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Singing the praises of a local institution

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Break out the bubbly, blow up the balloons -- Winnipeg's longest-running choir is celebrating its 90th anniversary.

The Winnipeg Philharmonic Choir is pulling out all the stops this season with a star-studded performance of Felix Mendelssohn's epic oratorio Elijah on Sunday, Feb. 24, at 3 p.m. at the historic St. Boniface Cathedral.

"There will be 90 choristers, five soloists and 44 Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra musicians onstage," says choir board president Barry McArton in a phone interview.

"Our programming committee has wanted to do Elijah for some time. Over the last two years, we've developed a relationship with the WSO, so we can go back to the choir's roots of doing major works with instrumentation."

"The Phil," as it is fondly known, is a Winnipeg institution. Chances are you know someone who sings or has sung with the group. There are choristers who have been with the choir for decades.

"But we have many new, younger choir members now, too," says McArton, emphasizing that the average age of singers has gone down in the past few years, with many choristers in their 20s to mid-30s.

It all began in 1921, when a group of choirs massed together to perform in the Manitoba Music Festival. It turned out to be so successful that two members of the Men's Musical Club, Stanley Osborne and Norman Douglas, took it upon themselves to form a large choir to sing together on a regular basis. They hired a choral conductor from England, Hugh Ross, in 1922, and the Phil was born. (There have been 17 conductors since Ross.)

It started as an all-male chorus, but according to legend, there was a shortage of men, as it was post-First World War, so that September, women were recruited to boost the numbers. The first concert was held on Dec. 12, 1922, at the old Winnipeg Board of Trade Auditorium, located at what is now Main Street and William Stephenson Way.

The Phil's 18th conductor/artistic director, Yuri Klaz, who has wielded the baton since 2000, will direct the special anniversary concert. The soloists are locally grown, including internationally renowned soprano Tracy Dahl, mezzo-soprano Kirsten Schellenberg, tenor Kurt Lehmann and as Elijah, baritone Gregory Dahl. Dahl's son, boy soprano Anton Dahl Sokalski rounds out the cast.

What is it that keeps a choir of this size going for so long?

"There has always been an incredible drive for quality," McArton says. "Without dedication to quality and excellence, the Phil wouldn't have survived.

"Yuri pushes them and they like to be pushed and love working with him. And they have so much fun. They are a tight group."

Chorister and board member Pearl Stelmack agrees. She's been in the Phil for 37 years.

"It's a wonderful outlet," says the recruitment and membership co-ordinator. "You can have the worst day and you go to rehearsal and it's a great escape. You forget everything and you have the opportunity to sing wonderful, different music. I feel privileged to be part of the choir."

Stelmack is a perfect example of the dedication of which McArton spoke.

"Tuesdays are 'Phil nights,'" she explains. "One Tuesday our dog was having pups. Once I saw that things were going OK and my family could handle things, I left for rehearsal. They couldn't believe I would leave."

Stelmack's Phil roots run deep. She comes from a family of musicians. Her grandfather, also a conductor, sang in the first Phil performance 90 years ago, and she will be singing Elijah from his actual score. Her father was in the choir, too, at one time.

"It was natural for me to join," she says with a laugh. "I was always taken to their concerts."

Her son, Andrew, a successful actor, sang with the Phil for a while and now her teenage granddaughter has the same aspiration. (If you're interested in joining yourself, Stelmack welcomes a call at 204-222-3549.)

McArton cites several highlights of the Phil's illustrious run. They include singing at Expo 86 in Vancouver under conductor Henry Engbrecht and at Carnegie Hall on Canada Day in 1997, with conductors Robert Cooper and Garry Froese.

Elijah will doubtless mark another high point for this robust group and it has no intentions of slowing down. On the horizon are performances of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony in May with the WSO, and the Verdi Requiem next season.

With singers' enthusiasm at an all-time high and subscription sales tripling this past year, we can expect the Phil to be around for a long time to come.

Tickets are $25/adults; $20/seniors; $10/age 30 and under by calling 204-896-PHIL (7445) or at McNally Robinson Booksellers.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 13, 2013 C3

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