News & Reviews

Karen Schuessler Singers evoke creativity in London Composers Exposed! concert
By Daina Janitis

London Composers ExposedBefore venturing out during a snow squall warning to attend London Composers Exposed- I had a bout of nostalgia. I dusted off the 2005 report of the Creative Cities Committee - remember that group of worthies gathered by Gord Hume to examine the status of London as a “Creative City”- and to make recommendation on how to get there? If last night in London was a benchmark- I’m going to say We Are There!

London has an embarrassment in riches of fine choirs- but the Karen Schuessler Singers’ concert last night was a notch-kicker. “Creativity” was the theme of the evening and the KSS team revealed it in so many ways. On each program was a blank sticky note- and patrons were encouraged to write their own definitions (and achievements) for creativity- popping them later on big poster board sheets around the concert space. Conductor Karen Schuessler welcomed patrons by asking for a show of hands that included everyone in the audience- who expressed their creativity in Visual Arts? Music? The written word? Gardening? Parenting….?

But honour of place was given to the ten composers of the choral pieces the KSS performed. Almost all were in attendance – and contributed even more than their compositions. The KSS team had taped interviews with each composer, and then artfully created audio clips that introduced each piece with relaxed, entertaining- often funny- explanations of its genesis. Kudos to the folks who put that together- and made sure that it actually worked throughout the concert. A loop of these interviews also played before the concert started- but those words were lost in the happy chatter of the assembling audience.

“Classy” is another word that sticks to last night’s concert. There are no reserved seats in the beautiful concert spaces of London’s churches- but the KSS crew indicated choice areas that are for season subscribers. Best of all, the front rows were reserved for “our composers and guests” where they could be seen, admired, and applauded. Most moving was the spontaneous rising by most of the composers, the old and the young, to applaud the choir before realizing that they were the targets of the audience’s appreciation. And as a devotee of post-concert receptions, let me commend the two urns of decaf, the plate-sized cookies- and, seriously, the welcome and untiring thank-you’s for attending from choir members and composers alike.

“Culture”, you ask? - what about the actual music? With fifteen varied, beautiful selections on the program, the audience was delighted, entertained- and deeply moved. If you were there- you were stirred by Bert Van der Hoek’s hymns. You were not surprised that young Matthew Emery’s sweet, richly voiced love songs have been sung in seven countries at one time. You laughed uproariously at Don Cook's “The Landfall of Cabot”- a piece written for Maritimers who loved to sing but had no musical training! You listened breathless to KSS mezzo-soprano Gillian Laidlaw perform Brian Ratcliffe’s “Deep River”. And you were reassured that some of London’s long-burnished treasures- Denise Pelley, Steve Holowitz – are still in London, in good form, and generous with their gifts.

The KSS mission to “enrich lives through choral excellence and community engagement” is not an empty phrase wrought through compromise over a late-night board meeting. The singers and their director, Karen Schuessler, LIVE that mission in every season. To experience it – set aside one of the dates -May 28th or 29th- for their final thematic gala-ABBA: Dancing Queen. Will the “Community” be engaged enough to sing along? – just try to stop us!!!

Daina Janitis is a Londoner by choice, living in a woodlot just across the city limits, reveling in retirement by volunteering for many of the music groups of the city. She taught English for 33 years in area high schools, planned school travel through Pauwels, managed the London Youth Symphony, and was the last president of the Volunteer Committee of Orchestra London. She continues to be delighted by the unique bounty of creative arts available to Londoners.

Want to know more about the composers? Read their profiles.

The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace
By Megan Schroder

The Armed Man

Voices screamed, drums cracked and passions ran high and low on the evening of November 21 at London’s Wesley-Knox United Church.

The performance of Welsh composer Karl Jenkins’ acclaimed The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace took the packed house on the jarring emotional journey of combatants at war.

The mass was commissioned by the Royal Amouries Museum in 1999 to mark the transition from one millennium to another and was dedicated to the Kosovo crisis in the Balkans.

Based on a Catholic Mass, The Armed Man incorporates text from the Bible, the Islamic call to prayer and the Mahabharata. Additional historical text includes excerpts from poems by Rudyard Kipling, Toge Sankichi and Thomas Malory.

