Music to the judges' ears

(Edmonton) University of Alberta music researcher Debra Cairns took a collection of some 50 people—some of whom had no musical training—assembled them into a choir, trained the group to sing songs written more than 200 years ago and used their recordings to land on the podium at a national choral competition.

The 46-member University of Alberta Concert Choir, made up of students from across campus, recently clinched the second place award at the National Competition for Canadian Amateur Choirs in Newfoundland under the Mixed-Voice Collegiate Choirs category. Cairns, the choir’s director, says four songs, recorded after just 12 weeks of training, were sent in for the competition.  Among them was O magnum mysterium, set by the Spanish composer Tomás Luis de Victoria.

“It is a very difficult, intricate piece because it’s a style we don’t often hear and young university aged people don’t often have the opportunity to perform,” said Cairns. “That’s the piece I’d say I’m most proud of. They sang it so well and convincingly, and with lovely musicianship. That level of difficulty was challenging and they really nailed it, and it was taken from their first live performance.

“It was bringing together a group of people, some of whom had never sung before and some who had, and building up a choral sound, and a sense of understanding of that kind of repertoire.  I’m very proud of the work they did, they were dedicated all year.”

At the start of every school year, Cairns auditions students for the choir, which has been at the U of A since 1970. She says this is the first time the choir has won in about a decade.  She says they were judged on a list of things including the difficulty of the repertoire submitted and tuning. This showing is a mark of distinction for the U of A, she said.

“It allows the university’s ensemble to be recognized for good quality choral musicianship,” said Cairns, adding it is the only national competition for university choirs and to be a finalist is already a distinction because of the steep level of competition in Canada. “It’s nice to be recognized by peers for work that is done and that’s of significant quality enough to be recognized.”