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Choir honours conductor's 60-year career

Scholarship started in Helga Anderson's name

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Helga Anderson was only 15 years old when she was enlisted to teach hymns to the Sunday school children at her church.

"It just came instinctively. I guess I was meant to do it," recalls the influential choral conductor, now 80 years old, who has guided thousands of Winnipeggers through countless hours of music-making over a 60-year career.

Anderson, a much-loved fixture of the local music scene, was still a going concern as a conductor until last February.

That's when sudden serious health problems forced her to retire from leading the Joie de Vivre seniors' choir, a group that had been one of the greatest joys of her life since she launched it a decade ago.

After a career of sometimes-stressful leadership roles, she says, "This was the first time I belonged to a choir. It wasn't a job."

The choir, under the auspices of the University of Manitoba music faculty's division of preparatory studies, was already reeling last season from the unexpected January passing of its accompanist, Ross Houston.

"That was such a shock. Then I took sick -- it was rather horrendous," recalls the Linden Woods resident.

Today at 2 p.m. at St. John's College Chapel at U of M, the 47-member Joie de Vivre is marking its 10th anniversary and paying tribute to Anderson and Houston with a concert led by new director John Tanner.

Donations are being accepted for a new scholarship, the Helga Anderson Award, to be given annually to a voice student.

Anderson, born Helga Baldwinson, grew up in the West End, the only child of Icelandic immigrants. Always fiercely proud of her heritage, she twice took Winnipeg choirs on tour to Iceland.

A gifted pianist who adapted out of necessity to the organ, she took leadership of her first church choir at age 18 and went on to lead choirs at eight churches, including Silver Heights United, Norwood United and St. Andrew's River Heights United.

A registered teacher of both piano and voice, she has given private lessons for six decades, was a Royal Conservatory of Music examiner and in-demand festival adjudicator, did a 15-year stint as a Winnipeg School Division music teacher and consultant, and was heavily involved with the Winnipeg Music Festival, which now awards the choral Helga Anderson Trophy.

After leading the Winnipeg Boys' Choir in the 1960s-'70s, she founded the award-winning Bass Clef Chorus and Better Half Singers, male and female choruses for ages 16 to 25. A "thrilling moment" was taking them to Israel in 1979, where they performed with the Jerusalem Symphony.

Anderson has never forgotten a review in the Winnipeg Tribune in which the critic praised the sound of the boys' choir, but sniffed, "Must Mrs. Anderson wave her arms around so much?"

It made her self-conscious about her instinctive technique. Before the tour to Israel, she says, she was so worried about "learned musicians" watching her that she took private conducting lessons from the distinguished Henry Engbrecht.

Anderson's high-achieving former choristers include Bob McPhee, head of Calgary Opera. But her highest-profile musical "production" is her daughter Valdine Anderson, a world-class soprano.

Valdine, 51, who has sung with such prestigious orchestras as the London Symphony, Berlin Philharmonic and New York Philharmonic, is a sessional instructor in voice at U of M. She often encounters musicians who remember being taught and supported by her big-hearted mother.

"They're always saying, 'I didn't think I could sing this song, and she made me feel like a million bucks by the time the lesson was over.' I hear that so often. She just made people feel good about themselves."

Anderson was known as a stickler for proper enunciation, says Valdine. Once during her 10 years as chorus master of the Gilbert and Sullivan Society, when they performed with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, conductor Bramwell Tovey was so impressed that he dubbed Anderson "the Demon of Diction."

Anderson was determined to hold the seniors' choir to a high standard, too. "There is no way plus-55 (singers) should be considered not capable," she says.

"Choir directing is communication," she adds, reaching out both hands as if to an unseen chorus. "You begin to know your choir, and you think, 'So-and-so must be having a bad day. I can see on their face that something's wrong.' There's a sensitivity -- I think that's a must."

Anderson valued every chorister and treasured the fellowship with her singers, says Valdine, who will be at her mother's side for today's tribute.

"I think if she had the stamina, she would start another choir."

For information on donating to the Helga Anderson Award, call the division of preparatory studies at 474-9797.

alison.mayes@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 10, 2011 G3

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