The 100-Voice Peterborough Singers Celebrate Black History Month with a Soul Concert

The Peterborough Singers may have established their reputation by performing many of the greatest works of classical music, but, in recent years, they’ve arguably become most widely known for their February concerts featuring dazzling big-choral interpretations of more popular musical styles – from the Beatles to Broadway.

This year, they aim to dazzle again, putting their unique choral spin on the sizzling rhythms and powerful melodies of soul music. On February 28, the 100-voice choir will honour Black History Month and the journey of the civil rights movement with a concert featuring the music of the South, Motown, Philly, Memphis, and New Orleans.

The choir will be joined by local Peterborough talent Beau Dixon and Bridget Foley, pianist Rob Phillips, saxophonist Steve McCracken, and others.

There’s no question that soul music is uncharted territory for the Peterborough Singers. But that’s all just par for the course for the Singers nowadays, says artistic director Syd Birrell.

“A while back it came to my attention that many folk perceived me as a guy hiding under a large rock called J.S. Bach,” he explains. “I have been remedying that condition by venturing into popular musical genres, bringing the choir along with me for the ride.”

The experiment has proven to have been a wild success, he said, not only helping expand the choirs’ musical horizons, but also its audience, introducing the choir to aficionados of diverse styles of music.

Birrell began his personal journey into soul music just over a year ago – when he compiled a list of hundreds of soul hits by artists like Sam Cooke, James Brown, Aretha Franklin, and others, and started hot-footing it every Thursday to Peterborough’s Black Horse Pub to hear Rob Phillips and other local soul artists perform. He’s also been immersing himself in the history behind the music.

“I am hooked, I love the music, I am deeply touched by the struggles these black artists faced, and I am stunned to realize just how much of the success of the civil rights movement is due to their music and message,” he says.

Birrell is the first to admit that tackling soul music pushes the comfort levels of a classically focused, predominantly white choir, and says he struggled at first with whether it was wise for the choir to attempt a soul concert. “We have not walked the walk of the black musicians who have given us this amazing music,” he says. “We don’t sway very well, we are weak on hand clapping, we don’t generally dance as we sing.”

And yet, he adds, “We have a passion for this music, it is great fun to sing, and it tells a story that needs to be told.”

And besides, the Peterborough Singers aren’t making this journey unaccompanied, but have been able to draw on the knowledge and mentorship of musicians like Beau Dixon, Rob Phillips, and others.

Beau Dixon is a musician, singer, songwriter, producer, actor, director, and playwright raised in Canada and currently based in Peterborough. Beau developed his passion for performance at an early age, singing and playing piano at church services and in school plays. He has shared the stage with a wide range of artists: e.g., Serena Ryder, Chili Gonzales, Ronnie Hawkins, Raffi, Eric Burden, Prairie Oyster, Willie P. Bennett, The New Deal, and Feist.

Bridget Foley has been performing for over 20 years, mostly within Peterborough and surrounding areas, and she has toured in Canada to Nova Scotia and Wunnumin Lake. She has a very eclectic repertoire, performing various styles of music, although she prefers performing Gospel and R & B. She won the Female Vocalist of the Year Award at the Dobro Music Awards in 2009, and has been nominated for best Female Vocalist at the WIRE Magazine Awards.

To purchase tickets, visit, or call (705)745.1820.