One of the realities of the holiday season is the magic doesn’t always happen on its own. Sometimes you have to work at it, which explains everything from hitting Christmas parties to decorating the tree to the enduring popularity of Elf, It’s a Wonderful Life, and Rankin-Bass’ Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.
Chor Leoni artistic director Erick Lichte doesn’t take the traditions of Christmas lightly. The long-running West Coast choir’s upcoming series of concerts have become a go-to holiday season favourite in Vancouver, with audiences showing up for both a winning mix of timeless classics (“Silent Night”, “Auld Lang Syne”) and for songs chosen to make new memories (this year’s program includes world-premiere performances of Nicholas Ryan Kelly’s “Cold Moon” and Don MacDonald’s “A Fantasy of Carols”).
Interviewed by the Straight, Lichte suggests Christmas With Chor Leoni has become important to Vancouverites for reasons that start with the idea that, more than ever in a sometimes fractured world, we’re all looking to come together.
“These Christmas concerts have become very popular,” he offers, “because I think the focus has always been ‘What is this experience we’re creating for the folks that are coming here? How can we have something that is both meaningful and fun for them that is going to make their Christmas happen? How can we be the spark plug that’s going to help them find that Christmas spirit that is mythological, and, best, elusive.’ That filters into how we program this—like surrounding the audience sometimes while we’re singing. We’re trying to look at this as a gift.”
One might suggest that, more than any period in memory, tapping into that spirit has been challenging over the past couple of years. In 2022, all you have to do is switch on the nightly news, where we’re bombarded with everything from the war in Ukraine to an ongoing pandemic to the runaway cost of, well, almost everything. One of the bright spots? That would be a phrase that, not that long ago, was a daily mantra: “We’re all in this together.” That, Lichte suggests, makes the idea of gathering with one’s fellow Vancouverites at the West End’s stately St. Andrew’s-Wesley United Church, somehow extra important.
While picking one’s favourite child is never easy, the artistic director cautiously allows that the Christmas shows are perhaps the most rewarding ones that Chor Leoni does in a calendar year.
“Christmas comes steeped in memory,” Lichte opines. “For musicians, and especially for choirs, this is probably the richest field that we get to work in all of the year because we’re singing ancient carols that people really know. More than that, they aren’t just songs that people know or hear on the radio. We’re going to sing ‘Silent Night’ and that’s going to remind someone of their grandmother, who is maybe no longer living, but who they once baked cookies with. Take the 3,500 people who are going to come to these six shows—every one of those people comes to the table with different sets of memories.”
The idea of creating new memories is important, he suggests, which explains the inclusion of not only the premieres of Kelly’s “Cold Moon” and MacDonald’s “A Fantasy of Carols”, but the Hanukkah staple “S’vivon” and the somber winter meditation “Halcyon Days”.
“These shows are about the celebration of the memories that we have, and also the memories that we make,” Lichte suggests. “If they were just about the memories that you have, and Christmas and nostalgia, that would get a little sickly sweet real quick. Nothing against the Hallmark Channel, but your teeth would hurt.”
Think about all of this, and the idea of “We’re all in this together” really takes flight, the choir members of Chor Leoni feeding off the spirit of those in the audience, and vice-versa.
“We get to tap into the energy that the audience brings to us, and that’s not always the case with every concert,” Lichte notes. “I don’t think audiences always understand that they are a big reason a show is, or isn’t, going to be great. We pretty much sing about as well as we do all the time. What changes is whether or not you are in communion with the audience.”
The beauty of that connection is, he suggests, that it’s not always about bombast. That’s particularly important over the holidays, which are also a time for reflection.
“What I think is so magical about vocal music is that, first of all, it’s quieter,” Lichte notes. “So a lot of what we do—especially with these shows in the quieter moments—is playing with silence and the negative space of music. Not a lot of club shows give you a moment to have respite. Here you are at St. Andrew’s-Wesley with its beautiful acoustic architecture, and you can listen to the sounds reverberate and decay as you sometimes sit in silence. The music is the conduit to get you that moment of silence where you sit with 700 other people, thinking about the same kind of things. That’s where the communion happens—something really different from other shows.”
A communion, one might suggest, that gets to the heart of Christmas, where what you give is, somehow wonderfully, tied to what you get back. -
Christmas With Chor Leoni runs December 16-19 at St. Andrew’s-Wesley United Church. For complete show times, including matinees, go to chorleoni.org.