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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 13, No. 4 December 2007

Concerto Della Donna and Iwan Edwards

by Holly Higgins Jonas / December 17, 2007

In choir-rich Montreal eighteen young women between the ages of 18 and 25 make up a unique group called Concerto Della Donna, a choir which takes its name from a female vocal ensemble from the Italian Renaissance. Formed only six years ago, its emotionally-driven and highly communicative performances have been drawing critical acclaim at home and abroad. Included among the accolades this choir has garnered was first place in the Contemporary Performance Category and second place in the Women’s Equal Voice Category in the 2004 CBC Choral Competition. Abroad, the choir placed in the top three of each category that it competed in at the International Musical Eisteddfod in Llangollen (Wales). Concerto Della Donna has performed locally with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra and with the I Medici Orchestra, and has participated in various CBC/Radio Canada programs. Its repertoire draws from a wide spectrum of traditional, classical and contemporary works from both secular and liturgical sources, with particular emphasis on Canadian compositions.

Montreal’s distinguished choral conductor, Iwan Edwards, is the choir’s Artistic Director. Since emigrating from Wales in 1965, he has created, directed and developed many new ensembles that are now key features in Canada’s musical landscape. Former Chair of the Choral Department at McGill University’s Faculty of Music, he completed twenty seasons as Chorus Master for the Montreal Symphony Orchestra Chorus which often included the St. Lawrence Choir, a group he founded in 1972. In 2000, Edwards fulfilled another career ambition by becoming the director of I Medici di McGill Orchestra, a local chamber orchestra made up of 52 musician medical staff and students ranging in age from 19 to 65.

Nowadays, Edwards is semi-retired and chooses to divide his time and attention between Concerto Della Donna and the Montreal Children’s Choir (a group comprising of 38 youngsters aged 9 to 17),out of which sixteen form its chamber choir. This year, a junior choir composed of 6 to 9 year-olds made its debut. Working with youth has long been a passion of Edwards, as reflected by his ten years as director of the choral program at F.A.C.E. (Fine Arts Core Education) School. In fact, it was upon the urging of some 1999 F.A.C.E. graduates who had newly formed Concerto Della Donna that Edwards agreed to become its conductor although the day-to-day administration of the choir’s business remains in the hands of the members themselves.

It is one thing to describe a choir, but it is another thing to actually experience being a choir member. When asked about their own experiences Concerto Della Donna members willing shared their thoughts. Their responses reveal a collective passion and dedication for their craft and to the choir. For Amena Ahmad, the experience is “spiritual, therapeutic and humbling” while Kellina Higgins feels a sense of community within the choir that she finds comforting. Namita Kallianpurkar talks about the importance of teamwork and cooperation in everything they do. Anne-Marie Lozier refers to the experience of singing in an all-women’s choir as “empowering” while still others call the experience altogether “magical.”

The young women of Concerto Della Donna cannot praise Edwards’ contribution enough. They clearly credit him with raising the bar for their musical education and for fine-tuning their individual musicality. Members appreciate his ability to develop their sensitivity for text and emotional content, and enjoy the time he invests in interpreting each piece. Edwards’ insistence that all works be memorized ultimately lead to performances that are emotionally communicative and awe-inspiring. Sarah Pearson sums it all up beautifully when she says, “There is no glass ceiling with Iwan - he is always pushing us to be greater and always pushing us one step further. The level of passion he demands of us is wonderfully liberating. He talks about feeling, expression and text in a way that I would never have associated with classical music. Singing uses the whole body and the soul. Simply put, singing is the breath of life itself moving through us, and Iwan does not settle for anything less than deeply communicative, soul-bearing singing.”

When asked to articulate his vision for Concerto Della Donna, Iwan Edwards does not hesitate when he says, “It [Concerto Della Donna] is a group of young people who are prepared to work hard, to give of themselves, and be emotionally and musically honest with their audiences at all times. They are expected to communicate at the highest level.” He adds that working with these talented singers is an honour and not an acquired right. For him, “it is a privilege to be allowed to reach into their souls.”

› -Concerto Della Donna’s next performance will be on December 9th
(3 p.m.) at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. For more information about the choir and their upcoming concerts, visit their website at www.concertodelladonna.ca.

› -Holly Higgins Jonas is the author of “In their own words: Canadian Choral Conductors,” Dundurn Press, 2001.

(c) La Scena Musicale