Seventeen Voyces: Kevin Reeves ramps up new season with Haydn’s Mass in the Time of War

Kevin Reeves and Seventeen Voyces. Photo: Shad Young

Ottawa’s Kevin Reeves is a musical and artistic jack of all trades but his main focus is on the performances of his choir Seventeen Voyces. Reeves’ concerts are always ambitious and innovative. On Nov. 11, he’ll lead the largest concert he has ever attempted with his group, a performance of Haydn’s Mass in the Time of War. Before the big show he spoke with ARTSFILE about the evening and the season for Seventeen Voyces.

Q. You are about to open your annual performance season. What’s on the agenda this year?

A. The first concert is on Remembrance Day and features Haydn’s powerful Mass in Time of War.  The first half is a short multi-media event which tells the story as to how my grandparents met during the first war.  There is also the premiere of a new ‘war prelude’ written by Ottawa composer Andrew Ager.

Our Christmas concert is also war inspired — based on the famous Christmas Truce of 1914 when German and British troops stopped shooting at each other and sang carols from the trenches.  It culminated in an impromptu soccer game and gift-giving.  The next day, they were ordered to shoot at each other again.

Our annual silent film is Charlie Chaplin’s Gold Rush which will certainly stretch the repertoire of Seventeen Voyces. As usual, organist Matthew Larkin will play up a storm, or at least a blizzard. … I’m also looking for a good banjo player.

Finally, next apring, we team up again with the Ottawa Baroque Consort for some early Italian baroque music.

Q. What’s your take on the Haydn Mass.

A. Missa in Tempore Belli, otherwise known as ‘Paukenmesse,’ is my favourite of all his masses. It is tremendously melodious and action packed, and typically, is full of Papa Haydn surprises.  It’s also very expensive because it needs an orchestra which includes all strings and winds, horns, trumpets and drums. I’ve been wanting to perform it for years.

Q. Why are you performing it this year?

A. We received a generous grant from Ontario 150 and another from the Community Foundation of Ottawa, otherwise I don’t think it would have been possible. 

Q. This is a big production. You are including a lot of folks. Tell me about who is performing with Seventeen Voyces.

A. The soloists are Maghan McPhee, soprano; April Babey, alto; Dillon Parmer, tenor; and Joel Allison, bass.  I like to hire local artists, or at least artists with connections to Ottawa. Matthew Larkin’s new choir — the Caelis Academy Ensemble will join us, and Travis Mandel, trumpet with the Ottawa Symphony Orchestra, has contracted the orchestra.

Q. Why are you working with these folks?

A. I’m not sure how to answer this except to say I think these people suit their parts beautifully. The soloists have rich, juicy voices that complement one another. I left the orchestra for Travis to put together, and some instrumentalists will be playing with us for the first time. We have an embarrassment of musical wealth in this city.

Q. What is your vision of choral music and the kinds of pieces you like to perform?

A. I come from a traditional Anglican choral background — the Brian Law years at St. Matthew’s Church, where the standards were extremely high — and it wasn’t unusual for 25 boys to fill the pews in those days. The men and boys choirs have pretty much faded away in this country so it will be interesting to see where the next countertenors, tenors and basses come from.

Seventeen Voyces’ mandate is to perform high calibre works ‘off the beaten track.’  I’m always amazed to find things such as Telemann’s Don Quixote — I mean, who ever heard of a German baroque comedy? We staged it a couple of years ago and it was a blast. That led to a very successful performance this past spring of Dr. John Blow’s Venus and Adonis — essentially the very first opera in the English language — which is stunning but hardly anyone performs it. 

I have a fairly eclectic idea of what quality choral music is, but as I get older, if I find it too weird or too difficult for its own good, I’m just not that interested … the younger generation can handle it.

