Last Sunday (November 30, 2014), I attended conductor Iwan Edwards’s Farewell at Concerto Della Donna’s final concert at a standing room sold out St. Georges Church. It was good to see Iwan on the podium again, having sung for him with the St. Lawrence Choir and the MSO Chorus many times in the 1990s.
Midway through the first half, I suddenly remembered the first time I sang with him, 25 years earlier in 1989. It was days following the December 6 massacre at the Ecole Polytechnique in Montreal. I was a Master’s student in Mathematics at Concordia after completing a Bachelors of Engineering at McGill, with a growing passion for choral singing. After years as a member of Mary-Jane Puiu’s non-audition McGill Choral Society, I had also joined her Cantare, the youth choir of the St. Lawrence Choir.
One of the 14 female victims of the massacre was Geneviève Bergeron, a member of Cantare and graduate of FACE school, a girl who had a joie de vie and looking forward to becoming an Engineer. She had always wanted to sing Mozart’s Requiem, and her friends convinced Iwan Edwards, who was one of her teachers at FACE School, to conduct a concert in memory of her and the other victims. Students, graduates and teachers at FACE School were quickly assembled to form the choir, orchestra and soloists. Mary-Jane invited members of Cantare to join, and since several of us had sung Mozart’s Requiem with the McGill Choral Society the previous year, we readily accepted. For myself, as an Engineering graduate, I was eager to participate as my sign of defiance of Marc Lépine.
After two rehearsals, the chorus of 100 marched through the halls of FACE School passing through the wings of the auditorium before taking our seats in the choral risers for the memorial concert just about one week after the massacre. In attendance were Bergeron’s family, the mayor of Montreal, and other dignitaries.
Mozart’s Ave verum corpus opened the concert. It’s a short a cappella work that is simple yet sublime. Iwan evoked some magic that night as I and every singer around me felt goosebumps immediately, yet I was able to keep my composure to the end. It was the most moving musical performance I have experienced, matched rarely as a performer or an audience member. The Requiem was equally memorable, a moving way to remember the victims.
As I continue to listen to Concerto della Donna, I wonder now if the first December 6 memorial concert has played a part in Iwan’s founding of Concerto della Donna some ten years ago, although he hasn’t made mention of it anywhere. Part of me wished that Iwan could eke out just one more Farewell concert to reprise that first concert with the same Mozart works and with the same performers. I’m sure most of us would gladly clear our schedules.
Alas, it is not to be, as nobody seems to have remembered, or had the foresight to. In 1994, for the Fifth anniversary, Iwan was passed over for the memorial concert featuring Mozart’s Requiem performed by his St. Lawrence Choir at the Notre-Dame Basilica; Agnes Grossman was chosen political correctly to conduct. For the Tenth anniversary, Mozart’s Requiem rang out at St. Joseph’s with another choir and another conductor.
But those memories of the first concert come flooding to me at Iwan’s Farewell. This experience helped shape me as a musician and a human being. Thank you Iwan, and thank you Mary-Jane.