Sunday, December 4, 2011

Handbells and Singing and Concerts, Oh My!

It occurs to me that, though this is a theatre blog predominantly, it is an arts blog in general, and most of my arts-related activities lately have been in the form of music. I belong to two music groups; the Amadeus Choir, an auditioned SATB chorus with approximately 100 members, led by Lydia Adams, and Pavlov’s Dogs, a nerd-rock 6-woman handbell ensemble that plays anything from Queen to the Mario theme. The two groups couldn’t be more different in tone; one tackles large, serious choral masterworks and the other…well, sometimes we spend 15 minutes of practice in serious discussion of the My Little Pony reboot…out of musical necessity, of course. Both are a lot of fun and I find them very fulfilling for different reasons.

One of the reasons I am so fond of musical theatre is that my first love is vocal music. I have been singing in various groups since I was a child, from the Dr. Rao Choir and North York Festival Singers, to Chamber Choir and Earl Haig Singers in high school, to the FireHazards and Koleinu in college and the Barnard/Columbia Chorus and its chamber choir in grad school. I was pretty upset when I had to quit the Columbia Chorus my first year of grad school; filling two nights a week, it was too much, even if I was starting to get the solos I wanted. When I moved back to Toronto, I felt a need for structured singing in my life, and my friend Kelli convinced me that Amadeus was where I wanted to be. Amadeus Choir moves lightning-quickly when it comes to learning new music, and we tend to sing beautiful, compelling pieces. I think my favourite piece of choral music I’ve ever performed was When David Heard by Eric Whitacre, from my first concert last year. I actually felt pained handing the music back.

I love Pavlov’s Dogs, not just because it gives me a chance to play music with some awesome ladies, but because there’s something fantastic about deciding you are going to pick up an instrument and learn it well enough to perform it in a matter of weeks. When I was in college, I decided to pick up the alto saxophone I had put down permanently after grade eight, and for the heck of it, to join the Princeton University Band. I had never played handbells before mid-summer 2010. There’s something to be said for a musical trial by fire. Some might argue a woman of my level of coordination should never attempt to play an instrument where you need to pick up a new thing for every new note you play. But handbells are lovely and make a terrific rounded sound; they have an even more fascinating quality when they are unexpectedly juxtaposed with David Bowie or MGMT. Playing handbells gives you an increased appreciation for the components and composition of music. Because each note is a separate instrument, you become hyper-aware of how a piece is put together and how notes run and mesh. Songs that are easy on saxophone or voice because there are a lot of close runs become feats of dexterity when you are in charge of a specific half-octave. Want to see us in action? Here's the video from our performance at Nerd Girl Pinups' Gunpowder Plot (it's my first concert, so ignore a few clunks), and here are two videos from last year's Christmas show at the Rivoli:Wizards in Winter and A Charlie Brown Christmas.

This Friday, Amadeus performed Handel’s Messiah, which was a lovely experience. Our first concert of the year was Karl Jenkins’ “The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace,” a complex work which deserves a post in itself. On December 17th, at Yorkminster Park Baptist Church, we’re performing an evening of traditional carols, along with new ones; the choir sponsors a yearly competition that alternates between a children’s competition and adult/youth amateurs and professionals. This year is the adult year, and the new carols, from both seasoned professionals and up-and-coming undergraduate composers, are really quite beautiful. One of my favourites so far is the solstice carol, “The Shortest Day;” a little unusual and filled with gorgeous harmonies. We are performing both separately and with the Bach Children’s Chorus. For more info on “Glorious Sounds of the Season,” check here.

Pavlov’s Dogs’ upcoming guest spot is at Lunacy Cabaret’s “A Grotesque Christmas,” in support of Circus Without Borders. We’ll be playing “Carol of the Bells” this time – because, as awesome as it is to play rock handbells, there are just some situations, like Christmas shows, where there is actually music written for handbells, and it would be a shame not to play it occasionally.

The show is at:

Centre of Gravity EAST
Vaudeville Theatre & Circus Training Studio
1300 Gerrard St. East
Toronto, Ontario

Advance tickets (they tend to sell out) available at:

Sideshow Cafe
Next to Centre of Gravity East
1300 Gerrard St. East
Toronto, Ontario

Shanti Baba Trading Company
546 Queen St. West
Toronto, Ontario

Check here for details!

That’s where the music in my life is at right now; more updates to come.


(Photo screengrab from video by YouTube user mizzmonsta - thanks for the terrific video!)

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