Music Niagara Festival’s 2022 summer season continues with three performances over the next eight days.
Navy Hall will be the setting for a performance of Heat!, featuring Julie Nesrallah and Guy Few on Saturday, July 9.
Nesrallah is familiar to many as the host of Tempo on CBC Music and the executive producer and star of Carmen on Tap. The mezzo-soprano has been the recipient of several distinguished awards, including the Canada Council for the Arts Emerging Artist Award and Mid-Career Grant, and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal for her cultural contribution to Canada’s performing arts.
Few, meanwhile, is a trumpet, piano and corno da caccia virtuoso (a brass horn instrument) and vocal soloist who holds a fellowship from Trinity College, London, England. The Juno Award nominee is a member of various chamber groups and is an instructor in the music faculty at Wilfrid Laurier University.
Their repertoire Saturday will include expressive and fearless interpretations from composers such as De Falla, Debussy, Chopin, Saint-Saëns, Albéniz, Montsalvatge and Bizet.
Award-winning British vocal ensemble The Gesualdo Six follows on Tuesday, July 12 with their performance of the English Motets at St. Mark’s Anglican Church.
“Gesualdo Six is the top group in the world in acapella singing,” Music Niagara founder and artistic director Atis Bankas told The Local earlier this year. “They happened to be on a North American tour. We have history with their leader, Owain Park, who wrote a piece (The Spirit Breathes) that was performed for St. Mark’s 225th anniversary in 2017. This is a top, world-class ensemble.”
Two weeks later, another top vocal ensemble takes the spotlight at the same venue. Although the Elmer Iseler Singers (EIS) have been part of previous Music Niagara seasons, this will be their first performance at St. Mark’s.
“It’s always a real thrill to be in Niagara,” says EIS conductor and artistic director Lydia Adams. “I have been at St. Mark’s to attend concerts and I just love the building. We are hoping to use the organ there, to showcase it a bit. We’re excited to be singing in that space for the first time.”
Adams says 21 singers, choral scholar Sharang Sharma and pianist Shawn Grenke will be part of what will be only the second in-person performance for the group since March 13, 2020.
“We performed in Vancouver on that date, just before the pandemic started,” Adams recalls. “We’re excited to finally get going again. Our first performance is on July 10 in Ottawa. We did a number of online performances during the pandemic, but we’re finally getting back together. There’s nothing like performing live.”
The Elmer Iseler Singers include soprano, alto, tenor and baritone/bass singers from across the Greater Toronto Area and beyond. Aspiring members audition for a spot in the choir and successful candidates must continue to do so annually to retain their place. Adams says they have an extensive list of understudies who are able to be slotted in for certain performances when those in lead roles might be unavailable.
“We think of it as a company of singers,” Adams says. “They will sing so much better if they work together on a consistent basis. But many of our members audition for other engagements. This summer two of our singers are off performing in Quebec and Nova Scotia, so we have substitutes filling in.”
Adams has been the conductor and artistic director of EIS since 1998. That’s the year the choir’s namesake, Port Colborne-born Elmer Iseler, lost his battle with cancer at his home in the Albion Hills of Caledon East.
Iseler was known as the dean of Canadian choral conductors, and was important in the development of choral music in Canada. In 1954, he founded Canada’s first professional choir, the Festival Singers, and later was the artistic director and conductor of the 180-voice Toronto Mendelssohn Choir for 33 years. He founded the Elmer Iseler Singers in 1979.
“I met Elmer at a camp in Nova Scotia,” says Adams. “He invited me to come to Toronto to play piano for the singers. As soon as I finished my studies in England (at the Royal College of Music and the National Opera Studio), I came back and I played for him for 19 years.”
Like her mentor before her, Adams has dedicated her life to the growth of Canadian choral music. Through her direction of the EIS, she has been involved in commissioning, premièring, performing and recording numerous original Canadian choral works over the years.
“The choir was built around a dedication to Canadian composers and writers,” Adams says. “It’s wonderful to be the first choir to bring something to life, to be the first to work with that composer and author.”
The July 14 program includes Nur: Reflections on LIght, a composition by Hussein Janmohamed commissioned by the Aga Khan Museum, premiered in 2014 by the Elmer Iseler Singers, and conducted by Adams.
Other Canadian composers whose work will be featured include Eleanor Daley, Srul Irving Glick and Healey Willan. As well, poems by Canadians Carole Leckner and Mary Louise Martin will be part of the repertoire.
Also important to Adams, as it was to Iseler, is instilling a love of choral music amongst younger Canadians.
“We’ve been really lucky to partner with the VIVA Youth Singers in Toronto,” she says. “We have an educational program with them, and we are working toward a performance of Handel’s Messiah with them later this year.”
Adams points out that long-time member of the EIS board of directors, John Buchanan, is a relatively new resident of Niagara-on-the-Lake, having moved here in 2019 with his wife Heather. Buchanan says it’s a real treat to have the singers performing in what he calls a delightful town.
“The singers have a long friendship and association with Atis Bankas,” says Buchanan in an email to The Local. “So it’s thrilling for me to now live in this vibrant musically-rich community and be able to connect with both past and new patrons. EIS is one of the best professional choral ensembles in Canada.”
“I love working with Atis and Music Niagara,” adds Adams. “The whole team is so excellent, and the audiences have been fantastic. They make us feel so welcome and take great care of us.”
For their St. Mark’s appearance, the Elmer Iseler Singers kindly request that all audience members wear masks during the performance.
Tickets for Heat! featuring Julie Nesrallah and Guy Few (July 9), The Gesualdo Six (July 12) and The Elmer Iseler
Singers (July 14), all starting at 7 p.m. are available via musicniagara.org.