A Retrospective — 30 Years

Emily F. Burgetz, co-founder, past chair, and past president, reflected on Pax Christi Chorale's history at the choir's 30-year anniversary gala in January, 2017.

We have celebrated our 30th anniversary as a choir and the 20th anniversary of Stephanie Martin as our Artistic Director. I’m proud of the the highly-respected place we have in our community as a very successful arts organization. I’m also kind of awed and also grateful, knowing how we began and how we’ve developed and grown.  

Pax Christi Chorale was founded in the fall of 1987.  During the 1986 Toronto celebration of the Bicentennial of Mennonites in Canada a choir was assembled from the Mennonite churches of the GTA and York region to sing the Sunday morning service. So successful was this event that three of the organizers — Emily Burgetz, Robert Loewen and Ron Sawatsky — called together a committee from those GTA churches, and we readily reached consensus to form a permanent choir.  

Ron Sawatsky was our founding President and after 6 years as music librarian I became President and Chair of the Board, when Ron and family moved to Waterloo. The choir has gradually grown from about 35 singers to about 100, always including not only Mennonites, but also singers from various religious traditions and cultures, who gather to perform the great masterpieces of choral literature, as well as give expression to the central place four-part singing has in Mennonite worship and fellowship.

Robert Loewen was Pax Christi Chorale’s founding conductor, followed by Lee Bartel and John Ford.  Each one helped us in our development so that we were ready for what the next conductor had to offer us. Stephanie Martin has been the choir’s conductor and Artistic Director since our 10th season - 20 years, and we are ready for the next fine conductor and Artistic Director.

Under the direction of Robert Loewen we held our first concert on Dec 6, 1987: we sang pieces by J.S. Bach, Praetorius, Berlioz and Handel among others.  We also had a guest organist - none other than the young talented Stephanie Martin!!!  Stephanie has in fact been a part of Pax Christi Chorale for 30 years, not just 20 as our AD, but from our very first concert!

In the spring of our 1st season we tackled our first larger work, the Coronation Mass by Mozart, accompanied by piano. Soloists were drawn from within the choir: Eight of us - Bob wisely doubled us up, to give us the confidence needed! Four of us are still in the choir to this day!

We’ve moved from using singers from within the choir for solo roles to hiring wonderful Canadian soloists to perform with us.  Just to name a few: Natalie Paulin, Catherine Robbin,  Matthew Zadow, Michael York, Sean Clark, Trevor Bowes, Shannon Mercer, Krisztina Szabo, and international star, baritone Roderick Williams from the UK.

We also have paid Choral Leads and Choral Scholars, who give valuable leadership within their sections, and who form the core of our excellent chamber choir, and on occasion also have solo roles.

In 1991, under Lee Bartel we sang our very first full Handel’s Messiah, featuring none other than Robert Loewen as our baritone soloist. Instead of an orchestra we again had a guest organist, Stephanie Martin! Yes - she was our full orchestra with one trumpet soloist added in!  In 1998 and 2007 Stephanie led us again in Handel’s Messiah, however, now with full orchestra. We’ve sung excerpts from Messiah periodically over the years and in 2009 established our popular annual community outreach, the one hour The Children’s Messiah.  

It was under the leadership of John Ford that we found our home concert venue of Grace Church on-the-Hill.  Until then we sang in various places, including Wideman Mennonite Church, Ontario Bible College and Leaside United Church. And we’ve been thrilled to perform twice in Koerner Hall, in 2012 and 2015.

For our first concert with John Ford in the spring of 1993 we performed Brahms German Requiem and Vivaldi’s Gloria for the first time. John prepared us further to become the oratorio choir we’ve become under Stephanie by leading us in Mozart’s Requiem, Haydn’s Creation, Poulenc’s Gloria, Fauré’s Requiem, and Dubois’ Seven Last Words of Christ.

Although we had occasionally hired solo instrumentalists, particularly brass, we marked our 10th season and Stephanie’s first concert as our AD, by hiring our first instrumental ensemble and by performing R. Vaughan Williams Five Mystical Songs and Dona Nobis Pacem as well as B. Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb.  

It was also for our 10th anniversary that we designed our official logo.  Chorister and graphic designer Caren Thomas and I worked closely together, creating our song bird using elements of the folk art of the Pennsylvania Dutch Mennonites.

Mendelssohn’s Elijah with baritone Daniel Lichti in the lead role and our first full orchestra completed Stephanie’s second season in the spring of 1998. We did not reprise this dramatic favourite masterpiece until this fall, in Stephanie’s final season as our AD, featuring the unforgettable dramatization by the soloists of the Bicycle Opera Project with Geoffrey Sirett as Elijah. We video recorded this and it is up on YouTube!

In 2000 we released our first CD Rejoice!, featuring Dennis Giesbrecht and Robert Loewen as guest soloists; in 2003 we released Seasons of the Spirit, in 2007 our Buxtehude Super Concert, in 2011 Great Canadian Hymns from our Hymn Competition and in 2015 we released Winter Nights, our CD of compositions all by Stephanie.

In 2000 we held our first joint concert with Menno Singers, with a program of Ein Deutsches Requiem by Brahms, as well as Lauda Sion by Mendelssohn and the premiere of Andrew Ager’s The Solemn Land. We’ve collaborated with Menno Singers twice since then, most recently in a concert of A Cappella Masterworks, in the spring of 2016.

We have sung many wonderful masterpieces under Stephanie’s direction, gems large and small, a cappella pieces and cantatas, oratorios, passions and masses with large orchestra. To name a few: J.S. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, St. John Passion and the monumental Mass in B minor, Handel’s Israel in Egypt and Solomon, Mozart’s RequiemAve Verum Copus, Exultate Jubilate, Salieri’s Mass in D minor, Mendelssohn’s St. Paul and Elijah, Haydn’s Creation, Fauré’s Requiem, Benjamin Britten’s St. Nicolas; we presented the North American premiere of Sir Hubert Parry’s Judith, for which Stephanie needed to recreate the entire orchestral score, and which we also video recorded and is also up on YouTube. Another highlight was premiering Stephanie’s cantata Winter Nights in 2011, which she composed for our 25th season; we reprised it in 2014 and then recorded it.

The first time we sang a piece by Elgar was in May of 1990, under Lee Bartel, a lovely little piece called As Torrents in Summer. We reprised it for our UK Tour this past summer and sang it at Elgar’s graveside and while visiting the Elgar Museum.

But it was in the spring of 2001, our 15th season, that we began our relationship with Sir Edward Elgar’s oratorios with Dream of Gerontius; then in our 20th season, The Music Makers; for our 25th, The Kingdom, which took us to Koerner Hall for the first time, and crowning our 30th it will be The Apostles

Artistic Directors and Conductors, Choral Leads and Scholars, choir members past and present, Board members past and present, soloists and orchestra members, General Managers past and present, volunteers, audience members and donors and sponsors -- Thank you to each one of you who have contributed to who and what Pax Christi Chorale is and will be in the future.