Originally formed as the Peterborough Symphony Singers in 1990, the Peterborough Singers (PS) became a stand-alone entity in 1993. The highly regarded choir boasts upwards of 110 members under the direction of Sydney Birrell. World-class, professional Canadian soloists enjoy performing with the choir time and again.
Thirty Years of Choral Excellence
by Karen Taylor, a founding member of the Peterborough Singers
Thirty years ago, when members of the soon-to-be Peterborough Singers’ board of directors gathered around Pam and Syd Birrell’s kitchen table, they had big dreams. They wanted to create a community of excellent singers and musicians committed to bringing to our region both the best of choral music and world-class performers, while also encouraging and highlighting local and emerging Canadian talent. They succeeded—founding what has become an enduring community treasure.
Even in that first full season, the choir’s mission was evident. The Singers performed with many local musicians in 1993/94: the Temple Band of the Peterborough Salvation Army, the Peterborough County Children’s Choir, Dr. Giles Bryant, and local saxophone quartet Swing Shift. As a finale, Syd was brave enough (some might say foolhardy enough!) to invite the Elmer Iseler Singers to perform Carmina Burana with the choir in May 1994, handing over the baton to Dr. Elmer Iseler himself. And as for world-class musicians and emerging operatic talent, that concert had both. Ruth Watson Henderson and Lydia Adams played the challenging Carmina piano score, and the concert’s soloists—Sally Dibblee, Brett Polegato, and Daniel Taylor—were at the beginning of very successful careers. Indeed, all three continued to perform with the Singers, countertenor Daniel Taylor as recently as 2017 when he and friend Benjamin Butterfield (tenor) sang in the choir’s Mozart: Requiem & Arias concert.
The list of other soloists who had early gigs with the Peterborough Singers is equally impressive. There was the teenaged Measha Brueggergosman (just Gosman back then) who was introduced to the choir by Brainerd Blyden-Taylor, the founder of the Nathaniel Dett Chorale and guest conductor of the 1996 Songs for All Saints concert, which featured spirituals. More recently, Claire de Sévigné, soprano soloist in the choir’s May 2012 presentation of Fauré’s Requiem, has enjoyed great success in North America and Europe, in spite of the pandemic. It seems that Syd has a good ear for talented sopranos!
And that tradition of encouraging young artists continues. In the 2019 Messiah, the Singers collaborated with Daniel Taylor to bring fourteen of the most promising students from the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Music to town to perform the solos, a treat for the audience and great exposure for these stars of tomorrow. Many local artists have also been soloists over the years: Pamela Birrell, Father Paul Massel, Christine van der Bank, Barb Monahan, Wayne Robinson, and Shannon McCracken, to name a few. One concert, Bright Lights of Broadway! (2011), featured young performers from the region, many of whom got their start in the choir: Catherine Nicholls, Melody Thomas, Nathan Lucas, Anne Lukaszewick, Hannah Lucas, and Will Lamond. The very next year, Melody was the soprano soloist in the Singers’ annual Messiah. Tenors Jacob Abrahamse and Adam Bishop were also PS choristers at one time. Jacob recently had his solo debut at Roy Thomson Hall in Mendelssohn’s Elijah, under the baton of Jean-Sébastien Vallée and alongside baritone Russell Braun, who has also performed with the Singers. The choir is pleased to welcome Jacob back as tenor soloist in its 2022 performance of the Messiah.
The range of musical talents Peterborough Singers’ concerts have featured is, dare we say it, impressive. Concerts have featured the comedic and musical talents of Mary Lou Fallis (2000) and “La Diva” Natalie Choquette (2005), the world-renowned Quartetto Gelato, harpist Julia Shaw, violinist Martin Beaver, flautist Rhonda Larson, and the Talisker Players, not to mention the musicians who seem like (or are) family, such as organist par excellence Ian Sadler, keyboard wizard Gael Morrison, Paul Otway (trumpet), Stan Ewing (percussion), Anne Normand (pianist), and Steve McCracken (saxophonist, arranger, and band leader extraordinaire).
