Iwan Edwards: A Life in Music

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Founder of the St. Lawrence Choir, the FACE Senior Treble Choir, Concerto Della Donna, the Canadian chamber choir and the Choeur des Enfants de Montreal, Iwan Edwards is one of the premier choral conductors in Canada as well as an international figure by virtue of his years as chorus master of the OSM. La Scena Musicale has asked Edwards to reflect on his long career, starting in his native Wales and involving, surprisingly, expertise on the violin.

by Iwan Edwards

It was my good fortune to grow up in Wales, where music played such an important part in everyday life. There were two primary influences, chapel and school. I received a strong musical foundation in both.

Chapel

Soar Baptist Chapel had about 600 members at the time. There were three services on Sunday, morning, afternoon and night. The chapel would be full and all the hymns would be sung in four-part harmony. During the winter months, there would be an Ysgol Gan (Singing School), where members of the large oratorio-sized choir would rehearse a major choral work such as Mendelssohn’s Elijah, Handel’s Judas Maccabaeus or Handel’s Israel in Egypt in preparation for a concert in late March with professional soloists from London and a local semi-professional orchestra.

In addition there would be a Cultural Society meeting on Monday, where someone would present a paper, a Band of Hope rehearsal for children on Wednesday and a Drama Group on Sundays. On March 1, there would be an Eisteddfod in which the congregation would be divided into four groups which would then compete against each other. Competitions included solos, duets, choruses, recitations and choral speaking. Once a year, three chapels in the village combined forces for a Cymanfa Ganu (Singing Festival) where an eminent Cymanfa conductor would be invited to lead three sessions, one for children and two for adults. Several rehearsals of unfamiliar hymns were held in advance, thus ensuring that we could all sing our respective parts confidently on the big day.

School

Gowerton Boys’ Grammar School had a wonderful music program, including a choir and an orchestra. Instruments were taught by peripatetic teachers who came to the school every one or two weeks to give private lessons. I played the violin and my parents decided that I should take my lessons privately. My father was a steelworker, my mother stayed at home, which meant that they had to make sacrifices in order that I should have private lessons. Such was the quality of the instruction and training by Mr. Watkins, the music teacher, that many of us were selected to perform with the regional County Youth Orchestra and, ultimately, the National Orchestra of Wales. All rehearsals were held at lunchtime or after school and the orchestra would perform in a school assembly every morning. As in chapel, there would be an Eisteddfod involving four competing groups. It was at these Eisteddfod competitions that I had my first experiences as a conductor – without any instruction whatsoever!

The music curriculum for the first three years consisted of basic theory and music listening. In Year 4, we made our first major decisions and chose between Arts and Science courses. Two years later, we had to make further choices, selecting three subjects to study in depth in our final two years. By the time I left grammar school, I had a firm grounding in harmony, 16th-century counterpoint, form, analysis, sight reading and ear training.

At the University of Wales I enrolled in the three-year B. Mus. degree program. I played in the Faculty Orchestra and even the Faculty String Quartet for one semester when my teacher was indisposed. I sang in the student Choral Union and was concertmaster of the student orchestra. I conducted performances of H.M.S. Pinafore for the student Gilbert and Sullivan Society and I conducted a wonderful student male choir in my final year. My only instruction in conducting had been a 15-minute lesson on how to beat 2, 3 and 4 time. After one year of teacher training, I was appointed head of the music department at Holyhead County Secondary School in Anglesey, North Wales. In view of the wonderful upbringing that I had enjoyed, coupled with my great love of children, my mission was to share my passion for music with children (and adults too, if the opportunity arose).

When I arrived at Holyhead, I found that there was a good choir and a strong orchestral program already in existence. The headmaster was very supportive of the music program. The content of the music classes adhered to the same syllabus I had been exposed to at Gowerton. I was happy and comfortable. Unfortunately, however, the headmaster retired at the end of my third year and his replacement did not have a positive attitude at all. Furthermore, I was beginning to “itch” for broader conducting experiences outside the school, but the only way that was possible was to wait for an established conductor to retire or create a new choir, which would have created intense rivalry and animosity in the community.

