Today’s University Singers are a long way from the ensemble that first performed almost 50 years ago, in March of 1968. Created by Howard Brown, who had just arrived from Mount Allison University to found the Music Department at Bishop’s, the “Elizabethan Singers” didn’t include any students. Instead there were 17 community and university members, brought together by Professor Brown to make music on a campus where there had never been a choir who performed the classical repertoire. The first concert was held in the recently-opened Centennial Theatre, and featured Renaissance madrigals from the choir, along with an assorted programme of solo songs, piano works, a piece for recorder with 2 violins, and a couple of trombone solos. The choir would share programmes with soloists and instrumentalists for several seasons, until a core of singers had been created that allowed them to perform their first major work in November 1970: the Requiem by Gabriel Fauré. By 1971, Howard Brown was able to pull together a small orchestra to perform a programme entitled “Gloria”, with settings of this text by several composers, including the celebrated version by Antonio Vivaldi, which will be performed again by the choir this year. The choir had grown to 26, plus 4 soloists. The setting was changed to St. George’s Church, Lennoxville, which had an organ. That November, Handel’s Messiah made its inevitable debut, this time at St. Martin’s Chapel of Bishop College School.
The University Singers made their official debut in November 1972, with an exceptionally ambitious performance of the Brahms German Requiem, accompanied by organ, performed again at BCS. No recording survives to tell us how this modest group handled one of the grandest choral works in the repertoire. Only a month later – and how could this happen? – a slightly enlarged group reprised Part I of Messiah (the Christmas part), accompanied by the Strings of the Sherbrooke Symphony Orchestra. This is the first recorded collaboration of a Bishop’s choir with the OSS. Over the next decade the pattern was set: choral favorites such as the Fauré, Vivaldi and Handel along with other masterpieces such as Britten’s Ceremony of Carols, Haydn’s Lord Nelson Mass and Mozart’s Requiem. Occasionally the choir was joined by other musicians: the Chœur Pie X de Sherbrooke, a Sherbrooke children’s choir, and eminent choral conductor Wayne Riddell, with the Orchestra of St. Andrew and St. Paul, Montreal. The numbers in the group swelled to over 50, and a few students’ names start to appear, as does that of Bishop’s Principal, Christopher Nicholl. Programmes start to expand to include other choral repertoire – not just the big favorites. The ensemble was becoming a fixture in the musical world of Lennoxville, and when he retired in 1982, Howard Brown left a legacy of fine music and an enthusiasm for choir music that has never abated.
Nancy Rahn took over the reins in 1983, and over the next decade the choir started to evolve as the Music Department expanded at Bishop’s. Nancy breathed new life into the repertoire: Healey Willan, Schubert, Vaughan Williams, Palestrina, and a host of shorter works for choir from the Renaissance to the 20th Century. The Christmas show – typically one major choral work plus seasonal repertoire, concluding with a sing-along – filled Centennial Theatre each year. Two major events were world premieres: Gaspésia by Bishop’s graduate (and McGill faculty member) Donald Patrequin in 1987, and The Birth of Spring by Bishop’s own Andrew MacDonald, which was performed in 1989 with the collaboration of the Concordia University choir and strings.
Late in the 1980s, the University Singers saw a major change in their complement. Music student numbers grew to the point that there were enough to form a separate “Chamber choir”. They start to appear in programmes with repertoire apart from the main group. The ambitious students wanted to get more out of their choir experience and so the chamber choir met for a separate afternoon rehearsal, joining the “community” group for the usual weekly evening gathering. In addition, the Estrie Young Singers children’s’ choir (also directed by Nancy Rahn) contributed to some of the programmes. When the Music Department moved into the newly-renovated Bandeen Hall in the winter term of 1992, the feeling that the Singers had their own home and should be more closely linked to Department, and less tied to the community, grew stronger. (The big change – moving rehearsals to the late afternoon twice a week – took a while longer.) The focus of the Singers changed to the “University”, and to the student body. But not to worry – the Christmas show now filled Bandeen Hall for a couple of evenings.
1991 saw the Mozart bi-centennial and a flurry of choral works by this master, but the most exciting event of the decade was the premiere of Andrew MacDonald’s The Portal, commissioned to celebrate the 150th Anniversary of Bishop’s University, and performed under the threat of a major flood in April of 1994. With the lyrics taken from poets associated with Bishop’s through its history, the performance featured almost the entire student body of the Music Department. Programmes through the 90s continued to explore new choral repertoire: different works by Vivaldi and Fauré, Bach, Mendelssohn, Schubert and many others. It wasn’t until Nancy Rahn’s last show as director that the bold – and at the time controversial – decision was taken to produce a concert that was not taken from the classical repertoire: an evening of Broadway melodies. This was a decision that was heartily supported by the students of the department, who added an element of “show” to the evening by providing their own choreography to some of the numbers. The audiences loved it. After that, the Singers never looked back!
