Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Finding Their Voices in the Pandemic: How the Bach Elgar Choir Kept Going

After an isolating two years, the Bach Elgar Choir has returned to bring Hamilton together, but keeping its own members together during the pandemic has required an art form all its own.

“We combined conferencing software platforms in order to create a kind of vicarious choral experience that worked,” says Bach Elgar Choir Artistic Director, Alexander Cann. “It took a long time to develop that. It was a lot of trial and error because we had this group of four or five people who were willing to show up and work on it for an hour or two and have it fail, and come back and try it again, and try it again, and try it again until we finally figured it out.”

The system the choir finally landed on involved three separate software programs—Jamulus, Syncspace, and Zoom—working simultaneously to stream audio and video to each choir member with the least amount of lag time possible. But this wasn’t the choir’s first attempt at pandemic rehearsing. The summer of 2020 saw socially distanced outdoor rehearsals at Fieldcote Memorial Park in Ancaster, and before that Cann had arranged a series of seminars and interviews with members of the arts community to keep the choir engaged.

For Cann, this mission was about more than the music.

“Choirs are communities,” says Cann. “People stick around for multiple years. Some people have been in the choir for decades. Because of that long term commitment there is your choir community that becomes important, and marriages and babies and deaths; this is all part of it. So it turns into a kind of connected community throughout the city of Hamilton and throughout time, because this organization goes back to 1905. It is one of the most important community institutions in Hamilton’s history, so community’s everything with us and that’s what makes the music and the concerts work.”

Pending the lifting of government regulations later this month, up next on the Bach Elgar Choir’s docket is a further tribute to that sense of coming together: a concert dedicated to the work of the choir’s namesakes—Johann Sebastian Bach and Edward Elgar—performed on February 26. The composers themselves came from different worlds; Bach, a Protestant and Elgar, a Catholic at a time when this distinction was a loaded one. When the choir began in 1905, the city of Hamilton was firmly Protestant, and yet the choir’s founders chose to unite these disparate artists in their title.

“[Elgar’s] music is really about the individual struggle, and it’s about Romance, capital ‘R’, in the sense of the big feelings and big issues in life, and there’s a sense of tremendous catharsis and wisdom in his music,” says Cann. “And then of course we know Bach, this virtuoso, this genius, the ultimate craftsman. So you put these two things together and you get two very different views of the universe, and that’s Hamilton’s thing. That’s Hamilton who brought them together.”

With this upcoming tribute to the pairing, and by maintaining a sense of togetherness in his own choral community, Cann hopes the choir can continue to bring unity to Hamilton through the music it’s shared for over a century.

“Choral music really is for everybody,” says Cann. “It really is for people from all sorts of walks of life, all sorts of backgrounds, and it’s for the young and the old. And that’s so special; not much is for the young and the old and for people of all walks of life, all religions or lack of religion, all people of the city of Hamilton.”

Maxie Dara
Maxie is a freelance writer, journalist and award-winning playwright based in Hamilton with a love of theatre and decidedly too many cats.

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