Eisteddfod and Montreal

The Eisteddfod played a prominent part in Welsh cultural activities. There were numerous local Eisteddfodau and a week-long National Eisteddfod during the first week of August. Competitors would compete as individuals in both music and poetry competitions too numerous to mention but the highlight of the week occurred on Saturday when the choirs would compete – the largest being the Male Voice Choir. I shall refer later to one competition in particular.

The local Eisteddfod and the Annual School Eisteddfod on March 1 gave me my first experience conducting choirs (albeit small ensembles). Early in 1965 I came across an advertisement in our morning paper which announced that the Protestant School Board of Greater Montreal was looking for teachers. After long discussions with my wife, Undeg, and our respective families, I decided to apply. I was summoned to an interview in Manchester and a few weeks later, I was offered a position at Lachine High School. I accepted, and my life was suddenly transformed.

Lachine High School

Prior to arriving, I had been told that the school had a strong choral tradition but when I started searching for singers to form a choir, only a handful of students showed any interest. My desire to share my passion for music became a source of some frustration. Fortunately, however, I was asked to conduct an alumni group called the Lachine High Alumni Singers. Soon the group adopted a Welsh name, becoming the Glanllyn Singers (The Lakeshore Singers).

In Wales we would start working on repertoire from the very outset of the first rehearsal so I was completely taken aback when I was asked to start rehearsals with a ‘warm-up’. I had no idea what a warm-up was. Needless to say, all my rehearsals started with warm-ups thereafter. Other opportunities to conduct adult choirs followed in short order. I was very grateful for these new opportunities. In each case I was approached by the organization and not vice versa.

Meanwhile, at Lachine High, I approached two colleagues, Phillip Baugniet and David Paterson, who had expressed an interest in musical theatre. We staged H.M.S Pinafore, Oklahoma, Oliver and My Fair Lady in the four years that followed. The principal of the school was an avid band enthusiast and persuaded me – despite my lack of knowledge of wind instruments – to start a band program. The choir grew and a band materialized so that by 1972, 100 students from the music program participated in an exchange program with the Pontarddulais Male Voice Choir, an ensemble I had sung with when I was a student in Wales.

St. Lawrence Choir and FACE

Suddenly, my life was full of music. In May 1972 I was approached by a group of choral enthusiasts about creating a choir in the West Island area of Montreal. There were large choirs at their disposal in Montreal but the singers wanted to have a choir locally rather than drive downtown. In September the St. Lawrence Choir was created, an ensemble which I directed for 36 years and which played a pivotal role in my life.

The music program at Lachine High School continued to expand and the Concert Band and Singers took advantage of opportunities to travel abroad, notably to Denmark, Sweden and East Germany. However, disaster struck in 1978 when the teachers across the board opted to reduce the number of periods in the day from seven to six, which meant that option programs such as music, art, drama and home economics no longer had the same access to students.

In 1979, David Paterson (an art teacher who had been involved in the musicals years before) and I moved to FACE School where Phillip Baugniet – stage director of the musicals – was principal. History repeated itself! When I called for singers for a choir, the response was dismal. I suggested to Mr. Baugniet that choir might be part of the curriculum (Grades 1 to 7) and he agreed. At that point, the school was in the process of expanding the program to Grade 11. By 1983, the whole school was involved in the choral program. Students were also involved in the Band, in Art and Drama.

Moving to McGill

In 1981 the Montreal Symphony Orchestra asked me if I would prepare a children’s choir from the school to perform in Liszt’s “Dante” Symphony. This marked the creation of the FACE Senior Treble Choir, which I was destined to conduct for the next 20 years. In 1986 I was appointed chorus master of the OSM, with the St. Lawrence Choir as the core amateur group and the FACE Choir as the children’s choir. I discuss this formidable assignment in another article.

In 1999 I took a year’s leave of absence from the school. I needed a break from the intensity. Then In August I was approached by the McGill Faculty of Music to conduct the McGill University Singers. This led to a full professorship. My great regret in leaving FACE was that I was severing my association with children. You can imagine my delight when I was asked to form a new children’s choir in Montreal, the Choeur des Enfants de Montreal.

