Raising their pure, high-spirited voices for 90 years

Winnipeg Boys' Choir concert celebrates decades of rich history


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Think back, way back to 1925. Winnipeg streets rattled with newfangled streetcars, a galaxy of vaudeville stars lit up city stages, penicillin had yet to be invented and the world was still recovering from the "war to end all wars."

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 06/05/2015 (2658 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Think back, way back to 1925. Winnipeg streets rattled with newfangled streetcars, a galaxy of vaudeville stars lit up city stages, penicillin had yet to be invented and the world was still recovering from the “war to end all wars.”

That same year, the city’s second-oldest choral ensemble, the Winnipeg Boys’ Choir, began its 90-year musical legacy, which will be celebrated this weekend. The choir performs a special gala concert Sunday at Crescent Fort Rouge United Church at 4 p.m.

“I feel both humbled and proud to have been part of this choir for so long,” says music director Carolyn Boyes, who has led the 36-voice group since 1998. “There’s a strong tradition to uphold, and I’m very grateful that I’ve had the opportunity for so long to be a part of it.”

DIETER SCHONWETTER The Winnipeg Boys' Choir performs two concerts each year and also appears at Winnipeg's Choral Fest and the Winnipeg Music Festival.

Boyes, who also teaches music at Sisler High School and serves as the Winnipeg School Division’s performing arts consultant, in addition to preparing children’s choruses for Manitoba Opera productions, began her Winnipeg Boys Choir tenure with Lana Penner-Tovey, wife of former Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra maestro Bramwell Tovey, in 1998.

When the Toveys left Winnipeg for Vancouver in 2000, Boyes took over the full reins, and leads the treble chorus, accompanied by pianist Annelie Reimer. In January 2014, conductor Spencer Duncanson joined the group, and leads the senior chorus for changed voices.

Both directors agree that interacting regularly with the high-spirited boys and their sometimes unpredictable natures provides them with their greatest joy.

“One of the neat things is that these boys are independent enough to say, ‘I like singing and I’m doing it,” says Duncanson, who is also founding artistic director for Winnipeg’s The Little Opera Company. “That seems odd, because there’s still a stigma with males singing and lots of pressure on them to avoid it at all costs.”

Choir members also face countless other demands that compete for time and attention, as many young boys aspire to becoming the next Andrew Ladd or hone their video-game skills. But Boyes says bringing the choir together for rehearsals and performances is well worth the effort.

“We get an opportunity to bring kids together from all over the city, including two that drive in from Beausejour every week,” she explains. “The boys bond socially with each other, with the choir functioning as an important thread in our community. It’s also a real feather in the cap for Winnipeg.”

The brainchild of the Men’s Musical Club, the choir gave its first concert Dec. 28, 1925, at what is now the Burton Cummings Theatre. The Winnipeg Free Press praised the “Canadian lads” in October 1936 for their purity of tone, comparing it to the legendary Vienna Boys’ Choir, which was founded in 1924, just one year before the Winnipeg choir.

The choir performs two concerts each year, and also appears at Winnipeg’s Choral Fest and Winnipeg Music Festival.

Perhaps the choir’s best-known alumnus is former mayor Bill Norrie. Billy, as he was known then, even warbled a solo during the choir’s 75th anniversary concert, held in 2000.

Other alumni include Peter Barnes, who is a voice teacher at the University of Toronto, and Bob McPhee, general director and CEO of the Calgary Opera.

“The boys’ choir grounded me musically and gave me an appreciation and a love for singing and the arts,” McPhee, who performed with the choir under the baton of beloved local singing teacher/conductor Helga Anderson from 1963 to 1971, says via email. “It had an enormous impact on me and shaped all of my future life.”

Barnes, who sang with the group from 1965 to 1972, says the choir serves a valuable purpose.

“Our world is in trouble. Young people are retreating from reality into ‘virtual’ experience, and anxiety among youth is at an all-time high,” he says. “Boys have always absorbed this notion from society that ‘being strong’ excludes the heart, so it’s become even more important to teach them how to engage their hearts by channelling music’s power. Our world needs this desperately.”

Sunday’s concert also features a host of alumni singers joining the younger choristers in several massed choir works that bookend the 65-minute concert. They will perform Vivaldi’s soaring Gloria and Things that Never Die, based on Charles Dickens’ text, as well as Oscar Peterson’s Hymn to Freedom.

Eight decades of alumni will also attend, with the oldest former member now well in his 80s, and past guest artists will accompany the choir: Lottie Enns-Braun (organ); Allan Suban (percussion); and Simon Christie (trumpet).

“There’s something really, really magical about unchanged voices singing together. And there’s also something very special about bringing men together to sing,” Boyes says.

“We often have parents weeping during our concerts because of those young, pure, but strong voices, knowing there is only a finite period of time we have to cultivate and enjoy the incredible power of that sound.”

For tickets or further information, call 204-475-2127, or visit www.winnipegboyschoir.ca.


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