MUSIC

A choral cornucopia

Toronto hosts a festival for 4,000 voices

PAMELA YOUNG June 5 1989
MUSIC

A choral cornucopia

Toronto hosts a festival for 4,000 voices

PAMELA YOUNG June 5 1989

A choral cornucopia

MUSIC

Toronto hosts a festival for 4,000 voices

Ten Buddhist monks from Tibet’s Gyuto Monastery, each with the rare ability to intone three notes simultaneously, will sing in Toronto on June 4. Three weeks later, the 35 New York City children who form the Boys Choir of Harlem will perform in the city’s Roy Thomson Hall. The following day, on the same stage, the Men of the Deeps—the coal miners chorus from Cape Breton, N.S., known for their work with singer Rita MacNeil—will don their trademark coveralls and head-lamp helmets to sing traditional mining songs. All three are part of Toronto’s one-time-only international choral festival, titled The Joy of Singing, which runs throughout June. With about 4,000 participants from 16 countries and all 10 Canadian provinces, the festival is one of the largest events of its kind ever to take place. It is also one of the most ambitious projects in the career of its artistic director, Nicholas Goldschmidt, 80, who has been a driving force in Canadian classical music for the past 43 years.

With characteristic exuberance, Goldschmidt predicted before the first note was sung that the choral festival would appeal to “everyone from all walks of life.” Its 71 shows

in 35 locations will range from appearances by more than 250 barbershop singers from across Canada and the United States to a performance of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis—led by the renowned American conductor Robert Shaw directing Winnipeg’s Mennonite Festival Chorus and the Toronto Symphony. Declared festival administrative director Cathryn Gregor: “A 400-voice choir singing the right repertoire can blow you right out of the hall.”

In the hopes of expanding the event’s grassroots appeal, Goldschmidt and his team have also included a Festival of the Community, which will bring amateur choirs from Canada and abroad to churches and school auditoriums throughout the Toronto area. While the top ticket price in the main concert series is $35.50, tickets for the one-hour community concerts are either $5—or free.

Organizing the choral celebration, at a total cost of $3.5 million, has been an epic task, and there have been some hitches. The most serious was the cancellation, due to spiralling costs, of what was to have been the festival’s most spectacular event: a staging of Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer’s massive Apocalypsis, a work based on St. John the Divine’s

vision of the destruction of the world and mankind’s resurrection. The cancellation, said Goldschmidt, was “a great disappointment.” But the impresario has never been one to dwell on the negative. “Basically, I am an optimist,” he told Maclean ’s on the garden terrace of his Toronto home—before dashing back to the festival office for another meeting.

Born in Moravia—now part of Czechoslovakia—in 1908, Goldschmidt was an accomplished musician and a graduate of the Vienna State Academy before coming to North America in 1937. After directing the opera departments at California’s Stanford University and New York’s Columbia University, he moved to Toronto in 1946 to become the first music director of the Royal Conservatory Opera School, the forerunner of the Canadian Opera Company. There, he met Shelagh, who has been his wife for 40 years. In 1957, he spread his influence to the West, serving as founding director of the Vancouver International Festival. Eleven years later, Goldschmidt initiated another major annual musical event, the Guelph Spring Festival, and remained its artistic director until 1987. Known affectionately as Niki throughout the Canadian music world, he has developed a reputation for accomplishing the next-to-impossible with his Old World charm and tremendous energy. Said Elmer Iseler, who will be conducting his 185-voice Toronto Mendelssohn Choir in the June choral festival: “He has a genius for raising money and for making everybody believe what he is doing is important.”

Goldschmidt says that what keeps him going is discovering talent. He recalls giving Toronto-born soprano Teresa Stratas—now with New York’s Metropolitan Opera—one of her first major parts, the title role of Giacomo Puccini’s Madame Butterfly at the Vancouver festival in 1960, when she was 22. “She was terrific, unforgettable,” said Goldschmidt, his voice dropping to a reverential whisper. The impresario, who became a Canadian citizen in 1951, has always championed homegrown talent. “For me, quality is the only criterion,” he said, “and if I can find the right singer with the right quality, I take the Canadian. ”

Despite turning 80 last December, Goldschmidt shows no sign of slackening his pace. He says that he is already working on new projects—and that the committee lobbying to stage the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Toronto has made overtures to him about possibly having some role in the accompanying Olympic arts festival. But in the meantime, he has been looking forward to the choral festival’s June 1 gala opening, featuring Soviet conductor Gennady Rozhdestvensky, Bulgaria’s Obretenov Choir, Moscow’s Poliansky Choir and the Toronto Symphony. The first sounds of the festival come from the coronation scene in Modest Mussorgsky’s opera Boris Godunov. “It makes quite an impact,” said the festival’s artistic director. The same could be said of the indefatigable Nicholas Goldschmidt and his lifelong mission of making music.

PAMELA YOUNG