Making the Choir Accessible

As I look back, I realize how significant the move to Canada had been. In spite of the initial frustrations, I became more and more aware of the opportunities to share with singers of all ages. I saw myself as a facilitator who was willing to encourage singers to participate. The audition procedures I adopted with children was usually to place them according to voice type and not to exclude any.

Only once in all those years did I encounter a child who had an irreversible vocal problem. Occasionally I would come across students who had difficulty pitching notes, but I would either find the time to work with the student alone or sit him or her alongside another singer who had a strong voice. I never asked a student to sit at the back of a class or an ensemble and “imitate a goldfish.” As far as adults were concerned, I found only two cases of singers who were actually “tone deaf.” I was often amused by jazz musicians at McGill who had to take choir for credit who claimed they could not sing, and who discovered that this was not the case. With adult choirs, restrictions on membership were the result of necessity relating to balanced sections.

Finding Repertoire

Repertoire played a very important part in my preparations. For many years I would travel to Toronto to look for repertoire because there wasn’t a music store in Montreal which was sufficiently well-stocked. If I visited a big city in Canada, the United States or Europe I would seek out a music store. In later years, I started to search the internet as a source. In addition, there were workshops to be visited, and conventions such as Podium, ACDEA and the World Symposium of Choral Music where one would hear outstanding performances of new repertoire. Inevitably, because of my interest in so many ensembles (mixed choirs, treble choirs, children’s choirs) I accumulated a vast amount of sheet music which needed constant updating and cataloguing.

I chose music which met the needs of the singers with whom I was working, repertoire which would challenge them (within their comfort zones), stimulate their emotions and their imaginations. I paid a lot of attention to text. I found that if I dealt with the text first, then the singers would be more receptive and eager to tackle practical problems relating to notes, rhythms, etc. Enunciation and articulation were important so that the listener could understand the words. If questioned about this approach, my response would be: “What came first? The words or the music?” I would often ask questions: e.g. “Why do you think the composer wrote a ‘f’ here?” And the answer would lie in the text. One question would always elicit a response from everyone: “Why did the composer start this piece ‘pp.’ Answer: to create an illusion of distance. Invariably, if I felt that the music did not reflect the spirit of the text, I would cast it aside.

One of the competitions at the Eisteddfod in Wales was Choral Speaking, in which groups of four, eight or 16 male or female voices would take an assigned extract (from the Bible, poetry or prose) and recite it with exactly the same nuances, inflections, pauses etc., always sounding like one voice. It was wonderful training in text interpretation and presentation.

The Art of the Program

Creating programs was a great joy and a big challenge. Contrasts in tempo and mood were important – for the singers as much as for the listener. However, one vital aspect of my programming has been a key system which my teacher had taught me at Gowerton Boys’ Grammar School. Amid all the solid advice he gave about programming, he always came back to this: “Yes, you need solid contrast in tempi, tonality and styles. However, don’t forget your key signatures!” As far as a key system was concerned, I would open the program on the “sharp” side and then move to the “flat” side. Why? It’s much more tiring for the singer to go in the opposite direction. His analogy: “It’s easier to coast downhill than it is to slog uphill.” Here is a simple example:

Opening set:

Item 1: lively tempo, A major (3 sharps)

Item 2: slow tempo, D major (2 sharps) or D minor (1 flat)

Item 3: quicker tempo, G major (1 sharp) or G minor (2 flats)

Item 4: slower tempo, C major or Bb major (2 flats)

Item 5: quick tempo E flat major (3 flats)

In this example, when one arrives at the end of Set 1, we are already well into the “flat” side. The next obvious choice is to go to C minor or Ab major. But what if one needs to go back to the “sharp” side? Answer, go to a key which is an augmented fourth above, which would be A major/minor and start again. This is just one of the tricks one learns over time. It adds to the complexity of program selection but I have used this system and found that however challenging and time-consuming creating the program might be, the singers do not tire, lose their freshness and energy or lose intonation.

Working With Young People

When I arrived in Lachine in 1965, it soon became apparent that this was a society very different from the one I had enjoyed in Wales. If I wanted to reach out and attract students to the choral program, then I had to take a very different approach. Fortunately, by the end of my second year there were enough singers available to start rehearsals on H.M.S. Pinafore and once rehearsals began, others started to trickle in as well. By the time we reached the first performance of My Fair Lady, even the school football team participated in the dance sequence in the Ascot Ballroom Scene. In 2001, to attract children to the newly-formed Choeur des Enfants de Montréal, David Paterson agreed to help me stage simple musicals for children as part of the program for three years. The same ruse worked again.