Q. You don’t just do this. What else are you working on?

A. I’m directing a children’s film entitled Sarah MacDougall Meets the Ghost of Beethoven which I wrote in my 20s.  It’s about a disenfranchised 12-year-old who mangles Beethoven so badly at the piano, his ghost appears and starts yelling at her. However, it does end happily. We still have interior scenes to shoot on location at Elmwood and Ashbury and my living room.  (Pinchas Zukerman said he would play the violin for the sound track, so I’m going to hold him to it). It’s been years since my last film project so it’s a bit of an eye-opener to finally enter the brave new digital world.

My other major project is an opera, finally completed, which also started in my 20s. Devil in Deerskins is based on Anahareo’s account of her life with Grey Owl, the Englishman who became a Canadian Indian. It’s a story which has been with me all my life, as I’m originally from North Bay, where the true story hit the Nugget — the local newspaper — shortly after Grey Owl died in 1938. I’m friends with his descendants and made a documentary on his life for TV Ontario and the History Channel many years ago. 

I’m very proud of this opera, which amalgamates many facets and sensibilities of my own life —  musically and historically.  Aside from the great love story between Anahareo and Grey Owl (and their pet beavers, who actually lived in the cabin with them) it incorporates the Ojibwa language and drumming, Quebec fiddling and a good dose of raw humour. The libretto is based on the poignant writings of Anahareo, Grey Owl, Archibald Lampman, and Robert Service.  All the incidents in the opera are absolutely true.

I’m anticipating a workshop for Devil in Deerskins this spring — complete with a 60-piece orchestra, for which baritone Gerald Finley and a handful of other singer friends are waiting in the wings, and perhaps the NAC Orchestra, if the money comes through.  But now I’m getting ahead of myself.

Q. Where does this musical urge come from?

A. My mother was a piano teacher, so I heard the entire repertoire of the Royal Conservatory before I could talk.  Piano was also my first instrument and I went on to get my ARCT when I was 18. Unquestionably, my biggest influence was the training received at St. Matthew’s;  the time we spent there was considerable, and as many people know, Brian Law made a huge impact — not just on us choirboys, but the city as a whole. Local CBC got tired of interviewing two people in those early years — Mario Bernardi and Brian Law — because at that level, there was simply no one else in town.

Q. How important is the Ottawa musical community to you?

A. The Ottawa musical community is really like a giant nurturing family. I’m a little worried about the size of our audiences, however, because music education starts in the home or in the schools, and an entire generation may have missed that memo. Cultural organizations are constantly meeting to question their relevancy and how to attract people in sexy ways because the world is a much more fractured place. Alexander Shelley and the NAC understands this and have put together very compelling programs which have shaken some of the complacency of this sleepy government town. It’s also why their western tour has been so successful. I couldn’t believe it when I read the tour included 150 educational outreach concerts and workshops. That will certainly make a big impact. 

Q. This isn’t an easy life you have chosen. How else do you make ends meet?

A. It’s not an easy path, and I’ve had successful friends tell me they wish they had my life to which I respond with uproarious laughter. I’ve been my own boss since I left home which has resulted in many sacrifices, personally and financially. I’ve known since I was kid that my place in the world is to create things, which is meant to entertain and edify. I’m still trying to figure out ways to do that;  meanwhile, in order to stay alive I teach voice or sing for my supper, draw caricatures, and instigate illicit Bitcoin schemes. I’m also a slumlord.

Q. What were you doing with the NACO tour of Western Canada?

A. I have to press a button for narrative audio cues during the Alice Munro segment of ‘Life Reflected.’ I like to think I was hired because I can read an orchestral score, but it was really to make sure the brass section gets back safely to the hotel after the pub.

Q. Anything else you would like to talk about that I haven’t asked you?

I’m a caricaturist, and collect original cartoon art — which will be my pension one day, if I decide to sell any of it.

Mass in the Time of War
Seventeen Voyces
When: Nov. 11 at 7:30 p.m.
Where: St. Matthew’s Anglican Church
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.