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Saturday, May 6, 2023 | 7 pm | Emmanuel United Church

Guest Soloists: Leslie Fagan – soprano | Laura Pudwell – mezzo soprano | Ernesto Ramirez – tenor | Jonathan Liebich – bass
Accompanied by: Ian Sadler on the organ, and a full 12 piece brass section

From the composer of Aïda, La Traviata, and Rigoletto comes a monumental work that is every bit as tuneful, dramatic, and full of rhythmic intensity as those operas.  It features an amazing cast of four renowned Canadian soloists, a double choir, and the ‘orchestra’ of Ian Sadler at the pipe organ who will be joined by 12 brass players. Giuseppe Verdi follows the same liturgical text as Mozart, Fauré, and Duruflé, and his Requiem stands out as one of the most-performed pieces of the choral repertoire.  Come and feel the fury and terror of Dies Irae (Day of wrath), experience the thrilling and energetic Sanctus (Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Hosts), be drawn into the pulsing sorrow of Lacrymosa (Weeping), and be reassured by the vindication of Libera me (Deliver me). 

The May 6, 2023 Verdi Requiem will be performed by the Peterborough Singers in memory of Monica Hale.

Over its 2018–19 season, the Peterborough Singers presented a series of biographical profiles highlighting the musical lives of some of the choir’s dedicated patrons. Monica Hale, who regularly sponsored Ian Sadler to play at the Singers’ major oratorio each spring, was the subject of the first profile, which is based on an interview with Monica that took place in the summer of 2018. Her musical life spans two continents and close to a century and introduces us to British music festivals, choral societies, composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, and the joys of being a hired church soloist in Canada.

Monica Hale—A Passion for Life and Music

Monica Hale has been many things in her 90+ years—a scholarship student, a war bride, a single mother, a secretary, and a sports car aficionado and lap scorer at Mosport. But throughout her life, one thing has remained constant, her love of music, especially choral music.

Monica Hale, 2018

Monica Hale, 2018

Monica comes by this passion honestly; musical talent and appreciation runs in the family. “My dear mother, Rose Cromack, sang in the Leith Hill Musical Festival from 1930 to 1948,” Monica explains. “I attended festival concerts from an early age, ‘turned the pages’ for the Leatherhead Choral Society’s local practices and performances, and joined the Leatherhead choir myself in 1940.” These opportunities opened up for the family after Monica and her mother moved south from industrial Leeds when Monica was just nine months old. Once her father was able to join them, they settled in Leatherhead, Surry, about 20 miles southwest of London and 6 miles north of Dorking.

It was proximity to Dorking that was the most significant factor in Monica’s musical development. “Dorking was where Dr. Vaughan Williams lived, and he was in charge of everything musical in the area,” she recalls. Indeed, in 1936, when Monica won her scholarship to attend a school in Epsom, home of the famous Derby horse race, Ralph Vaughan Williams had been the Leith Hill Musical Festival (LHMF) conductor for over 30 years.

The Leith Hill Festival was founded in 1905 by Margaret Vaughan Williams, sister of the famous composer. It is still going strong. Basically, it consists of multiple independent choral societies or choirs that compete in an annual “festival” over a number of days in spring, collaborating and combining in the evenings to give concerts of the main works forming the subject of the daytime competition. The Leatherhead Choral Society, of which both Monica and her mother were members, joined the Leith Hill Festival in 1928, as soon as towns (rather than just parishes) were allowed to compete.

The Leith Hill Music Festival, 1940s

The Leith Hill Music Festival, 1940s

Monica well remembers how grand the venue was for these competitions and performances. “In Dorking, they built a special set of halls, a large hall for concerts and small halls for recitals and the like—all the local choral societies could use these halls,” she recalls. “In the spring, with Dr. Vaughan Williams conducting the final concert, we had the festival competitions” and performances in these halls.

The Dorking Halls, as they are still known, opened in 1931 and were owned by the Leith Hill Festival until they were commandeered in World War II. They were remarkable choral venues. The large hall had seating for 900 and room on the platform for 300 singers and a full orchestra. (Peterborough’s conductors are now green with envy!) Apparently, the acoustics were splendid too, and the hall even had a fully sprung dance floor, a necessity in the thirties and forties, I would imagine.

And speaking of dancing, Monica recalls that she met the man who would become her first husband at a “Y” dance held by the Leatherhead Institute in 1942. The young Canadian soldier, George Fenton Lewis, introduced himself during intermission by bringing her a cup of tea. “My first husband had an excellent bass voice,” she explains. “He was in a good choir in London, Ontario, and I was given to understand that you didn’t get in that choir unless you were jolly lucky, unless you were all right.” But, of course, Monica could do one better than that. After all, she was singing for the famous Ralph Vaughan Williams, just down the road. Their common interest in choral music sustained them through an engagement punctuated by separations and parental cautions. “Father and Mother liked him, but disapproved of him because he didn’t have a job, and he was just a corporal,” says Monica.

Life went on. The couple continued to “go walking”—to avoid detection. And Monica continued to sing. One vivid musical memory centres on the Sunday afternoon rehearsals under the baton of Dr. Vaughan Williams. He would show up on a bicycle, all windblown and wearing a ratty old sweater that didn’t hit the dustbin until after he remarried, or so she heard later. (Vaughan Williams didn’t remarry until 1951, after Monica had moved to Canada.)

Another special performance was the one held in the Royal Albert Hall. After all this time, the details are a bit fuzzy, but it could have been the April 20, 1946, “Thanksgiving for Victory Concert” that she remembers. The Leith Hill Festival Choir did participate in that one, along with over 150 other choral societies, choirs, and opera guilds, and two pieces by Vaughan Williams were on the programme, “Thanksgiving for Victory” and “A London Symphony.”