The Karen Schuessler Singers and its soloists and supporting orchestra were more than up to the challenge of performing this challenging modern classic.

Gabrielle Heidinger Baerg
Soloist Gabrielle Heidinger Baerg
Highlights included solos by guest mezzo soprano Gabrielle Heidinger Baerg and a prayer by Moath Abu Aysha which added greatly to the emotional tone of the piece. The mass explored the themes of war: pride, religion, death, destruction, sadness and finally celebration. The standout piece of the evening was the gorgeous “Benedictus” which began with a beautiful cello solo by London’s Christine Newland. When Newland was joined by the full choir the effect was both mesmerizing and deeply moving.

There was only one trifling drawback. Although there has been an audio/visual component to the production in recent years, the images presented for this performance were at times mundane and even a bit odd. There is an accompanying film available and one wishes the venue had opted for that.

Choir during performance
of The Armed Man

It’s difficult to capture in writing the way the performance by the Karen Schuessler Singers and supporting musicians kept the audience enthralled. So consider this. At the end of the performance, there was a short five second moment of almost stunned silence before the entire audience took to their feet for a five-minute plus standing ovation.

It wasn’t an ovation of tradition but one of instinct. After the grueling emotional journey that was The Armed Man, it was the only appropriate response.

The Armed Man is traditionally performed in November – one hopes that the Karen Schuessler Singers attempt an encore next year. And the year after. Or until there is no more war. Yes, it was that good.

Megan Schroder is an actor, singer, performer from London, Ontario.


Wasn't that a party?
By Iain Paterson

(originally posted on KSS Homepage - March 30, 2015)

Wasn’t that a party? It truly was and in grand Gaelic style!

London’s Karen Schuessler Singers’ Come to the Cèilidh! at Wesley-Knox United Church had plenty of Irish eyes smiling as well as many Scottish, Welsh, Cornwall-ish, Breton-ish and Isle of Man-ish ones.

Cèilidh (pronounced “kay-lee”) is an old Irish word and means “companion”. Cèilidhs are social gatherings with plenty of folksinging, dancing, storytelling and playing on traditional instruments (i.e. fiddle, Celtic harp, bodhrán, and pipes among several others).

Saturday night’s program featured an unabashed heterogeneity of musical styles and sounds celebrating the joy and melancholy of the human condition. In addition to the delightful and precise choral singing (accompanied and a cappella), charming instrumentals and the irrepressible direction and insights provided by the musical conductor, there was Riverdance-style dancing performed by the locally and internationally competitive Corrigan Irish Dancers.

Karen Schuessler

Guest performers, Jennie Bice on fiddle, Rob Larose on percussion, bassist Joe Samorodin,
and Greig Cairns on guitar.

On temporary loan from British Columbia was fiddler, singer and composer Jennie Bice (daughter of choristers Daphne and Kevin Bice) and her husband, bassist Joe Samorodin. London’s own Greig Cairns (guitar), Rob Larose (Celtic drummer) and Grace Yip (piano) rounded out the instrumental group. Their professional talents and musical élan evoked plenty of unsolicited hand-clapping, head-bopping and toe-tapping gestures of unapologetic approval as one musical narrative led to the next one.

A highlight of the evening was the choir’s poignant rendition of the Londonderry Air “Danny Boy”.

Musical Director Karen Schuessler and her singers from beginning to end were totally engaged in their performance and all appeared to be relaxed, even exhilarated and committed to the task of creating beautiful music. Their interpretive musical landscape provided emotionally charged singing on the one hand and light-hearted idiosyncratic whimsy on the other.

Karen Schuessler

The KSS choir sang in front of a SOLD OUT house.

The evening was both heart- and hearth-warming with an underpinning Old-world aesthetic to suit all musical sensibilities. Despite the size of the venue, it all had the friendly and comfortable feeling of a traditional Cape Breton kitchen party. And as that popular Irish tune so suitably concludes “Let us smile each chance we get”.

Come to the Cèilidh! was a fine party and a celebration of our connection to each other. Our human story is a richly diverse one and as we witnessed and heard, it can be greatly enhanced through a varied musical vocabulary and timeless melodies.

