From left to right: Rodney Sharman, CMC BC Head Librarian Stefan Hintersteininger, Jocelyn Morlock, James Carter, Chor Leoni Artistic Director Erick Lichte, First Prize winner Marie-Claire Saindon, Second Prize winner Benjamin Bolden, Third Prize winner Gerda Blok-Wilson. Photo credit: Phil Jack, Chor Leoni.

“Barren winter, with his wrathful nipping cold” (in Shakespeare’s words) was not enough to keep Chor Leoni‘s loyal audience away from a concert this past Friday, February 23rd by the internationally lauded men’s choir with Artistic Director Erick Lichte, in celebration of its annual C/4 Canadian Choral Composition Contest. Despite nearly 20 centimetres of snow falling throughout the day, the show had to go on, and so it did, and a good thing, too; it was a delight from beginning to end.

The C/4 Canadian Choral Composition Contest, now in its second year, offers Canadian composers a rare and valuable opportunity to write new works for the beloved Chor Leoni in four-part, a cappella TTBB voicing. From the pool of applicants, three finalists are chosen, and their works are presented in a special dedicated concert. A jury (this year made up of Jocelyn Morlock, Rodney Sharman, and James Carter) then decides on the distribution of the First ($2000), Second ($1000) and Third ($500) Prizes. The competition is generously sponsored by James and Leslie Carter. In a new Community Partnership with the Canadian Music Centre in BC this year, CMC BC Head Librarian Stefan Hintersteininger also presented Barbara Pentland Awards of Excellence to each of the three finalists.

The concert’s unique format proved a winner for the audience, the composers, and the choir. After each of the three selected works was performed, the composer was invited to the stage to participate in a dialogue with Erick Lichte, and to take questions from the audience. The discussion elicited an excellent response from all participants, resulting in many insightful observations being made. Immediately following the conversations, the pieces were sung a second time. Another touch of genius: each score was printed right in the program, encouraging an additional level of audience engagement with the piece.

The winning composition was Marie-Claire Saindon‘s Mer calme, to a poem by French poet Joseph Autran (1813-1877). Saindon, a composer and singer from Montreal via Ottawa, specializes in film scoring and choral music and has several works published by Cypress Music and by Boosey & Hawkes. Her chosen poem marvels at the quiet repose of the calm sea, without murmur or ripples, and the speaker longs to discover the secret of how to become thus, despite being human and therefore possessed of “un coeur en démence” (“a mad heart”). Saindon’s masterful setting vividly illustrated the poem with her highly attractive and very personal harmonic language, completely modern yet firmly rooted in the French choral tradition. In her interview, the composer spoke of feeling uncertain while writing a certain very chromatic section, one in particular that modulates from G minor to C# minor within only one bar. In fact, this sudden jump to a distant key was an especially thrilling moment.

In second place was Twilight by Benjamin Bolden, a setting of William Shakespeare’s dark and chilly Sonnet 73 (“That time of year thou mayst in me behold / When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang / Upon those boughs which shake against the cold / Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang“), which the composer movingly dedicated to his late father. Bolden made highly effective use of limited means; the entire piece is in D natural minor, with no accidentals at all. The composer’s consummate skill in creating harmonic interest and tension using only seven pitches was remarkable, as was his ability to find the deep, gloriously resonating chords unique to a male-voice choir. Benjamin Bolden is a music educator as well as a Associate Composer of the Canadian Music Centre, teaches in the Faculty of Education at Queen’s University, and has written extensively for choir.

The Third Prize winner was Gerda Blok-Wilson for her achingly beautiful setting of O Little Rose, O Dark Rose to a text by Canadian poet Charles G.D. Roberts (1860-1943). The composer was attracted to this poem both for its sweet and for its dark elements, both of which she brought out in her sensitive, delicate music, creating a piece with the timeless quality of a folksong. The piece contained both homophonic and contrapuntal writing, with the difficult high tenor descant lines expertly and flawlessly handled by Chor Leoni’s marvellous voices. Blok-Wilson was for some years a passionate music educator in Prince George, and has recently founded a new 160-voice choral program in Vancouver, CanSing. Combining her expertise as an educator and as a composer, Blok-Wilson has also written numerous works for developing choir.

Composers who wish to participate in this wonderful program can get a head start on their pieces now! The deadline for the 2019 C/4 Canadian Choral Composition Competition has just been announced. Please visit Chor Leoni’s website for further details.