brings his own musical sensibility to Bach’s St. John Passion

Asitha Tennekoon will be singing with the Ottawa Choral Society in Bach's St. John Passion on Sunday. Photo: Brad Demers

Asitha Tennekoon lives in Toronto, but the tenor might as well rent a room in Ottawa for the number of appearances he has been making here lately.

He’s sung a Messiah with the Rideau Chorale, a Christmas concert with Thirteen Strings, Handel’s Israel in Egypt with the Caelis Academy Ensemble and on March 24, he sings the role of The Evangelist in J.S. Bach’s St. John Passion with the Ottawa Choral Society. He’s been busy by the lake too singing more Handel, Haydn and Rossini. And with some 18 friends, he’s helped start a vocal ensemble called the Aspirare Vocal Collective which has just had its first concert in Toronto.

Tennekoon has been busy since moving to Toronto in 2014 to study at the Royal Conservatory’s Glenn Gould School. At the same time he has been singing professionally, exploring his new home town and lately that has broadened out.

“I moved to Toronto in 2014 to do the artist diploma,” he said in an interview with ARTSFILE. “I wanted to start in the Toronto market and then get myself around Canada as much as possible to see and sing in as much of Canada as I can.” He’s now finished with school so he can hit the road more.

Tennekoon came to Canada after studying at the Jacobs School of Music, Indiana University in the U.S. But before landing in Toronto he spent some time at home after graduating from IU.

“I hadn’t been home in three years at that point and I wanted to go back.” His family lives in a suburb of Colombo, Sri Lanka. He spent a year and a half, he said, thinking about his future.

“I wasn’t 100 per cent sure I wanted to pursue this as a career. It was nice doing my undergrad in the U.S. then things got real. I was feeling burned out.”

Halfway through his hiatus at home, Tennekoon says he made up his mind.

“I decided I definitely did want to do this and give it my everything. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work but then at least I will know.”

He realized he needed more education and started looking around. The offer came from the Glenn Gould School and he jumped.

“I was looking for a place where I could continue studying and sing professionally at the same time. Toronto is a great place for that. It made sense for me. I knew I didn’t want to settle in the States. The place could be perfect but if you are just not vibing with it, it’s time to leave.”

He feels very much at home in Toronto, he said. “Toronto is one place where I have yet to feel like an outsider. It has a diverse musical community in a diverse city. I feel like people can come here and live their way of life while being part of a wider society.”

His way of life is music and he’s been doing that since he was a boy.

“I was singing at home all the time so my mom sent my sister and me to group voice lessons.”

And Tennekoon joined an Anglican chapel choir in his school in Sri Lanka.

“That is where I really fell in love with music. That experience showed me I wanted it to be an important part of my life.

The choir director there was self taught but there was something about the way he put the music we sang that really resonated with me. He would always try to equate something in the music to what was going on in real life. That helped music become a part of my life that helps me make sense of the world.”

Tennekoon is a young man, but he was aware of the civil strife that was troubling his country.

“Most of the fighting was in the north and the east,” he said. “But there was a suicide bomber at the train station that was a five minute walk from where I lived.”

Today people there are adapting to a new reality, he said. It has calmed down, he says, but the country is still trying to create a more equal society that includes all groups.

Tennekoon is Sinhalese and from a Christian family.

Because of the British colonial period the Anglican choral tradition became rooted in the island nation.

“I was a boy soprano there and a tenor after my voice changed. The guy who founded the system was basing it on King’s College Cambridge. There was a strict discipline there that has served me well.”

It has certainly prepared him to sing Bach.

“I have sung The Evangelist a couple of times before, in German and in English. I like singing in German. I like doing lieder; I find the language is so evocative.”

Professional singers like Tennekoon sing in several languages — German, Latin, Italian, French and English in his case. “My Russian needs a bit of coaching.”

And you need to know more than just being able to mimic the syllables.

“You have to make sense of a phrase or a sentence and all the nuance of that,” Tennekoon said. “For me the most important thing has always been the words. You are telling a story, no matter what the music is and who composer is. That boils down to the words. So finding a sense of the language and knowing how that language moves is important. Only then can you figure out what you want to say as an artist.”

For Tennekoon, making a role like The Evangelist his own follows a certain pattern. He first studies the work to ascertain what the composer intended.

Then when it comes to performing, “my main thing is to use different vocal colours — lights and shades and different timbres of brightness. Sometimes I mix the voice a little bit if the piece calls for that kind of thing. I love playing around with consonants too. When we sing we ph0nate on vowels, but I think there is so much that can be put across in how the consonants are sung.

“The challenge with The Evangelist is because it’s such a drawn out thing throughout the whole piece. It can be easy to get caught up in the third or fourth recit.” Tennekoon said he doesn’t want to reveal his full bag of musical tricks too early.

“I need to find an arc for the performance. For example, if you have a forte in one place and one in another place it doesn’t mean they are the same. It’s more a mood and emotion indicator than just a volume thing.

“It’s a lot of planning but that is the fun part of it. I think about it as if I had kids how would I tell them a bed time story?”

He is also able to draw upon Sri Lanka’s musical ethos in his performances.

“The thing that I take with me and I notice very much now is in Sri Lanka there are lots of different kinds of drums and rhythmic things you learn and are surrounded with growing up. As a kid there I experienced so much more rhythmic diversity.

“In Sri Lanka, it’s hard to find a home where there isn’t some sort of music playing. Walking down the street, there is music blaring out of everything, homes … shops … there is something going on all the time.

“It is something I take with me. It gives me a sense of being able to handle complicated rhythms.

That comes in handy when singing Bach, Tennekoon’s favourite thing to do.

“If someone held a gun to my head and said pick one thing to do rest of my life. I’d probably just say Bach. There is something so fulfilling in the repertoire for me. It’s so deep and emotionally full.

He’s not a religious person but he knows music “helps us make sense of the things that don’t make sense.”

He does miss home, he said. He hasn’t been back since 2017.

“But for the moment this is where I see myself. If I were to go back now there is not a whole lot I could do there.”

He’s not the only ex-pat Sri Lankan singer, he said. He has friends working in the U.S. and in the U.K.

“We’ve gotten around a bit.” That would be an understatement.

Ottawa Choral Society presents Bach’s St. John Passion
Where: St. Joseph Parish Church, 151 Laurier Ave. E.
When: March 24 at 3 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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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.