Menno Singers celebrate 60 years with concert series

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Choral singing shows no signs of fading away in Waterloo Region as the Menno Singers celebrated a 60-year milestone this year with three collaborative concerts.

Having already performed at St. Jacobs Mennonite Church earlier this month, the group will be joined by Menno Youth Singers and the Inter-Mennonite Children’s Choir for their Celebrating Family – Three Choirs at Christmas concert.

Peter Nikiforuk, artistic director, says they do this every three years or so.

“It’s popular with audiences. It’s popular with the choirs. It gives us a chance to do something together as an organization and Christmas is the time to do that kind of thing,” Nikiforuk said.

They’ve been doing the concert every three years over the past 17 years he estimates. Some 250 to 350 people come out to hear the three choirs sing traditional and modern Christmas music.

“In the good ol’ days we used to do two shows because we had so many people. Times change and there’s just so much more competition that filling two shows is a little optimistic,” Nikiforuk said.

And while coordinating three choirs sounds like it would take a lot of work, he says it actually lightens the load. The Menno Youth Singers and the Inter-Mennonite Children’s Choir each do a 10 or 15 minute set and then Menno Singers does 20 minutes. The three choirs come together for a few songs and then there are audience carols.

“They’re gonna hear popular favourites. We’re doing a version of ‘Do You Hear What I Hear’ to some more adventurous type of Christmas music and a little bit more challenging. The main thrust of the program is accessibility. It’s not a heavy program at all,” Nikiforuk said.

Started in 1955 by Abner Martin, the choir began as a way for Martin and his fellow graduates from Rockway Mennonite High School to continue choral singing as they had done in school.

“The mandate of the choir hasn’t really changed a lot. Rockway’s always had a really good choral program. Abner wanted to give Mennonite choirs an opportunity to sing sacred music that they wouldn’t be singing in the average church,” Nikiforuk said.

He explains that Martin had ambitions of being a conductor and put together the group out of the desire to sing good music at a higher level than was available elsewhere. They didn’t start doing their annual four concerts until the early ’60s.

“Abner in the early days was very adventurous in his repertoire and I know he did the first performance of the Bach’s Mass in B minor in Waterloo region. There was a work by an American Jewish composer, Ernest Bloch, called the Sacred Service, it’s a vetting of the reformed Jewish synergy, that Abner did at least two performances with orchestra and bringing in a cantor from one of the synagogues in Toronto. In the 1960s that was pretty adventurous to be doing that literally inter-religious activity,” Nikiforuk said.

Under Nikiforuk’s guidance since 1998, some of the group’s highlights include large performances with Mennonite Mass Choir starting in the late-1960s, which they still sponsor.

They also do Messiah every four years and next year it will be time to do it again. That’s been an ongoing project for nearly 40 years. In years where they don’t do Messiah they perform other works like Haydn’s Creation and Mendelssohn’s Elijah. Mennonite Mass Choir doesn’t require auditions, so anyone who wants to come and sing is welcome.

“Some of the music we do is different and the way we do some of the music is different. There’s repertoire that they sang in the first concert that we still have in our library and still sing.”

The size of the choir is 45 now, and while members have come and gone, he says the choir has stuck to its roots.

“What’s changed is the world around us. Struggling to pay the bills and unexpected deficits from concerts and things were part of the early history of the choir and I think in some ways we’re in better financial shape than they were 40 years ago. We’re a little more careful about things. It’s not easy to get grant money these days or advertisers,” Nikiforuk said.

This will be the third year for the sing-a-long fundraiser. Funds raised will go towards funding the Menno Singers. Nikiforuk says ticket sales only cover about half of their operating costs. Everyone who’s participating in the sing-a-long is a volunteer, including the orchestra. Audience members are invited to bring their own copy of Messiah, but they’ll have copies for people who don’t own one, so they can come and sing their favourite Messiah choruses.

“We’ll have three soloists this year. The featured soloists will be Bethany Horst, Steve Surian is our tenor soloist. Steve is a conductor of Menno Youth Singers and a very fine tenor. They’ll be doing most of the solo repertoire. But one of my choristers Muriel Clemmer will be joining with Beth to do the He Shall Feed His Flock, the soprano-alto duet. Muriel’s a very fine soloist in her own right but sings as chorister,” Nikiforuk said.

Clemmer is from Elmira.

Everyone is welcome to come sing along with the choir or just listen. He expects to see many members of the Mennonite Mass Choir, which will make for some hearty singing from the audience.

“We’ve been careful not to keep doing the same old thing and then wonder why the world has left us behind. There are so many good choirs in Waterloo region. I think what we’ve managed to do is find our niche in that world,” Nikiforuk said.

The three choirs will perform Dec. 6 at 3 p.m. at St. Matthews Lutheran Church in Kitchener. The Messiah Sing-a-long Fundraiser is Dec. 20 at 3 p.m. at St. Jacobs Mennonite Church.