Elektra Women’s Choir has a rare treat in store for local listeners—and it’s not something fresh from the pen of the latest European choral superstar. Instead, what artistic director Morna Edmundson wants to flag as a highlight of the upcoming Tapestry International Celebration of Women’s Choirs is a little ditty from the classical repertoire, courtesy of Franz Schubert.
“Psalm 23,” she says, “is probably among the top five pieces written specifically for women,” and making this reading especially memorable is that three other acclaimed choirs—the Canzona Women’s Ensemble, from California; Esprit de Choeur, from Manitoba; and Cantus, from Norway—will all lend their voices in support.
“It’s not difficult to program a choral concert where everything was written in the last 10 years,” Edmundson continues, in a telephone conversation from her Vancouver home. “That’s easy; there’s so much music being written all the time. We’re sort of the opposite of the symphonic world. People don’t come to our concerts thinking, ‘Oh well, I’ll sit through the new piece until they get to the Beethoven.’ We actually have to reach back consciously and program things from past eras—and it’s really important to me, keeping that music alive.”
It’s not as though the festival, which takes place every three years, will prove bereft of the new. Excited as Edmundson is about leading more than a hundred singers in the Schubert, she’s equally pleased that her ensemble will be able to offer the world premiere of Valkyrie, written for women’s choir and saxophone by local composer Kristopher Fulton. (The excellent Julia Nolan takes the instrumental lead.)
“We’re singing in Old Norse, believe it or not,” Edmundson says, laughing. “There’s one singer in the choir who’s really keenly helped us get it all together, and it’s actually quite beautiful to pronounce.”
There’s also a nonverbal component to Fulton’s score, she adds, before cautioning, “This is going to sound really weird over the phone.” She then demonstrates an uncanny, overtone-rich keening that sounds, simultaneously, like a freakish windstorm and the wail of a disembodied spirit, evoking both natural and supernatural forces.
“You get 45 women making that sound, and it’s kind of rising up, and then there are more choral chords coming in and out of that, sort of emerging from the clouds,” Edmundson says. “The saxophone and two sopranos are really soaring above the top of all of that, and then they get kind of gritty in the middle.
“It’s very cool, and it’s a great example of pushing the envelope on what people expect when they hear a women’s choir,” she continues. “And that’s a big part of what Elektra has been about over the years. People say, ‘Oh, I kind of know what a women’s choir is going to sound like, and I think it’s always going to sound the same,’ and it doesn’t. But people have to sort of trust that and go and find out for themselves.”
For Tapestry, Elektra’s making that process of discovery both easy and affordable: the first of two public events will find the three guest choirs performing for free—but it’s the second, ticketed gala where the women will band together at their best.
The Tapestry International Celebration of Women’s Choirs takes place at Ryerson United Church on Friday (May 1) and St. Andrew’s–Wesley Church on Saturday (May 2).