Iain Paterson is a freelance Reviewer and the founder of The Broadway Singers.

Sound Bites By Nicole Laidler
(originally posted on - March 1, 2015)

With its wonderful acoustics, intimate atmosphere and great in-house grand piano, it’s no wonder that Aeolian Hall is a popular venue for classical music in London. Hot on the heels of February’s sold-out evening with Tafelmusik come recitals by two of Canada’s leading concert pianists.

Pianist Sara Davis Buechner
Pianist Sara Davis Buechner

Widely regarded as one of the great romantic virtuosos, Montreal’s André Laplante comes to London March 20 for a solo recital of music by Schubert, Beethoven and Liszt. Sarah Buechner

Two days later, Vancouver-based Sara Davis Buechner makes a stop at the Aeolian (between performances in New York City and Puerto Rico) to present an afternoon lecture on piano pedagogy, followed by an evening recital. At the time of writing, Buechner’s program had yet to be announced, but with more than 100 piano concertos at her fingertips she has plenty to pull out of her hat!

Another west coast performer rolls into London for what promises to be a toe-tapping evening with the Karen Schuessler Singers, March 28 at Wesley-Knox United Church. Celtic fiddler Jennie Bice (daughter of London visual artist Kevin Bice) joins the choir for Come to the Ceilidh: A Celtic Celebration, a crowd pleasing round-up of music from Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Cornwall.

“Jenny has the kind of magnetic personality that just pulls you in. It feels like she is playing right to you,” comments choir director Karen Schuessler. Bice will be joined by her husband Joe Samorodin on acoustic bass, Greig Carins on guitar and Rob Larose on percussion.

Schuessler says you don’t have to have Celtic roots to be moved by the music of the British Isles. “There’s something about Celtic music that really touches your soul in a direct way. It can transport you away from the world’s problems,” she says. “I think that’s part of the thrill.”

Fanshawe Chorus London and the Concert Players Orchestra present their annual Good Friday concert April 3 at First-St. Andrew’s United Church. This year the ensemble will perform Maurice Duruflé’s Requiem Op. 9 and J.S. Bach’s Cantata # 4 — Christ lag in todesbanden.

David Holler, Fanshawe Chorus 
London artistic director
David Holler, Fanshawe Chorus
London artistic director

“The Duruflé Requiem is very special to me,” says Fanshawe Chorus London artistic director, David Holler. “It’s one of the first requiems I conducted as a student. It’s understated, but very holy in a way. The music will move you whether you believe in the sacred aspect or not.”

The choir will be joined by two soloists — mezzo soprano Margorie Maltais, who is completing her Master of Music at Western University, and baritone James Baldwin, a member of the Canadian Opera Company chorus.

The Fanshawe Chorus season wraps up May 2 with A Night at the Opera — a concert showcasing the winners of the organization’s second Western University Vocal Competition. The bi-annual contest is a great way to introduce audiences to the next generation of singers, says Holler. “And it’s a great experience for the singers to learn how to perform with a choir.”

Stratford Symphony Orchestra also shines the spotlight on a contest-winner, April 11 at Knox Presbyterian Church. The Out of This World concert includes a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concert featuring the 2014 SSO Emerging Artist Competition winner Adam Despinic.

“Anyone who can get to Stratford is welcome to apply [for the competition], but we only advertise at universities in Ontario,” explains SSO manager, Liesel Deppe.

Despinic, a Hamilton native, is no stranger to competition having previously won the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra Young Artists Competition and the Symphony on the Bay Young Artists Concerto Competition. He is currently completing his Master of Music in Violin Performance at the University of Toronto.

Billed as a ‘blockbuster orchestra concert’ the program also includes selections from The Planets by Gustav Holst and the Star Wars Suite by John Williams.

Soprano soloist, Sonja Gustafson
Soprano soloist, Sonja Gustafson

Music at First-St. Andrew’s wraps up its concert season April 19 with the London premiere of Will Todd’s jazz-styled Mass in Blue. This upbeat setting of the Latin mass has been performed around the word since its debut in 2003, says First-St. Andrew’s music director Paul Merritt. “It seems to have had very few Canadian performances. I know of only two others in Ontario, both in Ottawa.”

