This past summer Russell Braun was finishing up a gruelling run singing the role of Louis Riel in the Canadian Opera Company’s revival of the Harry Somers opera when the call came to sing a Christmas concert in Ottawa. It was just what he needed.
“I was torturing myself through this incredible journey of Riel. I sang it in Ottawa, Toronto and Quebec City. I felt afterwards that I needed to find ways to cleanse my self.
“It just took so much out of me vocally and psychologically. After I last sang Riel in Quebec City at the end of July, for three days after my whole body hurt.
“It was a build up from months and months of carrying around the intensity of (Riel). Around that time, the Ottawa Choral Society was asking about a Christmas concert and I thought, ‘Perfect. This was the perfect thing to come back and sing in Ottawa.” Braun will sing Dec. 14 and 15 in a concert of music featuring In Terra Pax by Gerald Finzi, Fantasia on Christmas Carols by Ralph Vaughan Williams and familiar carols.
Braun is glad to be performing here because, he says, has a special place in his heart for this city.
“Ottawa is my favourite city in Canada. For me. Ottawa represents the most beautiful seasons in Canada. It’s a really seasonal city. Summer in Ottawa is like no place else. There is the joy of travelling along the Rideau Canal. There is such a sense of liberty in Ottawa. And no other city celebrates winter like Ottawa can with exception of Quebec City.
“I just find it an incredibly open, friendly city, despite the politicians but they never come to concerts.”
There is another aspect of singing with an organization such as the OCS which Braun finds important.
It is how this choir, and all others, reflects a sense of community that revels the simple joy of participation.
These days Braun, certainly one of Canada’s best known and most respected baritones, thinks a lot about the community of music and where he fits into that.
At age 52, he has, he says, reached a point where he is reflecting on what he wants to do with the rest of his musical life.
Part of that involves performances in places where he wants to be, singing music he wants to sing.
“For one, I really love being connected to communities of music like choral societies.
“My own community in Georgetown (north of Toronto) is really important. I participate in concerts going on at our church and I help out with the church choir when I can.
“We have a few good basses and baritones. I’ve a voice student, who is also my god son. … He comes out to the choir. I join in and sing tenor. It’s fun but it also extends into doing concerts with choral societies and recitals with smaller organizations.”
He says he’s also looking at the possibility of doing recitals with Music in the Morning in Vancouver.
“It’s not about people who buy subscriptions at Carnegie Hall.”
The music ministry of a church choir is easily extended into a bigger world.
“I’m not really a religious faith but I totally understand that sentiment.” It helps that his partner, the well-known pianist Carolyn Maule is also the music minister in the family church.
The music he is singing in Ottawa is, he says, “deeply satisfying.”
At that point Braun recalled a conversation with a folk singer at a party who asked him: ‘When do you have a chance to sing your own songs?’ I looked at him and said, ‘What do you mean my own songs?’
“He said, ‘You’re a singer, what are your own songs like? I found this overwhelming. I had to process what he was saying. He didn’t mean it in an accusatory way. Folk singers sing their own songs.
“So I was thinking to myself ‘What are my own songs?’ They are definitely there. There are songs that I identify with to such a deep degree that they are ‘my’ songs.
“First and foremost there is no composer whose music I sing that I enjoy singing more and feel more connected to than Bach. All his music is sacred in nature. It is not so much the content of what I am singing but rather the deep connection the composer had to his songs. There are few Schubert songs as well. You sing them and you feel this is 100 per cent who Schubert was. It’s such a privilege to walk in his footsteps for three minutes.
“Even someone like John Rutter, whom I met when I was younger. He came to conduct the Toronto Mendelssohn Youth Choir. We did a recording of his music.
“I know his music is pooh-poohed by a certain echelon of musicians. But he puts himself and his faith and his quirky jazzy personality into his music and it’s really such an enormous experience. It’s so powerful. That’s why it resonates.
Braun comes from a musical family so it was a surprise to read in his biography in The Canadian Encyclopedia that his father Victor discouraged his musical ambitions.
“Sadly there are a lot of musicians and singers who discourage their children from musical careers. I really find it a disservice in a way. They are saying, ‘I make a living and sure it’s hard whatever you do, but don’t do this.’
“I have chosen never to do that with our kids. We encouraged both our kids to be educated musically. So far neither of them have.
“When we moved to Canada (from Germany) my parents separated. He lived in Europe and I saw him sporadically. To a certain extent he didn’t really know who I was becoming.
“His big reservation was that I didn’t have the right personality for the business. He was always saying to me ‘You’re too nice.’ I feel at the moment that’s a strength.
“My dad’s career started in Canada at a different time when being a singer was the same as being a pioneer. Today there is an established infrastructure. The musical societies are in place.
“Those communities work very hard and put a lot of effort and money into organizations so you should be at least polite … at least you can be respectful and nice.”
Quoting a friend, Braun said, “In Canada no bridge is small enough that you can afford to burn it.”
This fall Braun had another cleansing experience, singing Figaro in Calgary.
“After the first week of rehearsal, I had an overwhelming Ah Ha moment. I was doing an opera where I wouldn’t get killed in the end.
That epiphany was a refreshing realization.
“All of material that I have been delving into for the past five years has been so dark. That’s why Figaro in Calgary was such a nice experience. I haven’t sung it for at least 10 years.” The last time was at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.
“I am sure now, though, that this was my last Figaro. I am 52 and I can sing it fine but it’s not where I am. I have to work much harder now to get on stage. And, as person and as a performer, I am not as carefree as I used to be.”
In the last show of the run in Calgary, Braun experienced something that has never happened to him before.
“In all the 25 years I have sung Figaro this has never happened. In part, where he goes Figaro, Figaro, Figaro, for some reason someone in the audience ‘Yahoo’. I pointed to the section where the sound came from and they all shouted Figaro. It was like a dream, it was so spontaneous and the audience was so into it.
“For my last Figaro ever that was really a good experience. It was a nice way to close it.”
In Terra Pax
Ottawa Choral Society and Chamberfest
Featuring: Caitlin Wood, soprano; Russell Braun, baritone; Matthew Larkin, organ and piano, String Orchestra
Jean-Sébastien Vallée, conductor
When: Dec. 14 and 15 at 7:30 p.m.
Where: St. Joseph’s Parish Church
Tickets and information: ottawachoralsociety.com; chamberfest.com