When Bishop’s Philosophy professor Jamie Crooks took over from Nancy Rahn in 1999 (somewhat to his own surprise) he could little have imagined how he would revolutionize the group. Equally surprised was a young music student, Fannie Gaudette, who had just arrived at Bishop’s from the University of Sherbrooke, and who was recruited to join him as accompanist for his first concert. That, folks, is how history is made. After a few years learning the ropes, Crooks soon found his footing. For the classical show each season he began with the tried and true – the Fauré Requiem and excerpts from Elijah, but the spring show soon achieved a life of its own, and inspired in Dr. Crooks a youthful spirit and enthusiasm that rubbed off on everyone in the choir. The show of spring 2001, “From G. and S to S. and G.”, (which included a generous measure of L. and M. – i.e. Lennon and McCartney) set the new standard: a pop band on the stage of Bandeen! (That band has proved to be remarkably durable.) Choir enrollment soared – it became the coolest thing on campus and guys who were before reluctant to sing out in public became incipient rock stars. The community membership grew apace, as did the crowds who came (one imagined) as much to see Dr. Crooks’ conducting pyrotechnics as much as the obvious enthusiasm of choir members. Each spring show came with a theme – “Winds of Change”, “Colour and Light”, “Keeping Time” – and the carefully selected programme turned into a seamless evening’s entertainment. Choir members memorized their music, and shifted around the stage to present the backdrop for the many talented soloists – and dancers!
The choir grew to fill all the available space on stage. Jamie welcomed not only music students but any other students with a will to sing, along with the community members. Rehearsals moved to Tuesday and Thursday afternoons. Thus was born the present-day University Singers – a group unique in its make-up of youthful voices, both trained and untrained, along with more seasoned adult members. The sound of these hundred voices was big and energetic. The shows became so popular that three performances in Bandeen were not enough to accommodate the demand and so in 2007 the University Singers moved back to Centennial Theatre. Even that space was not big enough, and soon a second Centennial performance was added, and by 2010 (“The Gospel of Lennoxvegas”) a third. For this event, the Champlain College Choir joined the University Singers on stage – for a crowd of 150! The only thing bigger on campus than the Singers was the Gaiters football team.
One notable highlight came in November 2011, when the Singers joined with the Phoenix Community Choir – a group consisting largely of homeless kids in Halifax – for a joint show. This amazing event was presented twice in Centennial Theatre, with the Halifax group bused in, and again twice in Halifax, with the whole choir transported to the east coast. The theme of the show, “Phoenix Rising: making Music and Finding Home”, was more than an abstract concept for the choir – they met homelessness face to face. This was first of many shows whose proceeds supported a charity; Leucan, the SPA, the Mae Sot Education programme, Quebec Lodge and Praxis Malawi would later receive support. Prof. Crooks wanted to make his choir members think about more than music.
The new enthusiasm and the increased number of singers allowed Prof. Crooks to start thinking bigger, and more creatively, in terms of classical repertoire. Carl Orff’s perennial favorite Carmina Burana was a logical first step, but a braver move was David Fanshawe’s African Sanctus, sung in 2004. Jamie contacted the composer to chat over the performance. The 2006 Christmas show introduced a new cadre of students to Handel’s Messiah (Part I). This served as a prelude to a performance of the complete work in December 2007, in collaboration with the Amadeus Choir, with a professional orchestra led by François Panneton, and performances in Centennial, and at St Jean Baptiste Church, Sherbrooke, in an attempt to spread news of the Bishop’s ensemble into the larger francophone community. The great success of this enterprise led to a series of performances of major works each year, at first with hired orchestras, but starting in 2009 with the full Sherbrooke Symphony Orchestra, led by Stéphane Laforest. The cream of the choral repertoire was given – miraculous for an ensemble from a small liberal arts university. Starting in 2008, they sang in successive seasons, Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, the complete Elijah by Mendelssohn, Haydn’s Creation – the first time the choir was heard at Salle Maurice O’Bready in Sherbrooke – and Orff’s Carmina burana. What a tribute to everyone associated with the University Singers that this professional conductor and orchestra now sought them out to perform this challenging repertoire, confident in their ability to deliver a polished performance. As a crowning achievement in 2012, Jamie conducted Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, at the Cathédrale St-Michel, in Sherbrooke. This was the same choir, and the same conductor, who achieved such great success in the pop world. Howard Brown died in 2001, but he greatly approved (in his retiring way) of the direction that Jamie Crooks was taking the choir, and would have been thrilled to see what it had become.
When Jamie Crooks put down his imaginary baton after the Spring show in 2014 (a prescient “Tribute to Bob Dylan”), many wondered how the magic he brought to the University Singers could ever be replaced. No fear. Through the years, Jamie’s faithful partner in the choir, Fannie Gaudette, had served more than as the piano player. Her numerous talents soon began to emerge, as a singer, an assistant conductor, an organizer, a music arranger, a vital conduit to the larger musical community in Sherbrooke, and the key member of the team that planned the repertoire each season. Much of the success that the public gave to Jamie Crooks was as much due to her efforts as his. In 2014 she stepped out of his shadow, and took over the University Singers. The changing of the guard was as seamless as the spring show. Her first assignment was the complete Messiah, accompanied by the Sherbrooke Symphony Orchestra, performed at Salle Maurice O’Bready. It was a sell-out show. Collaborations with the OSS have become now part and parcel of the musical life of the University Singers – which other university choir in Canada has such an arrangement with a professional orchestra? Last year’s Christmas concert and this year’s Vivaldi Gloria continue the tradition, with plans afoot for more collaborations. And the spring show has lost none of its vitality. The future looks bright!
Although Bandeen is still the rehearsal home for the choir, and it relies on Music Department students and staff for much of its core, for many years The University Singers have had an autonomous existence at Bishop’s, reflecting their campus-wide and community status. In addition to the faithful and reliable house band, brought in for the pop shows, the Singers have also joined forces with groups as diverse as the Sherbrooke Elementary School choir and Groovin’ Brass. The task of organizing and running an increasingly complex and costly institution continues to grow. It is a measure of the exceptional leadership of this choir through the last decades that it has maintained its energy, its popularity and above all its tradition of excellence. Bishop’s should be very proud of them all.