The list of famous soloists is equally striking and includes, as well as those already mentioned, Gary Relyea, Mark Dubois, Curtis Sullivan, Michael Colvin, Leslie Fagan, Laura Pudwell, Andrew Tees, Paula Rockwell, Jennifer Enns Modolo, Michael Burgess, and Isabel Bayrakdarian. This last soloist brings to mind another contribution of the Peterborough Singers to choral music—newly commissioned choral works. Isabel’s husband, composer Serouj Kradjian, wrote an “Ode to Isabel” for the Singers’ Yuletide Cheer concert (2015). And that’s just one commission the choir is rightfully proud to claim—here are some others:
- Paul Halley: “A House in Heaven” (2001)
- Mark Sirett: “Where Love and Charity Live” (2003)
- Stephen Chatman: “How Still It Is” (2009)
- Norman Reintamm: “In Bethlehem” (2010)
- Len Ballantine: “One Cold Night” (2009)
- Len Ballantine: Christmas Trilogy “Night of the Angel” (2009), “Night of the Magi” (2012),”Night of the God-Child” (2014)
- Len Ballantine: “To Be Continued … ” (2021)
This encouragement of composers was also evident in the Singers’ early days. In the choir’s second season, long-time director of music at Lakefield College School, Geoffrey Thomson, composed for the Songs for All Saints concert “And I Saw a New Heaven”; he conducted the piece too, almost falling off the podium in his enthusiasm! And at Yuletide Cheer 2014, Ted Vanya, a gifted local amateur composer, was thrilled to have the Singers present his composition “Oh Wonderful Child.”
Syd is generous when it comes to sharing the baton as well. Guest conductors not already mentioned have included Lee Willingham; Eleanor Daley, who conducted her Requiem in November 1996; and Srul Irving Glick, who conducted his Triumph of the Spirit in May 2000.
But an even more important accomplishment of the Peterborough Singers, I believe, has been to broaden views about the kind of music and musicians included in that community of excellence. Yes, the choir performs the classics: Bach’s St. Matthew Passion and St. John Passion and B Minor Mass, the crowning achievement of the choir’s tenth anniversary; the Brahms Requiem; Mendelssohn’s Elijah; Haydn’s The Creation; Verdi’s Requiem…. But it has also presented Peterborough premieres of works such as William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast, Paul Halley’s Earth Mass, and Karl Jenkins’s The Armed Man.
The first Songs of World War II concert (November 6, 1999) began a tradition of themed offerings, which included Sacred Soul (2007) and Prelude to Spring (2009). And when Syd discovered the musicianship of the Beatles—look out! We had Come Together! The Music of the Beatles (2010), The Beatles 2 (2013), and a Singers’ Beatles concert at Peterborough’s Musicfest. There followed Soul (2015) and Soul II: With a Little Help from Our Friends! (2019), to mark Black History Month. Sandwiched in the middle was the very innovative Canadian Women of Song (2017), conducted by Pamela Birrell and featuring Linda Kash (MC) and Kate Suhr, Tonya-Leah Watts, and Victoria Pearce as soloists—Canadian women, of course. These themed concerts often highlighted the talents of local performers, such as Beau Dixon and Bridget Foley, and expanded the choir’s range and audience. They also tapped the latent talent of local arrangers both within the choir and without.
All this is to say that from those days of aspiration in 1993 through to today, the Peterborough Singers has grown into a vibrant, creative, diverse, and caring community. Choir members have celebrated the joys of striving for excellence, and they’ve weathered life’s tragedies—together, while learning and performing music. There have been wonderful opportunities, like singing Beethoven’s Ninth at Westben or being a guest choir several times at Roy Thomson Hall. There have been exhilarating choir trips—to Winchester Cathedral and York Minster to participate in evensong, for example. And there have been heart-breaking benefit concerts and funeral services, not to mention the struggles to maintain our choral community during COVID-19. Through it all, the aims of the Peterborough Singers remained steadfast—to build community, encourage musicianship, and inspire audiences and singers alike by presenting the very best in choral music. Here’s to another thirty years!