Repertoire was the key to the development of any ensemble with whom I was privileged to work. When Mr. Baugniet introduced the all-school choral program in 1979, I found myself alone with classes numbering over 100 – French and English streams combined. I had to find repertoire for Grades 4, 5, 6 and 7 that children could relate to in French and English and which would allow me to share the passion for music which remained uppermost in my mind. Inevitably in classes of this size, there would be some who did not want to be there. I would stand in the doorway, assess their states of mind as they entered the room (which classes might have had a substitute teacher in the previous class, which class was coming from the gym, etc.). I would use the warm-up as a means of calming them down and my rehearsal preparations were sufficiently flexible that I could change my plans if I felt that the repertoire would not meet our needs. I wanted the choir room to be a welcoming place, where students could leave their problems at the door and have fun. I would not raise my voice and if a child started to become a problem, then I would seat him or her in the front.

I loved my work at FACE, but in June 1999 I was beginning to suffer from burnout. When I took my leave of absence and accepted a part-time position at the McGill Faculty of Music, I feared that I would lose contact with children altogether. When I was approached about the creation of a new community children’s choir, I jumped at it.

Matching Music To The Choir

Repertoire played a critical role in my work with adults. The St. Lawrence Choir was very much in its infancy in the early 70s. It became obvious that the potential was there to build an oratorio-style choir and I tried to engineer that growth systematically. I chose major choral works according to the size and the ability of the choir and its financial position. Smaller works were drawn from a very wide range of repertoire. Whatever the repertoire, I tried to maintain an atmosphere of mutual respect, good humour and hard work. When I conducted the Ottawa Choral Society, I was faced with a well-established ensemble and would choose repertoire which I felt would build on the traditions already established.

Each choir or ensemble I encountered over the years was special in its own way. The FACE Treble Choir was a little different in that it kept challenging me. I remember the first time I gave them Miniwanka by R. Murray Schafer. I worked through it, explaining the text, the imagery, the symbols, the diagrams and the way they needed to use their imaginations to make it work. Their immediate response was, “This is cool!” Miniwanka was included in a program we performed in Wales in 1985. It brought the house down following each performance and for years afterwards, when I visited family in Wales I would be asked, “Does your choir still sing that ‘water’ music?”

Concerto Della Donna

When I left the FACE Choir in May 1999, some of the older singers asked me to conduct a female group, which became known as Concerto Della Donna. Their spirit and determination allied with great musicality and sensitivity resulted in an outstanding ensemble that drew on my work with, and my faith, in children.

I cannot personally attest to the fact that I succeeded in sharing my passion for music with the singers (and instrumentalists) with whom I worked. All I know is that I had so much satisfaction trying. I also know that I am grateful for the opportunities which Canada afforded me and my two sons Aled and Owain, who have become successful research scientists. I recognize that I had so much support from administrators, fellow music teachers who worked tirelessly with me; from the multitude of parents who supported the programs; and from the hosts of singers, young and old, who made the whole process so much fun. Last, but not least, my wife Undeg, who has been a tower of strength from the very beginning. I could not have done it alone.

Preparing a choir for charles Dutoit

When I began as chorus master of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra in 1986, I had some experience with the orchestra in that I had prepared the Montreal Elgar Choir for an MSO performance of Messiah in 1971 under Franz-Paul Decker, the FACE Senior Treble Choir for Liszt’s Dante Symphony in 1981 and the St. Lawrence Choir for Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 (together with two other choirs, of which Jean-François Sénart was the chorus master) under the direction of Charles Dutoit in 1984. (In those days, “MSO” was a very common usage, although “Orchestre symphonique de Montréal” and OSM were official.)

One of the first works I prepared for Maestro Dutoit was Messiah. I had heard his performance of the work some two or three years before and was struck by the fact that he approached the work in the traditional European manner, with slower tempi. I was unsure as to how to prepare the chorus for him and, even after we had met briefly to discuss the matter, I was no wiser.

