This past July marked a significant changing of the guard in the Mount Royal Choral Program. Jean-Louis Bleau has taken charge of the entire Mount Royal Choral Program. His predecessor, David Ferguson, has been a mainstay to Mount Royal’s choirs for the past several decades, so devoted to the programs that he stayed on as artistic director 10 years after his retirement.
Conservatory administration has high hopes for Bleau and has set ambitious goals for the choral programs — including diversifying the program offerings and running at full capacity by the time the new Conservatory building opens in 2015. In times of reduced registration, this may seem a daunting task, but one Bleau is willing and able to pursue and complete.
“The anticipation of the Bella Concert Hall is invigorating and rejuvenating for our choral program,” says Bleau. “The 89-seat choir loft provides us with lots of room to grow, whether we’re building the Boys’ Choir, the Kantorei (adult) Choir or the Children’s and Youth choirs.”
He also directs other well-known choral groups, including the Calgary Men’s Chorus. For his immense commitment to vocal music, Bleau didn’t start his musical career as a vocalist; he began by playing trumpet — first throughout high school and later as a music student at the U of C. During his university studies, he met Malcolm Edwards, Professor Emeritus of Music, igniting a wide ranging passion for choral music.
“It was a life-changing experience,” he laughs. “being one of a hundred plus voices, filling a hall with music, feeling the emotion, and the power of all those voices singing forte… it’s magnificent.”
The experience made such an impression, he decided to pursue his Masters in Choral Conducting. During this time, he directed a number of groups, growing as a conductor and learning about the intricacies of choral music and the art of singing.
Bleau himself has a significant vocal range, from the low rumble of a bass to the flutey descant of a countertenor (the male version of an alto/soprano). This diversity in range took him to Ontario to perform in R. Murray Schafer’s Princess of the Stars, an experimental music drama performed on a lake.
The next generation of choristers
In addition to being the overall Artistic Director, he also conducts the Youth Choir — a position he’s held for over a year now — and the first focus for growth. “High School choral programs have blossomed in recent years, while this is excellent for choral arts as a whole, it does mean competition for Mount Royal. Before, we were filling a void, but the void isn’t there anymore. Now, it’s up to Mount Royal to create a program that is unique and augments the existing high school programs.
“We do this by pushing the boundaries of choral music beyond standard choral fare.”
This includes adding pop and culturally based music. “A choral ensemble is more than a group with voice boxes, your whole body is an instrument.” To this end, Bleau is using the talents of Holger Mauthe, Orff coordinator and choral director of the Calgary Boys’ Young Singers, to teach the choirs, body percussion, South African gum boot dance and African step dancing.
“Music is a creative adventure and when you are open to the rich musical diversity that exist around the world and across various cultures the possibilities are endless, exciting, and fun.”
And he’s also changing Christmas in Song
“Christmas is a time to tell stories,” explains Jean-Louis Bleau, Mount Royal’s newest Choral Artistic Director, on changes to the traditional format of the Conservatory’s annual holiday concert, Christmas in Song. “It seems natural to involve the Conservatory’s Speech Arts & Drama program, bringing to life just one of the many seasonal stories that colour this time of year.”
The Speech Arts & Drama program, the largest of its kind in Canada, will be showcasing four of their brightest young students who will narrate a fun Christmas story interwoven through the first half of the musical program.
“Narration draws out different elements of a piece of music, and the music pulls out key emotional or dramatic aspects of a story.”
“The evening will still feature the more traditional elements that audiences have loved for the past 24 years, but when the choral director who brought us the unique combination of choirs in gumboots and synchronized swimmers (Bleau’s production of Blue, 2011) got involved, we knew things were going to be different — and fun,” shares Sheldon Nadler, Conservatory Manager of General Programs, and CIS producer for the past half a dozen years. “We will still feature our choirs, the Kantorei, the Youth and Children’s Choirs, the Calgary Boys’ Choir, our flagship orchestra, the CYO, and there will be caroling in the form of a sing-a-long during the concert.”
Tickets for Christmas in Song are available at the Conservatory front office, or by calling 403.440.7770. More information is available online at mtroyal.ca/Christmas.
— Melanie Watson, Dec. 4, 2012