Morna Edmundson makes it easy. Not content with simply picking the repertoire and rehearsing the singers, the Elektra Women’s Choir artistic director also writes an in-depth “listener’s guide” for each of her ensemble’s concerts and posts it online in advance of the show. To find it requires reading the fine print on Elektra’s “concerts & events” page, but it’s worth the effort. After absorbing Edmundson’s precise yet charmingly informal musings, audience members will bring informed curiosity to the concert experience, while music journalists will be able to zero in on what’s notable in any particular show.
Which, for Elektra’s upcoming Chez Nous Christmas concerts, is the presence of Ben Heppner as the choir’s special guest. The Fraser Valley–born tenor has retired from the operatic stage, but is still giving song recitals. Given that Edmundson was one of his classmates at UBC when they were both embarking on their musical careers, it seemed natural for her to reach out to him during this festive season. And in fact, she went a little beyond that, commissioning Elektra’s regular accompanist, Stephen Smith, to come up with an arrangement of a Mennonite carol from the 18th century, “Sweet Was the Song”, in the process honouring both the season and Heppner’s cultural heritage.
“Everybody in Elektra adores Stephen’s music, and they’re always begging me to sing more,” Edmundson explains, in a telephone interview from her Surrey home. “So I immediately thought he should write something. And then the cool thing is, Stephen himself went off and started looking for Mennonite hymns or carols, and came upon this beautiful melody.
“It really features Ben, but it’s not a showoff kind of piece,” she continues. “It’s calm and beautiful and introspective. It’s not going to be like ‘Here’s a tenor showing off his high notes.’ So that’s the door through which Ben’s in this concert. The piece just hits the nail on the head, I think. And then he’s also doing his own set of four songs, with Stephen on piano.”
With repertoire that runs from a variety of traditional European carols to Minnesota composer Abbie Burt Betinis’s “Romance in Waltz Time”—and, rather bravely, with only one number culled from the choir’s recently released Silent Night CD—Chez Nous reflects Edmundson’s desire to present a balanced program rather than one geared to promoting its new recording.
“Especially at Christmas, you have to be all the things that people expect, and all the things that you want,” she explains. “And the thing that I want is for the person who walks in the door who never goes to concerts, who got dragged there by somebody, to say ‘Oh, that tune that I’ve heard forever on Muzak, it has words!’ Or, you know, it has an origin—it comes from somewhere. So the familiar Christmas tunes have to be part of it—and, being Elektra, I want to find arrangements that might be of some of those familiar tunes, but that have a freshness to them, or that come from some composer I believe in.
"And then," she adds, "you balance that with the expectations of the people coming to see the guest artists. So in this case, the people coming to see Ben Heppner need to get enough Ben Heppner that they feel satisfied—and they will."
Chez Nous: Christmas With Elektra 2018 takes place at Shaughnessy Heights United Church on Saturday (November 24), and at Surrey’s Good Shepherd Church on Sunday (November 25).