I had prepared a boys’ choir from FACE for an MSO performance of the work conducted by Christopher Hogwood the previous year, so I kept the same articulations, but I varied my tempi in rehearsal so that the conductor had a supple instrument with which to work. Maestro Dutoit did not take a choir rehearsal beforehand so I had a couple of sleepless nights before the combined chorus and orchestra rehearsal. Fortunately, everything worked out well.

The only time Maestro Dutoit took a chorus rehearsal was prior to a performance of Harmonium by John Adams. Furthermore, we never discussed repertoire beforehand. I came to realize very quickly that if there was to be any success at all, it all hinged on the preparation.

The MSO Chorus had two component parts: A professional choir of 50 voices (as stipulated by the Union des Artistes) and an amateur choir, which in my case was the St. Lawrence Choir. Preparation took five stages:

1 – The St. Lawrence Choir would prepare the work on its own.

2 – The professional choir would be added.

3 – The combined choirs would join the orchestra for the first time under the baton of Maestro Dutoit.

4 – Two or three rehearsals with soloists, chorus and orchestra (including the dress rehearsal).

5 – The performances.

Both choirs would undergo auditions on a regular basis. Moreover, I insisted that the professionals should prepare the repertoire in time for the first combined rehearsal. I wanted to ensure that both choirs began the final rehearsals as a single unit and as equals. My role was to ensure that all musical details – notes, dynamics, intonation, sound quality, diction, etc. – were accurate and expressive. I would spend time on text where appropriate and vary the tempi constantly. The same pattern of preparations would be followed for guest conductors except that they would almost invariably request a choir rehearsal so that they could acquaint themselves with the ensemble.

It was a privilege to work with the guest conductors. Each had his or her own style and   almost all shared a vision of the work to be performed. On the rare occasion when a conductor wasn’t as inspiring, the chorus and I would try to compensate in whatever way we could.

I am deeply indebted to Maestro Dutoit for the trust and confidence he showed the MSO Chorus, the FACE Senior Treble Choir and myself at all times. Our collaborations led to performances at Carnegie Hall and Avery Fisher Hall in New York City: the Saratoga Performing Arts Centre in Saratoga Springs, NY; and the Mann Music Centre in Philadelphia with the Philadelphia Orchestra. He was demanding but fair. If there was a problem with a chorus part in rehearsal and there wasn’t time to rehearse it at length, he would turn to me and say: “fix it.”

One extreme example comes to mind. We had performed The Planets at Place des Arts the previous spring and I had worked hard to produce “an illusion of distance” in the pianissimo section at the conclusion of the work. We took the work down to Saratoga Springs where we were to perform it in the open-air Amphitheatre. Maestro Dutoit could not achieve the desired effect in the final section so he asked me to “fix it.” I was at a loss. I went to my room and thought about it. I knew that there would not be a possibility of rehearsing the section again. Eventually, I went down early to the Amphitheatre and spoke to the sound technician. After strong protests on his part, he agreed to move the microphones six inches away from the chorus and to control the sound from his booth.

At the appropriate point Maestro Dutoit cued the choir on the offstage monitor and I saw a look of horror on his face. When I went to take a bow with him at the end of the performance, he turned to me and said, “Where was the choir?” I replied: “They sang.” At his bidding, we went to his dressing room and before I could explain, three orchestra members came in to congratulate him and each asked, “Where was the choir?” “They sang,” he replied – and they left perplexed! Finally, officials from the Saratoga Festival and the Philadelphia Orchestra arrived and they began to comment on the choir’s outstanding performance. Maestro smiled. I left, and nothing more was said. Later I came to the realization that the sound of the choir had been relayed to the audience through the speakers, but not to the conductor and orchestra on stage!

Maestro Dutoit left the orchestra under unfortunate circumstances in March 2002. My own inclination was to withdraw but I decided to remain until a new conductor was appointed out of loyalty to the MSO Chorus. Kent Nagano was appointed in 2006 and then I stayed for another two years until my replacement was finally found. It was particularly difficult to part with the St. Lawrence Choir after 36 years but I felt that under the circumstances, it was better that way. Nevertheless, fond memories of both Maestro Dutoit and the MSO Chorus remain as vivid as ever.

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