Residents who live near the corner of Melville and Ricardo Streets have been treated to the sweet sounds of the Avanti Chamber Singers on Tuesday evenings this fall, free of charge.
The music has been emanating from, of all places, the parking garage at the Harbour House Hotel, where the award-winning ensemble has been rehearsing. It was a pair of local residents, Avanti members Jim Reynolds and his wife, Pat Hartman, who approached Harbour House manager Jamie Drummond with the idea of using the space.
“We live right next door,” explains Reynolds. “We approached the Harbour House and asked them, we said their acoustics are lovely. We have a good relationship with them. He didn’t hesitate. As long as we signed a waiver, they’d be delighted to have us use it.”
On this warm November night, 20 of the 30 members are present, each safely spaced eight feet from one another. Their places are marked off ahead of time by Reynolds, using brightly coloured frisbees as place-holders. As the choristers arrive, they answer the COVID questionnaire, then check the map for their names, move to their marks, and set up their lawn chairs. Once conductor Dr. Rachel Rensink-Hoff begins to lead them through their vocal warm-ups, it’s clear Reynolds and Hartman were on to something when the idea struck.
Even during the vocal exercises, the acoustics are, indeed, amazing. The garage is clad wall-to-wall and top-to-bottom in concrete, with large openings on three sides. The sound bounces and echoes perfectly, with the side openings allowing just enough sound to seep through. Sure, it’s cold and grey, but close your eyes and you would think you are in a meticulously-crafted concert hall.
Rensink-Hoff loves the space. “It’s great,” she says. “For an outdoor location it’s ideal. If we were regularly outdoors, the acoustics would be difficult. The choir would have a hard time dealing with each other. Here, we get the ventilation, the feeling of being outdoors, and we can space out. And we have the reverberation of the cement all around us so we can get a pretty good sound.”
Even with the eight-foot spacing between singers, each member wears a mask during the entire rehearsal. Believe it or not, it doesn’t seem to take anything away from the power of the voices. “Visually it’s difficult,” admits Rensink-Hoff, who is an associate professor of music at Brock University. “You don’t get the same visual feedback that we normally get. But surprisingly, sound-wise it’s actually amazingly quite clear.”
The Avanti Chamber Singers is a community-based chamber choir founded in September 2006. Avanti provides opportunities for local amateur singers, and the current membership includes choralists from across Niagara and Hamilton. In 2019, the choir was named Most Promising New Adult Ensemble in the Canada Choral National Competition for Canadian Amateur Choirs. Their public performances are often held at St. Thomas Anglican Church in St. Catharines.
When the pandemic hit in March, the group’s final concert of the season, scheduled for May, had to be cancelled. Member Tim Stacey, who also serves as Avanti’s marketing and media coordinator, says like everyone else, they played things week-to-week.
“We switched to Zoom rehearsals, to socially stay connected with one another,” he explains. “We had audio of a song (North, by the group Sleeping at Last) that we had done at our February concert. We set that audio to footage that everyone sent of what they were doing during quarantine. Things like that keep our presence and allow us to still engage an audience.”
Looking ahead, they’re not sure how much longer the weather will allow them to continue using the parking garage at the currently closed hotel. And with public performances not likely to be permitted as the virus continues to spread, Rensink-Hoff says it’s likely that Avanti will be working on producing another video for the public to see.
The numbers they rehearsed this past Tuesday are appropriate for the times, as well. Unclouded Day, Sing My Child, and Stephen Foster’s Hard Times Come Again No More, all carry with them a message of hope. Rensink-Hoff chose them because of that theme, and for their inspirational value.
“The pieces that we’re working on now, we’re hoping to record them before December,” she explains. “We’re looking at indoor spaces that the choir will feel comfortable with, that we can spread out in. But if that’s not a possibility, we may end up recording here. Worst case scenario we’ll record ourselves at home and do the standard virtual choir.”
For December, they are also offering to bring their music to the people. Via their website, you can make a small donation on behalf of a friend or family member, and a small group from the Avanti Chamber Singers will show up at the door on Dec. 15 to sing some cheerful carols. Visit avantisingers.com for more information.