Alex Vollant celebrates community with Chor Leoni's The Turning

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      For reasons that include a less-than-successful audition, Alex Vollant’s journey to the ranks of Chor Leoni wasn’t exactly what one might call a smooth one. Today, they see the venerable Vancouver choir as family—a place that’s got them through some rough patches. Looking back, they couldn’t be more grateful that the support from the 30-year-old Vancouver institution was both immediate and unconditional. 

      And that support makes Vollant extra-appreciative about the upcoming program The Turning: Chor Leoni & The Leonids , which is centered around works which explore mental health.

      In an interview with the Straight, Vollant acknowledges their search for community and a place to belong has been a lifelong one. Originally from a community called Pessamit from the Innu First Nations, they ended up moving to Quebec City at age 12 with their family.

      “It was very hard for us to leave Pessamit,” Vollant says. “We were looking for education, opportunity, and care, and, unfortunately, we had to look outside of our community. Being young, I didn’t understand at the time how much it would affect me. Moving to Quebec City was a good decision, but it came with a lot of costs. We had little room to navigate intergenerational trauma because we had to deal with things like integration and adapting to a new environment.”

      After high school, Vollant was studying conservatory piano back east when their computer-engineer partner got a job offer in Vancouver in 2020.

      “At first I thought, ‘I’m not going with you­—I have a good thing going here,’ ” Vollant recalls. “I spent a couple of weeks wrestling with everything. And then I ended up deciding, ‘Okay, I’m gonna go. I’m going to try it out.’ And then we got here and we broke up.”

      Compounding things was a pandemic that made socializing, finding a community, and generally having some sort of personal interaction with fellow human beings almost impossible. Even though Vollant loves the West Coast, add the reality that Vancouver isn’t exactly known as the friendliest city on the planet.

      “We’re talking a lot about mental health with The Turning,” Vollant says. “During the pandemic I definitely started struggling a lot—I started having anxiety problems, I struggled a lot with depression. It wasn’t only in the framework of having Covid shut everything down. It was also the entire structure of intergenerational trauma and how residential schools affected my family, my ancestors, my grandparents. That was extremely hard. Not only was I away from home, but there was no one to talk to because everyone was isolated.”

      Chor Leoni.

      That search for a community would eventually lead Vollant to Chor Leoni. After enrolling in UBC’s school of music to continue their studies, they were invited by a friend to the 65-strong group’s 2021 Remembrance Day performance.

      “I didn’t know anything about Chor Leoni, but I went,” Vollant says. “I was so beautifully shocked by the quality of the concerts and the quality of all the musicians that I decided to give it a go and think, ‘Maybe I’ll try to make it in.’ ”

      Vollant admits that things didn’t go exactly as planned when they auditioned with artistic director Erick Lichte a short time later. 

      “To be quite frank, I kind of bombed my audition­—I didn’t really prepare for it,” Vollant says candidly. 

      Still, Lichte saw something in the classicaly trained piano player. And, come Christmas, Vollant was part of the choir.

      “Erick  didn’t say that I was not a match or anything,” Volllant says, “but I think it was more in that sense that I never had any training. And I think he opened the doors for me. That’s what opened the path for me.”

      Given where Vollant has come from, and where they are at today, The Turning: Chor Leoni & The Leonids has an extra-special resonance. Part of the VanMan Summit, the performance is the culmination of 200 singers of all ages and backgrounds coming together for a week of mentorship, rehearsal, and, finally, performance.

      The program takes its name from Minneapolis composer Maura Bosch’s The Turning, a piece rooted in her work with men undergoing court-ordered anger-management classes. Included in the evening will be The Watcher of the Wood, written by Sarah Rimkus as a deeply personal meditation on post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as the North American première of Sügav Rahu (Deep Peace) by Italian composer Giovanni Bonato.

      As they prepare for the evening, Vollant suggests that you can find a community to belong to even as you’re deeply missing your family at home. Sometimes you just have to be willing to look, no matter how rough the road gets.

      “Chor Leoni is a group of people so passionate about being together that I started to think ‘Oh, this might be this might be something that can substitute for home while I’m away, because it feels like everyone cares about each other,’ ” Vollant says. “Everyone wants to uplift each other. When someone is down, everyone is going to pick you up. “I can remember calling my mom and going, ‘That choir is so much more than a rehearsal a week.’ We all care for each other, we’re all aware of each other’s lives, and we love each other so much.

      “That kind of community is something you don’t always find in other places,” Vollant continues. “I’ve sung with other choirs in the city. I’ve sung with amazing people, and I’ve been part of amazing ensembles. But I’ve never found that experience of having 65 friends. Singing with 65 people who know me, and who care.”

      The Turning: Chor Leoni & The Leonids is at St. Andrew’s-Wesley United Church on Thursday (May 11). For ticket info go here.