Home     Content     Articles      La Scena Musicale     Search   

La Scena Musicale - Vol. 11, No. 9

Gregory Charles in a class by himself

by Réjean Beaucage / June 7, 2006

Version française...

He’s a musical host on radio and TV. He plays piano, violin and clarinet. He’s an experienced choirmaster, and director of an international choral music festival. He also finds time to be a singer, dancer and actor. Over the last two years, he’s performed his show Noir et Blanc more than 80 times in Quebec, on Broadway, and soon he will take it to Las Vegas and France as well. Gregory Charles, hyperactive? No, just a man on a mission. When we caught up with him by phone recently, we discovered that what unites all these facets of his talent is a deep desire to share the pleasure of learning and the joy of music.

LSM: Last year, for its first edition, the Mondial Choral Loto-Québec drew more than 500,000 visitors. This year’s festival lasts from June 16 to July 2. You’ve stated before that your goal is to convert the public to choral singing…

GC: Basically my main goal is like that film Pay It Forward—meaning that I’ve drawn a lot from choral singing, and from the people I’ve worked with over the years, and I want to make it possible for others to benefit from the experience in the same way. I’ve done a lot of music since I was little, on piano, violin, and clarinet, but I’ve drawn more from choral singing than from learning an instrument. What really impresses me is its generosity. Whether it’s professionals or amateurs you’re talking about, the people who are singing never hear the real results—their efforts are for the benefit of others. I also love how a choir can become its own miniature society, where everyone must learn to live and work and create together.

Something you experienced with Les Petits Chanteurs du Mont-Royal.

Well, I owe a lot to the choir’s directors, Charles Dupuis and Gilbert Patenaude. There’s a tendency to see choral singing as a minor art form, but as far as I’m concerned it’s a very important activity. When you’re a young musician you often end up playing alone. During my years of learning the piano, I was playing alone. I never played with a larger band until I was 11 or 12 years old. Choir was a great way of making music collectively. When I started the Mondial, I wanted, in a sense, to repay the art form that had helped make me who I am today. Also, I was well aware that a lot of other people enjoy group singing. When we held the first edition of the festival, I thought we’d get maybe 1000, maybe 1500 choristers. Well, 11,000 showed up! And this year we’re expecting around 15,000 in total!

It’s a busy program schedule, to say the least.

We have almost 400 performances by choirs from all over the place: Quebec, Canada, and the United States, of course, but also France, Germany, Austria, Italy, Asia, and elsewhere. We have choirs of all kinds—nobody gets turned away. For me, choral singing means symphonic, profane, sacred, musical theatre, jazz vocals, barbershop, all of it… The groups this year include La Maîtrise des Petits Chanteurs de St-Marc, from France, which became famous after appearing in the film The Chorus. And from the States there’s an amazing gospel choir: Kurt Carr & The Kurt Carr Singers. In terms of local groups, there’s Le Théâtre d’art lyrique de Laval, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary, just like Les Petits Chanteurs de Laval, which I directed for 20 years. On June 21, we’re going to have a big outdoor show with the OSM conducted by Jean-François Rivest, the large symphony choir of the Mondial, and the Fiat Lux fireworks. The OSM returns to the Centre de la nature on the 24th to celebrate the Fête nationale du Québec with Alain Lefèvre and the music of André Mathieu. For that occasion we have the world premiere of four songs which Mathieu wrote for choir and orchestra.

Your love of choral singing has also inspired you to become an educator. You’ve been teaching at a community centre for many years and plan to open your own school in September of 2007.

I think many extracurricular activities should really be taught in schools. I always told myself that if I ever became a school director, I would try to make that happen. But it’s not really possible unless the school is privately managed. I designed a primary school program that is one-third humanities, one-third sciences and one-third performing arts, chiefly music. And I firmly believe that choral singing is one of the best ways to teach music at that level.

How many students do you expect to have?

It’s a three-cycle program for primary students. Twenty-five children in each class, with two classes per grade—one for boys, and one for girls.

Why do you plan to separate them?

Well, I’m not saying that I have the perfect solution but I always hear people say that boys and girls are not quite the same, that girls tend to mature a little faster than boys of the same age. And there’s some truth to that—12-year-old girls are already young ladies, whereas 12-year-old boys are... 12-year-old boys! Now, I don’t claim that other approaches to co-education are wrong, but I’ve been teaching separate classes to boys and girls for 20 years and I’ve found that you can obtain amazing results with both groups but not by the same means. It’s a different dynamic, so why not respect that?

In terms of your own education, we know about your choir training since the age of nine, but you also studied piano at a young age?

I started piano studies at age seven with a wonderful teacher named Sister Simone Martin. Later I had a chance to study under Yvonne Hubert, and then with Marc Durand while I was still a teenager. I won quite a few contests, and played with orchestras in Winnipeg, Laval, Lanaudière and elsewhere.

You were seriously planning a career as a concert pianist?

Not at all! Although I worked really hard at the piano until I was 19 or 20—and became pretty good!—my interests veered away into jazz. A few years ago I acted with Jean Marchand in a stage play called Deux pianos, quatre mains [based on 2 Pianos 4 Hands by Ted Dykstra and Richard Greenblatt], and the story suited me perfectly. It was all about two pianists who abandon their young careers and then meet again many years later, trying to understand why they gave it up. But basically I don’t consider myself a pianist. I’m a musician who used to be a pianist and can still muddle his way through the instrument fairly well.

And many other instruments too!

I started violin at the age of ten. I later played in youth orchestras and chamber quartets, and went to music camp in the summers. I was pretty good on clarinet as well, and managed to win a few contests.

I’m trying to imagine where you found the time to do your regular homework...

It’s all connected, you know—the focus and discipline which kids get from studying music serve them well in other subjects. That was definitely the case with me.

After you stopped studying piano in a formal way at the age of 19, you began studying law. Was that to have a safety net in case music didn’t work out?

Not really. I just had a strong interest in it. I try not to separate cultural activities from other types of study—like science, for example. I was interested in science and I studied it during college. For me, music is a way of life, but not one that blocks out other pursuits. So while I was taking law classes, I got into TV performances and studio recording, and once my classes were over, I kept going with TV projects and choral singing at the same time.

And we can still see you on the TV show Mélomaniaque, broadcast Saturday nights on ARTV.

I’ve always felt a real desire to teach music, whatever context or platform the music might have. It’s as if I had found this recipe that turns into a meal that is so good—I just want everybody to get a taste of it. When something makes you that happy, there’s no way you can keep it inside.

[Translated by Tim Brierley]

Mondial Choral Loto-Québec, Laval

June 16 – July 2


OSM – Loto-Québec Concerts in the Park

July 6: Opening concert, Le Mondial des cultures de Drummondville, 25th edition

July 11: 125th anniversary of the Douglas Hospital, Verdun

July 27: Maisonneuve Park, Montreal


FestiBlues International de Montréal (August 10–13)

Planète Blues, an original show starring Gregory Charles

August 12, Ahuntsic Park


Version française...

(c) La Scena Musicale