An Interview with the newly appointed Artistic Director of the British Columbia Boys Choir
By Jen Holstein
Edette Gagne, newly-minted Artistic Director of the British Columbia Boys Choir , is equal parts nurturing den-mother, exacting pedagogue, and free-thinking artist. And her particular talent is knowing just when and how to employ each of these parts to enrich, engage and uplift the boys and young men under her musical charge – over 60 of whom sing in the Choir each year.
What becomes most evident when speaking with Edette about her role, is not just her commitment to excellence, but her deep and abiding love for the boys – a feeling that is evidently reciprocated. “I love the boys so much,” she admits at the start of our conversation, “It’s just a giant love in and we make such amazing music together!”
The transition to Artistic Director was an easy one for both Edette and the boys in the Choir; she had already established trust and a good-natured authority during her previous nine years with the Choir as Associate Director where some of her primary responsibilities were working with the training-level groups and preparing them to ultimately move up to the performing and Touring Choir. “Last June, I was offered the Artistic Director position. I said yes immediately; it never even occurred to me to try and play hard to get”, she laughs.
Her first – and somewhat daunting – task was to take the Choir on their 2016 European tour. The 17 day summer tour saw the boys perform in 12 different cities throughout Croatia, Italy and Scotland. Even for professional musicians, that kind of intense touring schedule can be challenging. But Edette proudly notes that her boys took it all in stride, and had the time of their lives. “We wanted to make sure the boys have a great, positive, life-altering experience, and to ensure we deliver a high-quality product to the audience. And that means good pacing; not wearing anyone out. You can’t travel 4 hours and then deliver a show without banking in time for food and rest. Sometimes we had to nap on the bus.”
The ages of the boys ranged from 10 to 20. “They have to be at least 10 years old to tour”, explains Edette. Keeping track of everyone and making sure they were performance-ready at each stop along the way was a full-time job for the artistic staff and chaperones, and some of the older boys (of legal age) pitched in to help. “The boys become family to each other”, she says.
When asked what she thought was the highlight for the Choir on tour, Edette doesn’t hesitate. “Of course, the opportunity to see all these different places and performing in the wonderful acoustics of the beautiful churches, but the highlight was definitely St. Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh.” Edette describes the unusual nature of the gothic cathedral’s performance space, with the boys performing in the choir stalls that lined the sides of the vaulted service hall. The altar takes up the centre of the space, so the audience was not in eye shot of the Choir. Adding to this challenge, the cathedral is also a popular tourist attraction, and there was a constant stream of people walking past during the lunch-hour performance. Despite this, says Edette “this was the last full show for the tour, and there was just something magical, and this intense connection with the music and the moment, in spite of all the oddities of the space. It gave me goosebumps. The boys know when what they do is exceptional and extraordinary. And they knew this time too.” And of course, the tourists were also treated to an unexpected show. In fact, the Choir later received an email from a German woman who has been visiting the church; she said it made her trip, and complemented the boys on their performance of Mendelssohn’s Verleih uns Frieden and their exceptional German pronunciation.
Adding to Edette’s professional pressure on the European tour, each performance was recorded to provide content for a soon-to-be-released CD: the Choir’s first-ever tour CD. Edette, along with Associate Director and collaborative pianist Patricia Plumley, scouted out each performance venue prior to the concert in order to judge acoustic qualities of the space and adjust the program accordingly. Despite their meticulous pre-planning, there were still some surprises when they were listening to recordings to choose songs for the CD. In one case, you could clearly hear the murmurings of the audience, and the squeak of a tennis shoe as someone walked past. Edette says that listening to the recordings from the tour has been an absolute joy. Sharing the process with the Touring Choir, she said “It was even more fun that looking back at pictures from the trip.” Which makes sense given music’s undeniable ability to evoke memories of a specific time and place, and to cement them in the heart and soul of the listener.
The CD, funded in part by sponsorship and donations, will be released in early December and should coincide with the Choir’s Holiday concert on December 3 rd at Centennial Theatre in North Vancouver.
Edette gets very excited talking about the unique program on offer for the Holiday Concert. It’s not just the music, which will feature a “balanced diet” of music from Antonio Vivaldi to Benjamin Britten, as well as more contemporary songs in order to capture the interest and imagination of every single member of the audience. This year, the audience will get to see not only the full Touring Choir, but also get to experience the fun and active antics of the SongSport group.
SongSport is the Choir’s newly modified training program that incorporates movement – dance, clapping, ball-throwing – to help teach the boys musicianship and vocal production. With singers as young as 7 years old, it can be challenging to get them to stand still to sing, and this allows them to be their rambunctious selves while learning the discipline required to move up to the touring choir. The benefits of this program have been incredible. Notes Edette: “When they graduate to Choir now, they bring a whole new level of rhythmic integrity to the performances.” And of course, audiences will be delighted. “The SongSport group will sing and they will dance and they will steal the show,” laughs Edette, “they are having so much fun and that’s infectious too – for the audience as well as the other boys.”
Concert ticket sales, as well as sales of the European Tour CD, will go towards funding the many excellent programs afforded to the boys in the British Columbia Boys Choir. And the work they are doing both in the artistic world and their own home communities is nothing short of astonishing.
Their Singing Schools initiative brings the boys into local elementary schools where they provide a short performance and a Q&A session (with the boys themselves answering the majority of audience questions). Then the SongSport group engages the audience themselves in performing. According to Edette, the audience participation completely changes the dynamic of the room and the school kids go from being passive consumers to active performers. Edette will then return to the school to provide a workshop with their choir to enhance their learning.
The most heartwarming program, though, is one that was introduced just this year. Prompted by research that connects music and singing to a reduction in dementia in seniors as well as increased memory and quality of life, the Boys Choir initiated a new outreach program to connect their boys with local seniors in their community called A Song to Remember . The boys are invited to go to a senior’s residence or care centre, where they are paired with residents to share a meal and chat. Following the meal, the boys provide a short performance, incorporating songs that will resonate in the memories of the seniors, and then they sing WITH their new friends. When the sing-a-long is over, the boys return to have a last talk with the residents before leaving. Undoubtedly, this provides entertainment and companionship for members of our society who are often isolated. But, enthuses Edette, the boys are just as transformed by the experience themselves. “The first time we did this, we all got back on the bus after saying goodbye to the seniors and we asked the boys to describe their current emotion in one word. Joy, said one. Pride, said another. Happy. Loving. I was in tears hearing this! They also talked all the way home about all the cool people they had met – the value these seniors had, and the connections and friendships they had made. It was a beautiful moment and I am so very, very proud of our boys!”
With these new programs that are engaging their community, recruiting and training new boys to be future members, and providing a top-quality artistic product for British Columbia Boys Choir audiences across Canada and Europe, anyone could be easily overwhelmed by the sheer responsibility. But for Edette, these boys are her family, or as she describes them her “wolf pack”, and she feels a great love and responsibility for their happiness, their musical education and their future. Just like any den mother would.
How to support the work that the British Columbia Boys Choir bring to our Communities:
Until November 30 all donations received will be matched dollar for dollar up to $2500.
Purchase the CD recording of our acclaimed 2016 European tour at www.bcboyschoir.org/albums/
Hope to see you at our British Columbia Boys Choir Holiday Concert
Saturday December 3 | 3:00pm | Centennial Theatre, North Vancouver
Tickets: Adults $28, Seniors $25, Students $21
Purchase tickets from BC Boys Choir, Call: 1.888.909.8282