That concert ended with the “Hallelujah Chorus” and Parry’s “Jerusalem.” What an experience it must have been! Here is how  Monica remembers her trip to Albert Hall:

We rehearsed in our local branches, and then we all put on our evening dress and went up to London by train. We had to have afternoon performances during wartime. If you can imagine, walking in the entrance that says “Artists” . . . you know this is the big time!

Monica and Fenton married on March 31, 1945, the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter. Fenton landed unexpectedly on her doorstep on the Thursday before that weekend, special license in hand. He was on a five-day leave back to England from his unit in Holland, so there was time for only a quick wedding and an equally rushed honeymoon. “Anyway, we got married, and I got pregnant right away,” Monica jokes. But Fenton contracted TB in Holland and was sent back to Canada, leaving Monica in England with their newborn son, Russell, who arrived in this world two days before Christmas 1945.

Finally, in June 1946, Monica and Russell left for Canada, sailing on the Queen Mary. They settled in London, Ontario, where Fenton was still being treated at the local sanatorium, eventually moving to Bellwood Park, a large housing estate built by the Department of Veteran’s Affairs. Of course, Monica once again began to sing.

She joined the choir at her husband’s church, Metropolitan United, which had a great reputation for choral music, and could seat nearly 1,4000 when it was built in ! “It was the choir,” Monica recalls. “The organist, Tom Chattoe, saw this English singer arriving, and he immediately allowed me to join, knowing I was well experienced.” Indeed, Thomas C. Chattoe, who studied piano and organ in Stafford, England, before World War I interrupted his education, would know about Monica’s singing experiences. His thesis examined Canada’s festival movement and choral societies, tracing their origins to Britain.

Metropolitan United was a great venue in which to sing, according to Monica. “She always tried to crack the window at the back of the church,” interrupts her current husband, Peter Hale.

Metropolitan United Church, London, ON

Metropolitan United Church, London, ON

Once established in London, Monica began to take singing lessons from Tom Chattoe, and she developed quite a large soloist repertoire. Consequently, she “got the call” from First Baptist Church. “They were looking for a soloist, and would I apply?” She did and got the job, singing there each Sunday until she was lured back by Alex Clark, the new organist and choir director of Metropolitan United. “I can’t remember how much I got paid,” she considers. “I think it was a hundred dollars a month. . . not much considering that I had 200 solos by heart!” (In an earlier memoir, Monica reports that she received $300 annually, so it may have been even less.) A favourite solo was “Green Pastures.” She has another vivid memory of her time as a soloist in London.

“At Metropolitan, you had all the great, big preachers coming in as guests,” she recalls. So one of these important guest preachers visited, and Monica was told to sing for the occasion the solo parts in “Hear My Prayer,” by Mendelssohn, which concludes with “O, for the Wings of a Dove.” It runs at least eleven minutes or so.

I can remember standing there, singing this bloomin’ solo, and there was the guest preacher, hired at God knows how much money, and he’s sitting there thinking, “When is this female going to finish.” I wasn’t going to finish any time soon. I was singing the whole thing.

After Monica’s first husband died in 1956, she was left with a ten-year-old son, a mortgaged house, and a pension, as well as her salary for singing. Not daunted, she brushed up on her secretarial skills and got a job at a local branch of the Toronto Dominion Bank. Eventually, she was moved to the TD head office in Toronto. She had to drop her singing for a while. But, while in London, she had developed another passion—sports cars.

According to Peter, “She wasn’t getting anywhere in the church, so she said, ‘I’ve got to meet more men somehow!’”  “That’s the way it was,” Monica confirms with a laugh. In succession, she had an MG Midget, an MG, and, later, a more powerful hardtop MG. Because of her new interest, she volunteered as a lap scorer, first at Harewood in Hamilton and, after she was transferred to Toronto, at Mosport.

It was at Mosport that Peter Hale first spotted Monica. Peter, himself a transplanted Brit, was living in Peterborough, Ontario, and working as an engineer at General Electric. He had done marshalling in England with a vintage sports car club. “We both landed on the same induction day at Mosport,” Peter laughs. “She had a little, twee brown bag with her lunch in it, and I had a great big haversack over my back, so I asked, ‘Can I carry your lunch?’” And that was it.

They were married in 1966, and it wasn’t long before Monica was again singing. Having converted to Catholicism before her marriage, she was “caught” by Sister Virginia, “who had been ‘invalided’ out, because she wasn’t very well, and given the job of organizing the choir at St Alphonsus.” Monica was again a chorister and soloist, and she eventually became the choir director there.

However, through a contact at work—Monica had been hired by Trent University as a fundraising secretary—she met Diana McLeod, the choir director at Trinity United Church.  “So I went back to the United Church,” Monica explains. She has been part of the music scene ever since, singing in Thunder Bay and Newmarket, when Peter was transferred there for work, and eventually in Peterborough again, after retirement.

Whether performing “There Will Always Be an England” in the popular Carry on the Brits concerts, solo bits in My Fair Lady or Brigadoon, or Handel’s Messiah, Monica always gave it her all. And her contributions to music continued after her singing career ended. Monica is a regular sponsor of the Peterborough Singers; each year, she contributes enough to bring Ian Sadler to town for the choir’s final major oratorio. The Peterborough Singers are very grateful, both for this support and for Monica taking the time to share her life in music. And what does she think about that life so far?

It’s been lovely. . . . All through my life, choral music has been important, starting with my mother who was in the Leatherhead Choral Society. And it really was wonderful. I’ve been really lucky. I really have. What a story it’s been. All those years!

Monica passed away in her 96th year in October of 2019. She was a Peterborough Singers’ supporter to the end. Donations in her memory were directed toward the choir or “a charity of choice.”

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