Choir finds joy and sorrow in transformation


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To paraphrase the great Bard, "A choir by any other name would sound as sweet."

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 03/12/2014 (2853 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

To paraphrase the great Bard, “A choir by any other name would sound as sweet.”

This fall, Winnipeg’s “little choir that could,” Spirit’s Call Choir, officially changed its name to Margaret’s Choir (MC). The gesture honours its beloved co-founder Margaret Tobin, who established the community-based choral group in 2000 with longtime friend and colleague Dorothy Becker.

The name change is especially poignant, as Tobin, diagnosed with breast cancer three times since 2004, is now in palliative care. Known for her boundless zest for life, great love of music and joy in supporting humanitarian causes through the organization’s ongoing series of benefit concerts, Tobin graciously agreed to share her thoughts about this honour.

Margaret Tobin

“It’s a beautiful tribute and I’m really touched,” says the retired social worker and senior scholar of the University of Manitoba in a recent telephone interview. “I know it means a lot to people in a deep way, and so that also means a lot to me.”

The choir has serendipity to thank for its early roots. During a U of M counselling workshop led by Tobin in which students performed a chanting warm-up, someone suggested they should form a choir. That birthed Spirit’s Call Choir (named after its umbrella organization, Spirit’s Call, a spiritual healing and education group founded by Becker and the late Merv Campone) with the inclusive, non-auditioned choir geared towards aspiring musicians who were once told — or who believed — they couldn’t sing.

“Some people have been told all their lives that they can’t sing,” Tobin told the Free Press last April. “If you can walk, you can dance. If you can talk, you can sing. People can show up and sing in whatever way they do.”

As a 2010 recipient of the Mayor’s Volunteer Service Award, the now 175-member strong choir has raised more than $180,000 for charity, regularly selling out its two annual shows. The choir rehearses every Sunday afternoon, 2 to 4:30 p.m., from January to May at First Unitarian Universalist Church (603 Wellington Cres.) and eagerly welcomes any prospective new members.

Its next concert will be held Sunday at 2:30 p.m. — coincidentally World Choral Day — at MBCI Jubilee Auditorium, 173 Talbot Ave. The “gig,” as the choristers like to call it, is a benefit concert for CanU, a four-year mentoring program that brings children from the hard streets of Winnipeg’s inner city to the University of Manitoba for sport, nutrition and education.

“CanU fits the type of organization we like to support because they empower and support (these) children to be invested in their education and to take part in life-enrichment programs,” says Pat Reid, who co-chairs MC with Geoff Taylor.

MC’s eclectic, diverse programs truly offer something for everyone, with lively songs from countries around the world. This weekend’s concert –which also showcases guest artists the Kelvin High School Chamber Choir and Steve Kirby’s CanU Jazz Academy Jazz Buddies — proves no exception. On the bill are spirituals, folk songs, chants, reggae and even a rock number or two.

But the feel-good shows are equally known for their palpable joy, with singers radiating their sheer love of music-making out to audiences.

“We truly are having an experience of joy onstage and it just seems to carry over from heart to heart,” explains Tobin, who has sung in the choir’s soprano section since its inception. “And every time you go in the direction of joy and harmony and abundance and laughter and gratitude and love, you pull everyone along with you.”

The choir also bids a bittersweet adieu to its music director Jeremy Vallance, who has led the ensemble since 2006. Sunday marks his last time on the podium before he leaves the city for musical opportunities in Vancouver. The tireless conductor passes the baton to Nathan Poole, who will conduct his first MC show in May. Also departing is gifted accompanist Heajin Kim, who will be replaced in the spring by pianist Charmaine Bacon.

As program director, Tobin gave her full stamp of approval for both artists after interviewing them in her hospice room last month.

“Jeremy has just been incredible,” she says of Vallance’s leadership. “He’s made it his choir… and the climate that he creates is very special, but Nathan and Charmaine will also be an amazing team. It looks like it’s going to be beautiful experience for the choir.”

Tobin has also been deeply appreciative of the outpouring of love and support from the choristers, who have regularly visited, brought gifts and serenaded her with song throughout her illness.

Ian Irvine photo

“I think what’s helped me most is the choir,” she says, when asked how music has comforted her during challenging days. “The people in the choir and the fact that the choir exists and all the support that I feel from the choir. I love to sing, but it’s not like I’ve been singing my little heart out with all sorts of transformational songs.

“But my relationships with people are what’s most important to me, and of course the choir is a huge expression of that. Music is just the reverberation of what I hold in my heart.”

She is also insightful about how her own life passage is in close harmony with the choir’s evolving landscape.

“I’ve been on this wheel before, but this time it seems more final, so it’s funny that the theme of the choir is transition right now because that’s also the theme in my own personal life,” she says.

Tobin is asked how she will want to be remembered by future members of Margaret’s Choir.

“As somebody who followed in her dreams and believed in her dreams, and the infinite possibility and beauty of the human spirit and resilience and love of the human spirit,” she says poignantly.

“As someone who believed in that and lived it to the best of her ability.”

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