Thirty voices singing together in a cappella style. Enjoyable. Singing a collection of traditional Christmas carols, some well known, some less so but all with unique arrangements. Awesome. And the "world premiere" of the concert's title piece, "O Magnum Mysterium," composed by the group's founder and director Pierre Massie. Priceless.
But last Saturday's Christmas concert "O Magnum Mysterium" had all this and more as the Stairwell Carollers lived up to their name and then some - they are truly "Carollers" extraordinaire. Indeed, it is no wonder that this Ottawa-based choir was the top winner in provincial choral competitions in both 2010 and 2013. This was the choir's first of its Christmas season concerts which is why the group's presentation of Pierre Massie's new composition "O Magnum Mysterium" was a "world premiere," right here in Stittsville, because this was the first time it was sung by the group in concert.
The concert, held at St. Thomas Anglican Church in Stittsville last Friday evening, saw the Stairwell Singers move through a total of 28 seasonal tunes in various languages - for example, English, German, French - from a variety of places - such as Germany, Wales, Puerto Rico, England and France.
With red scarves flung around their shoulders, giving a festive appearance to the group, the Stairwell Carollers performed the songs largely in sets of four, with each set having a different focus. For instance, the set including "Once in Royal David's City," "Venez divin Messie" (a traditional French carol), "I Saw A Maiden" (15th century words in a Victorian setting) and "I Saw Three Ships" all featured a focus on the birth of Jesus.
Indeed, it was this set which provided some humour as director Pierre
Massie, despite his 37 years leading the choir, began leading the wrong song, something that he quickly caught and corrected. Both songs, "I Saw a Maiden" and "I Saw Three Ships" began with the same words "I Saw" which he offered as part of his explanation for the mis-direction, along with it being a unique happening in his 37 years leading the choir. This all happened with humour and smiles on choir faces, just adding to the warmth and enjoyment of the evening.
The concert featured a great variety of songs but always with one constant - the harmony and melodic voices of the choir, delivering the songs with a lyrical beauty that only the human voice can generate.
The first set of songs included an old German carol "In dulci jubilo," a 20th century piece "Here is the Little Door," a traditional French carol "Nouvelle agreeable" and "Alleluya, A New Work is Come."
Another set in the first half included the traditional German song "Still, Still, Still," "In the Bleak Mid Winter," the Wassail Song and Pierre Massie's new composition "O Magnum Mysterium."
The first half also featured an opening "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" and a closing with a Christmas classic, "Good King Wenceslaus."
The second half following an intermission followed the same pattern, opening with the men of the choir singing a traditional Welsh song "Suo Gan."
One set in this second half included "A Virgin Most Pure," a traditional Irish song; "Dormi, Jesu," a Latin lullaby; "What Child Is This?", a traditional Victorian carol; and "En El Portal de Belen," a traditional Puerto Rico carol arranged by Canadian composter Ed Henderson. One particularly arresting set included the slow "Village Wedding," "Iesous Ahatonnia" aka The Huron Carol arranged by Pierre Massie, "Away in a Manger," that always favourite Christmas carol which the Stairwell Carollers did in a soft and gentle way, and "Angelus ad Virginem," a song telling the story of the Annunication.
The other second half set included "It Came Upon A Midnight Clear," a traditional English song; "A Maiden Most Gentle," a relatively recent carol; "Notre divin Maitre," a traditional French Canadian carol with a new arrangement by Pierre Massie; and "The Holly and the Ivy," a traditional song but delivered with some small unique twists.
The concert formally ended with the choir singing "The First Nowell," a traditional favourite.
But following a standing ovation, the choir launched into "Silver Bells" and then a concluding "We Wish You're a Merry Christmas."
This was the first time that the Stairwell Carollers had performed in Stittsville since 2006.
The Stairwell Carollers were formed in 1977 by their director Pierre Massie, initially singing in four-part harmony in stairwells. The group was 8 to 10 singers in its initial years. Several of the singers, though, have now been with the Stairwell Carollers for 35 or more years with a number singing with the choir for 25 years now. There are, though, some first timers among the current group as well.
The Stairwell Singers embraces a repertoire encompassing sacred and secular songs from the Renaissance period as well as unique interpretations of traditional Christmas carols in different languages.
As a non-profit organization, it raises funds for local charities through its concerts as well as cookbook and CD sales. Since 1997, the Stairwell Carollers have raised over $69,100 for local charities and scholarships.
In addition, the choir raised $53,719 for Ronald McDonald House in 1986, bringing its total charitable donations over the years to over $122,000.
A most recent donation made by the Stairwell Carollers happened this past May when the Carollers donated $2,000 to The Ottawa Mission. The Ottawa Mission provides a place to sleep, nutritious meals, clothing, clean shower facilities and free toiletries as well as addiction treatment programs, medical and dental care, education support, job training and housing support for those in need.
Among the organizations assisted by donations from the Stairwell Carollers have been the Ottawa Mission, Youville Centre, Harmony House, Shepherds of Good Hope, Bruce House, Multiple Sclerosis Society, Ronald McDonald House, Ottawa
Civic Hospital (Breast Cancer Unit) and Alzheimer Society of Ottawa Renfrew.
Besides helping charities, the Stairwell Carollers choir has, since 1997, provided scholarships to students.
Current members of the Stairwell Carollers are as follows: Sopranos - Diana Brushey, Elise Gagne, Nicole Farris-Manning, Denyse Mageau, Patty Morrison, Margaret-Anne Park, Rebecca Taylor-Sussex and Andrea Walton; Altos - Diane Fraser, Kelly Hislop, Manon Kapeller, Helen Lucker, Holly Massie, Martha Patterson, Susan Pullan and Josee Roy; Tenors - Khalil Daibes, Morgan Hassell, Andrew Jones, She-Yang Lau-Chapdelaine, Pierre Massie,
Graham McElligott and David Rain; Basses - David Ayer, John Hancock, Ben Maclean-Max, David Smithson, Rene Voyer, Brett Weddle and Rex Woollard.
The Stairwell Carollers currently have four Christmas CD's out: Qui creavit celum in 1997, I saw a swete semly sight in 2000, Mourning Dove in 2003 and Laudemus cum armonia in 2009. The choir will be releasing a fifth Christmas CD next October.
Current members of the steering committee for the Stairwell Carollers are Diane Fraser as president; Diana Brushey as vice-president; Andrea Walton as secretary; Susan Pullan as treasurer; and Pierre Massie as director.