This unique Ottawa choir sings the praises of the East Coast
It’s Sunday afternoon and the audience of 300 or so are settled into the pews of Centretown United Church in Ottawa. There’s rustling and murmuring through the crowd as the choir they’ve come to hear file to the front, close to 80 of them in their white shirts, and black pants and skirts. As they take their places, facing the audience, familiar patterns come into view: tartans displayed on neckties and scarves, specific to the province each member chose to represent: Nova Scotia and Cape Breton, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland and Labrador. Taking her place with them is Margaree, a Newfoundland dog. The choir begins the first notes and for the next while, the singers fill the room with the sometimes haunting, sometimes joyful sounds that evoke the spirit of the East Coast. They are, after all, Atlantic Voices: The Newfoundland and Labrador Choir of Ottawa.
Founded in 2002 by soprano Kristina Curren, who was looking for a musical way to connect to her Newfoundland and Labrador roots, Atlantic Voices has enjoyed 17 years of success in the nation’s capital.
“There were people from the Maritimes and Newfoundland and Labrador who are just away from home, and they wanted to get back to that. And one way to do it was to start singing that type of music,” explains Atlantic Voices president Winston Babin, who’s been with the choir since 2007. He and his wife are both from New Brunswick and moved to Ottawa in 1988.
“I’m not a trained singer, and a lot of our members are the same. We are not trained singers, but everyone loves to sing,” Winston says. “I always enjoyed singing and when I was asked to join this choir by a former Newfoundlander, who was a friend, I was really not too sure about it. So I joined in September and I told the director, well, we’ll see how this is going because I had no idea about music, I couldn’t read music. Since then, I’ve learned so much. And it’s such a joy to be able to get up there and sing and see all these people really enjoying it. It really makes all the work of preparing for it really worthwhile. And I would expect you would get that same reaction from most of our members.”
There is no audition process for this community choir. Anyone can apply, though currently the choir’s ranks are full and there is a waiting list of about a dozen people. “They just don’t leave. They keep coming back. And we were really, really surprised by that,” Winston says of the current members. “There’s usually a turnover. In the last three years or so, they all come back. So I think they’re all enjoying it very much.”
Once in, choir members pay dues to help with costs, which include the tartan neckties for the men and scarves for the women. They meet every Tuesday night at the Riverside Churches of Ottawa (a muti-denominational facility) for practice, led by choir director Scott Richardson (a Nova Scotian) and accompanist Theresa Clarke. “They are just the most fantastic people; we call them our dynamic duo,” Winston says. “And we have so much fun. Our rehearsals are so much fun. It’s so great to be able to learn something in an atmosphere like that.”
Their “matriarch” is Hannie Fitzgerald, a “very proud Labrador-ian,” Winston says. She’s involved in every aspect of the choir. “Without her I’m not sure what we’d do.”
She’s also a longstanding member of the choir’s house band, the Fumblin’ Fingers. “They play before each one of our concerts. They basically warm the crowd up for us,” Winston explains.
Another crowd pleaser at their shows, and a regular at their rehearsals, is a Newfoundland dog. In their 17 years, there have been three Newf mascots: Tiika, who passed away in 2015; Splash who recently passed; and now Margaree - a fitting outport name for a Newfoundland dog. “Margaree is at every rehearsal with her handler, sits there and enjoys the music,” Winston says. And the audiences are thrilled to see her at the concerts. “She steals the show every time.”
Atlantic Voices puts off two big concerts a year, on the last Sunday in January and the last Sunday in May. They also perform at special events, such as July 1 Beaumont-Hamel memorial services. They’ve produced 29 albums of their music to date, which they sell during their concerts. It’s one way they raise a bit of money; another is an annual yard sale. They also have a silent auction, which is held after each concert in combination with another very downhome thing they do - a scoff.
“It’s quite something, We get 300 people and they come down[stairs] and have a look at all the stuff and bid on them, and then we have a lunch served to them - sandwiches, sweets, that sort of thing, tea. It’s quite large,” Winston says. “We try to make each show more like a kitchen party idea. It almost feels like family instead of just the choir doing something. That’s a big part of it.”
Atlantic Voices attracts not only East Coast expat singers, but also anyone with a love of choral music and the Atlantic provinces. Same goes for the audience, which Winston says includes a large contingent from Atlantic Canada, but also folks from all over. The choir is also a hit at local seniors homes, where they often perform between concerts.
They have an extensive library of music, Winston says, and the director draws upon that to create a theme for each concert. “Like our last show [January 2019] was ‘Music from the Big Land,’ which is Labrador. So it was all Labrador music, which was really interesting because we’ve gone for so long that we didn’t have enough music for a show strictly on Labrador. But it turns out that some very interesting people - like Kathleen Allen, for instance, who is a Newfoundlander - they… arrange music so that it can be sung by a four part choir,” Winston explains.
Their next concert is coming up on May 26. Its theme is “Wakes, Weddings and Whiskey: A Downhome Kitchen Party.” Says Winston, “The idea is celebration and the things that go along with celebrations... We usually have about 14 selections that we do.” (And while it may not be in this year’s lineup, Winston says, yes, they have performed “The Night That Paddy Murphy Died.”)
There is a healthy choral commu-nity in Ottawa, with plenty of choirs, but there are none like Atlantic
Voices. As far as Winston knows, theirs is the only choir that concentrates on one geographical region. “The other concerts, of course, have the choice of doing any kind of music they want, but we don’t because we’re restricted to what our repertoire is, which is Atlantic and Celtic music,” Winston says.
And that niche, it seems, has been hitting all the right notes.
-by Janice Stuckless