Ottawa Choral Society’s new season features Verdi, Handel, Anne Frank and a Tango

Jean-Sebastien Vallée is the music director to the Ottawa Choral Society. Photo: Sophimage

There is little doubt that Giuseppe Verdi’s Requiem is one of the classics of the choral repertoire.

It is both a crowd pleaser and a pleasure to sing … something that will be happening in Southam Hall on Sept. 11 and 12. And for the 79 year old Ottawa Choral Society, these concerts open the 2019-20 season.

The seed for this upcoming year of music was sown during last fall’s performance of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, says the OCS’s music director Jean-Sébastien Vallée.

In meetings with NAC Orchestra brass, it was decided that the OCS would handle the choral side of the Verdi production. The NAC had been planning a performance of the requiem for some time.

“We wanted that opportunity,” Vallée said. “I think we had built some trust with the NACO team and they knew me. We said, ‘Trust us, we’ll make it happen’.”

So far so good. The OCS has assembled a choir of some 160 voices including OCS members, choristers from the Cantata Singers and several guests like me.

“We did two open house auditions and we were packed.”

They could have fielded a choir of 180 voices, but in fact bigger isn’t necessarily better in this case. It would have meant an arrangement on the Southam Hall stage that would actually have diminished the choir’s sound, Vallée said, making 180 voices sound like 120.

In the vernacular, the Verdi Requiem is a war horse. But that’s not a bad thing, Vallée said.

“I think there is an interesting story around this piece.

Turns out Verdi had wanted a community of composers to write a mass in honour of Gioachino Antonio Rossini after his death in 1868.

Unfortunately it didn’t work out. Verdi did his part by writing the Libera Me, but his colleagues didn’t get their acts together.

It took the death of the the poet and writer Alessandro Manzoni to prompt Verdi to finish the job.

“When composers write requiems, they usually just do one,” Vallée said. “And it’s always powerful music.”

Vallée has conducted it four different times but he hadn’t done it for awhile. After performing the Britten War Requiem, he felt “the Verdi would be fun” for his group.

This first concert of the OCS’ 2019-20 season will be followed by a Messiah with a difference on Nov. 30.

Wallis Giunta. Photo: Gerard Collett

“All the soloists will sing the part of a different gender,” he said. For example, the  soprano will sing the tenor arias in her octave. The tenor will sing Rejoice and other soprano arias. The mezzo-soprano will sing The Trumpet Shall Sound. And the bass will be singing the mezzo parts.

“It’s weird but it’s fun. Part of it is to add a new twist.”

In the past decade conductors have been messing with Messiah, trying to give this well-known work a different look. Some groups have staged a small piece of theatre that overlays the oratorio.

The OCS isn’t doing that.

“Ours is not theatrical. Handel liked to adapt the solos when the oratorio would be performed in a different city. It would depend sometimes on the abilities of the singers in the different places. If one examines the score, Handel does say this or that aria could be sung by more than one voice.

“Today we talk a lot about gender and what it means. I thought it could be playful to change the labels.” This version will be done at St. Francis Church, Wellington and Fairmont. He said he’s sent the changes to the soloists soprano Nathalie Paulin, Ottawa’s Wallis Giunta, mezzo-soprano, tenor Antonio Figueroa and bass-baritone Geoffrey Sirett.

The next concert, March 29, brings the OCS back to modern times with a performance of the British composer James Whitbourn‘s Annelies based on the Diary of Anne Franck. Soprano Aline Kutan sings Anne’s words with choir and a chamber quintet.

The final concert of the season on June 15 takes the listener to Argentina with a performance of Martin Palmeri’s Missa a Buenos Aires sung in Spanish with string orchestra and accordion. The show also includes Stephen Chapman’s Magnificat which is sung in several different languages. Ottawa’s Julie Nesrallah is the featured soloist.

Julie Nesrallah

Speaking about this June performance, Vallée said, “you can’t just do pieces that sell. You have got to push and bring in new stuff.”

For Vallée, this final show could very well be his last with the OCS. He is one of three candidates to lead the Mendelssohn Choir in Toronto.

Each candidate will lead the choir in a performance. Vallée will conduct the TMC in a program called Great Poets in Music on May 30, 2020.

This would be a major step in Vallée’s career. The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir is affiliated with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and is actually three choirs in one. There is a 120 voice group, a 60 voice chamber choir and a 20-voice professional ensemble.

He said his hope, if he gets the TMC job, would be to create a hub for Canadian music. But one thing the 40 year old won’t give up is his teaching role at McGill’s Schulich School of Music where he is an associate professor of Music, the director of Choral Studies and the co-ordinator of the Ensembles & Conducting Area

“Teaching will always be part of what I do.”

Vallée has been headed in this direction since he took over as the director of a choir in a Catholic Church in Quebec City at age 15. He also played the piano and the trumpet and was a regular performer in churches in Quebec City.

The self-professed workaholic “gets bored easily.” He avoids that “by doing many things and working with many different people.”

He says he’s always nervous with everything he does. It’s a sign he’s in the game.

“I get nervous before every rehearsal. It seems I’m less nervous if I’m doing a lot. But there is always that moment when you feel something. It’s showtime.”

He says the role of the conductor in rehearsal is to create a space where the music happens.

For Vallée, the key in conducting Verdi’s Requiem or Whitbourn’s Annelies is to prepare each singer to act like someone who deserves to be on the stage.

“There is no art in hiding. We have to live on the edge a bit more. Every time they sing, a singer should have a clear intent about what they want to say.”

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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.