Ottawa Choral Society | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Ottawa Choral Society

Ottawa Choral Society (Union). Name of several Ottawa choirs (Ottawa Choral Society 1865-?, Ottawa Choral Union 1874-?, Ottawa Choral Society 1875-?, Ottawa Choral Society 1897-1914, Ottawa Choral Union 1940-57, Ottawa Choral Society 1957-present).

Ottawa Choral Society

Ottawa Choral Society (Union). Name of several Ottawa choirs (Ottawa Choral Society 1865-?, Ottawa Choral Union 1874-?, Ottawa Choral Society 1875-?, Ottawa Choral Society 1897-1914, Ottawa Choral Union 1940-57, Ottawa Choral Society 1957-present).

The first Ottawa Choral Society was formed in 1865 by Herbert G.R. Fripp, organist of Christ Church and St Alban's Church, and co-director of the Ottawa Musical Union. A program from 1866 shows that the group performed operatic excerpts. The first Ottawa Choral Union was formed in 1874; Frederick W. Mills was its conductor. The second Ottawa Choral Society may have been a continuation or revival of the first. Edward Fisher was its conductor from 1875 until 1879, when he moved to Toronto.

A third Ottawa Choral Society was distinct from its predecessor(s) and had a definable span: 1897-1914. It grew out of the 75-voice Schubert Choir, formed in 1894 by Frank M.S. Jenkins (see Annie Jenkins) and led 1895-7 by J. Edgar Birch. In order to study and perform large choral works, Birch replaced the Schubert Choir with the new Ottawa Choral Society, a group twice its size, in 1897. He conducted its first concert 11 Jan 1898. The society's repertoire included standard oratorios as well as Stanford's The Revenge and Mendelssohn's Walpurgisnacht and Hymn of Praise. Birch prepared the society for the 1903 Cycle of Musical Festivals and remained the conductor until it disbanded in 1914.

The second Ottawa Choral Union, 1940-57, had no discernible link with its predecessors, but did continue after 1957 as the fourth Ottawa Choral Society. Composed of skilled amateur singers, the choir was organized in the fall of 1940 to perform for war charities. It presented its first concert on 28 Jan, 1941, under the direction of its founder, W. Allister Crandall. It gave its first oratorio performance - Handel's Messiah - with orchestral accompaniment in April 1943. The success of this led to an annual program of three oratorios. Frederick Karam assumed directorship of the union in 1955 and served in that position for 10 years.


After the name was changed in 1957, the choir gave its first broadcast - Handel's Samson - over CBC radio in 1959. Karam was succeeded by Robert van Dine in 1965. Brian Law was appointed conductor in the fall of 1967, and to mark the centennial of Canada's confederation, led the society in a program of Canadian works, including Ridout'sThe Dance, several of Fleming's partsongs, and Kenneth Campbell'sMass Three Four. The Campbell work was commissioned for the occasion. Beginning in the mid-1970s the society provided the core choir for Ottawa's Canada Day celebrations; this activity led to the issuing of the 1991 recording This is My Home/Chez Nous Partout with the Ottawa Regional Youth Choir, the Central Choir of the Ottawa Board of Education, and the Central Band of the Canadian Forces.


The society began performing at the National Arts Centre (NAC) in 1970. Its success in this new environment led to an expansion of its season including many large choral-orchestral works (Elijah, the Verdi Requiem, The Dream of Gerontius, etc). In May 1977 the society, under Brian Law, joined forces with the Cantata Singers of Ottawa, the Choristers of St Matthew's Anglican Church, a chamber orchestra from the National Arts Centre Orchestra (NACO), and the Ottawa Symphony Orchestra, for a performance of Britten's War Requiem. This was a bold but not untypical venture for a choir developed in numbers (140 singers), competence, and strength.

In the 1980s the Ottawa Choral Society continued to program a mixture of large choral works and lesser known, often contemporary pieces, including Beethoven's Missa Solemnis; John Taverner's The Whale; Vaughan Williams' Five Tudor Portraits; Orff's Carmina Burana; Mercure's Cantate pour une joie; the coronation scene from Boris Godunov; and commissioned works such as Paul Halley's Love Songs for Spring Time (1981). The 1983 season included a concert of Canadian music for choir and brass. In 1982 the 150-voiced choir travelled to Italy to sing Messiah at the International Festival of Music and Architecture in l'Aquila, and in 1989 was invited to Spain to sing Mendelssohn's Lobgesang with the Barcelona City Orchestra (now Barcelona Symphony) under the direction of Franz-Paul Decker.

1990 to the Present

The activities during the choir's 50th anniversary season (1990-1) looked to the past and the future, celebrating the choir's tradition as well as fostering the development of young choral singers. The season included the Ottawa premiere of Berlioz' Requiem with four guest choirs; the premiere of a commissioned work by Derek Holman, La Romance du Vin (1991); and a concert with the Paul Winter Consort from New York featuring that group's Missa Gaia and commissioned works by Consort member and former Ottawa Choral Society accompanist, Paul Halley. These major concerts included guest choirs of young singers: the Ottawa Regional Youth Choir and the Central Chamber Choir of the Ottawa Board of Education in Berlioz' Requiem; and a specially formed 150-voice choir trained by Barbara Clark in the Missa Gaia.

The society's long-time director, Brian Law, resigned in 1991 to continue conducting in New Zealand. Law was succeeded in 1992 by McGill University professor and chorus master for the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, Iwan Edwards. The appointment of Edwards marked the beginning of a fresh era for the choir. Aspiring to a smaller, more refined and agile sound, Edwards expanded the choir's already demanding repertoire to include a greater number and variety of works with chamber ensemble accompaniment. Under Edwards the society embarked on a third European tour to the Czech Republic and Germany in 1996, and the same year established the 'Debut Performance' series for winners of the Ottawa Choral Society's annual auditions for young concert artists. Edwards resigned from the position briefly in 1997, and was replaced by New York conductor Daniel Gordon in 1998.

Returning to Europe in 2000, the choir travelled throughout Wales and Northern Ireland, where it partook in a memorable BBC TV performance of Michael Tippet's A Child of Our Time with the Belfast Philharmonic and Ulster Symphony Orchestra. In 2001 Iwan Edwards returned as artistic director and led the choir through four additional seasons. Particularly noteworthy was the society's 2004-5 season that included a performance of Arvo Pärt's Berliner Messe, Michael Capon's In Flanders Field, Eleanor Daly's In Remembrance, and Ruth Watson Henderson's From Darkness to Light for the Canadian War Museum's Remembrance observances; as well as a performance of Handel's oratorio Saul with the NACO and Thirteen Strings; and the Eastern Canadian premiere of Christos Hatzis' large-scale work, Sepulcher of Life. Hatzis' work involved a joint chorus of 180 voices, and was commissioned by the Ottawa Choral Society in collaboration with the St Lawrence Choir of Montreal, Vancouver Bach Choir, and the Richard Eaton Singers of Edmonton. Iwan Edwards retired a second time in 2005 and was replaced by Matthew Larkin.

The Ottawa Choral Society offers an annual season of three concerts, and continues to perform regularly with the Ottawa Symphony Orchestra, Thirteen Strings, and the National Arts Centre Orchestra.