After listening to the recording, Merritt decided it was time to take on the challenge. “This is by far the most difficult piece we’ve ever done. It’s a different idiom than what we’re used to, but everyone is enjoying working on it,” he says.

Merritt says it’s the perfect work to highlight the talents of the choir’s soprano soloist, Sonja Gustafson, who grew up in the church and now attends with her two young sons.

John Rutter’s cycle of spirituals, Feel the Spirit, is also on the program.

Londoners have the rare opportunity to hear classical music on a grand scale when the London Youth Symphony and London Community Orchestra join forces to perform Gustav Mahler’s Totenfeier (Symphony No.2, First movement) and Antonin Dvorak’s The Wood Dove, May 3 at Dundas Street Centre United Church.

Len Ingrao conducts both ensembles and says they try to team up every three years. “We’ll have about 70 or 80 musicians on stage for this concert,” he says, including 30 wind and brass players and two harpists.

The sheer scale of both works puts them beyond the realm of possibility for most symphony orchestras these days, largely due to the cost of hiring added musicians and the challenge of finding a suitable stage. “We’ll definitely be using every inch of the performance space,” says Ingrao with a laugh.

Nicole Laidler is a former member of both the London Youth Symphony and London Community Orchestra. Today she can be found at the (computer) keyboard as the owner of Spilled Ink Writing & Wordsmithing.


COME TO THE CEILIDH (originally posted March 3, 2015)

Jennie Bice on fiddle

Jennie Bice on fiddle

Jennie Bice has been playing the fiddle since she was four years old. Trained in both classical and folk styles, Jennie developed a passion for the fiddle because its versatility and its universal popularity have “taken me to incredible places in the world where I have been a part of many musical weavings.”

One of those “weavings” includes the choir’s Celtic Celebration to be held on March 28th, a concert that promises to be a “kitchen party like no other.” After all, most great house parties end up in the kitchen. Guests are spontaneously drawn to the dynamic music, the lively conversation, and the cross-generational family atmosphere, not to mention the libations and the pot of stew simmering on the stove. As Jennie so eloquently explained, “Celtic music celebrates bringing people together. It unites, it soothes, it rages, it educates, it gathers. It is not gray; it is resplendent and real and perhaps that is its most important element – it is genuine.”

The fiddle is an integral part of Celtic culture - its history, its identity and its connection to the rest of the world. “There is always an Irish session going on somewhere in Canada,” Jennie says. “You can take your fiddle and sit in with the players and share music. There is nothing more healthy for your soul than to create harmony together.”

For this concert, Jennie is joined by members of Prydwen, her Celtic folk rock touring group. Founded in 1998, Prydwen has toured Canada and Scotland extensively. At our Ceilidh, Joe Samorodin, Jennie’s husband, will be playing bass, while Greig Cairns will play Celtic guitar. Local musician Rob LaRose teams up with the group on the Bodhrán (Irish drum) and other percussive instruments.

“It is an enormous privilege to be returning for another show (Jennie joined the choir for our “Going to the Rock” concert in 2011) with the Karen Schuessler Singers. This is a truly exceptional choral group and it is such a treat to be a part of a broader sound with some of our favourite tunes!” Jennie said. These tunes are part of the rich and diverse collection of Celtic music the choir will perform at the Ceilidh. They include traditional Irish folk songs such as Dulámán, and Tell My Ma, and Fare Thee Well Love, a popular song recorded by The Rankin Family, a Canadian East Coast music group. In addition, Prydwen will be performing some traditional jigs and reels plus some story songs and kitchen party sing-alongs. Finally, to reflect the diverse heritage of Celtic music, the choir plans to sing songs from Wales (Men of Harlech) and Scotland (By Yon Bonnie Banks) among others.

So come to the Ceilidh! You might see some sparks fly as Jennie, Prydwen and the Karen Schuessler Singers light up the stage. You might find your foot stomping to a raucous Irish craic or your heart touched by a stirring Celtic ballad. Your lungs might get a workout. There might be some surprises. Here’s what is certain - the kitchen door will be wide open and you are bound to have a good time!

Kathy Berg