March 21, 2023Print | PDF
2022-23 marks the 100th anniversary of the Grand Philharmonic Choir, a beloved part of the Kitchener-Waterloo musical community since it was formed in 1922.
For the final concert in this year of celebration, the choir, conducted by Artistic Director and Laurier alumnus Mark Vuorinen (BMus ’98) will be performing a new musical work called WATER: an environmental oratorio by composer and Laurier alumna Stephanie Martin (BMus ’84).
Martin and Vuorinen have worked together before. Under Vuorinen’s leadership, the Grand Philharmonic performed Martin’s cantata Winter Nights in 2012. They collaborated on A Frost Sequence, a set of a cappella choral pieces on the poems of Robert Frost that Vuorinen calls “stunningly beautiful.” The piece was premiered by the Elora Singers in 2021, and part of it was performed by the Grand Philharmonic Chamber Choir in March 2023.
“Mark is a wonderful collaborator,” says Martin. “He’s incredibly resourceful and organized, willing to take on risks and new challenges, and willing to take the time required to let creative ideas blossom.”
They have also supported Laurier in some significant ways. Vuorinen has adjudicated the Concerto Competition at Laurier. Martin composed Babel: a choral symphony to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Laurier Faculty of Music (commissioned by Glenn Buhr and NUMUS). In 2020 Opera Laurier produced her opera Llandovery Castle, the story of Canadian nurses in World War 1. Both have performed with the WLU Alumni Choir – Martin in song and Vuorinen as a co-conductor. They are both donors to the Faculty of Music’s Making Space for Music campaign, and Martin also supports the Leanne Holland Brown Student Emergency Fund.
Coming full circle, Laurier choirs have joined the Grand Philharmonic on a few occasions, such as the performance of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem in 2013. With so much connection between the organizations and these talented alum, the concert is certain to be a special one.
“Water is everywhere, around us and in us, yet we rarely stop to consider how much we rely on this essential element. We assume it will always be there when we need it, but we don’t appreciate how fragile and threatened this resource is,” says Martin, explaining WATER: an environmental oratorio. “It’s helpful to disrupt our stagnant modes of thinking and consider this Anishinaabe teaching: it is a sacred duty to protect Water. Our existence depends on it.”
Martin’s oratorio presents two worlds: a fantastical world where Water is a person, surrounded by water spirits, and an everyday-world scenario played out in a Northern Ontario community where environmental protection confronts economic progress.
WATER started with an offer from two of Martin’s close friends to support the creation of a new work. They gave her creative control, but wanted the piece to celebrate their love of nature.
Martin worked with librettist Paul Ciufo, whom she’s worked with on two previous projects, to help shape the dramatic arc of the piece. They reached out to Vicki Monague, a Lakehead graduate student and a founder of the United Nations Decade of Indigenous Languages working group, and the piece started to take shape after a workshop led by Gil Garratt, theatre director of the Blyth Festival. Vuorinen and members of the Grand Philharmonic Choir took part in the workshop, reading the text and giving feedback on the characters.
“Conducting new music is challenging because there are no models – no reception history of the piece. So Mark’s work is to interpret and mold this new oratorio, to bring the best out of the performers and give them the musical understanding and confidence they need to communicate the story that has potential to move the audience,” says Martin.
Next, Martin set to work composing, and then came hours of practice for Vuorinen and the choir.
“Researching a new piece is like an iceberg,” says Martin. “Only a small portion peeks out when the performance comes to the stage. This piece was several years in the making, with a lot of collaboration.”
“I give my thanks to the team that built this piece,” she says. “Especially Vicki, whose courage as a water protector has given us inspiration we could not have imagined.”
“It’s always both exciting and daunting to bring new life to a new work!” says Vuorinen. “Stephanie has been very good about keeping me in the process right from the beginning. It’s been a very collaborative process.”
Martin hopes the conversation that started in the creation of WATER will continue with the audience.
“A piece of music cannot change the world, but it can bring us together to engage in conversation, challenge us to think and feel in new directions, and open our ears to other ways of knowing,” she says.
“I am excited to start a conversation about water, about individual responsibility, about decision making, about things that keep us apart or keep us from moving forward, about Anishinaabe women who have protected Ontario’s water for millennia,” she continues. “Some complicated relationships are drawn in the story, and each listener will see themselves in one or more of these roles. What will you do when confronted with a difficult decision?”
The 100th anniversary concert will also feature a large romantic work by Anton Bruckner called Te Deum, as well as performances by the Grand Philharmonic’s youth and children’s choir. Get tickets here.
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