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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 16, No. 3 November 2010

Mary Jane Puiu: Big Voice, Big Heart

by Wah Keung Chan / November 1, 2010

Flash version here.

It takes a special person to lead 220 amateur singers, many of whom have never sung before and cannot read music, and in 10 weeks turn them into a responsive choir that presents two quality concerts each year. That one-of-a-kind motivator is Romanian-Canadian conductor Mary-Jane Puiu, who has led the non-audition student club McGill Choral Society for the last 30 years.

With a commanding voice and buckets of charisma, Puiu attracts unwavering enthusiasm. Little do the 220 people at rehearsal know that Puiu’s imposing speaking and singing voice is an aberration, one in a million. “Music was part of me since age five, when I began singing in the church choir with my mother,” said 60-year-old Puiu, who took up the accordion at a young age. “My father was a violinist and we would play together, but every time I made a mistake he would hit me with his bow, and that made me hate music.” 

In grade nine, Puiu was motivated by Rosemount High teacher Helen Hall to study music and even conducted the girls’ choir under her supervision. It was then she discovered she had a voice, a rare contralto. When she was 15, respected McGill voice teacher Bernard Diamond felt she would become the next Maureen Forrester, and at age 16 she was accepted at McGill to study voice. She was also hired to conduct the Lebanese Orthodox Church choir, a position she still holds. But after one year in music at McGill, she quit. “I just didn’t want to become an opera singer or a soloist.”

“For the next year, I went to work and kept it a secret from my parents,” Puiu said, which meant using her outgoing personality in public relations and selling advertising. At age 24, however, on a bet with one of her best friends (he wagered $100 that she would never go back to school), Puiu went back to McGill for a degree in Music Education. On her first day of classes, Puiu met Wayne Riddell, Canada’s most renowned choral conductor, the founder of the famed Tudor Singers, who would be her professor in two courses. “Riddell shouted, ‘Who’s that voice?,’” recalled Puiu, laughing. He became her mentor and also hired her to sing in his choirs. She became a paid professional chorister at St. Andrew and St. Paul and the Montreal Symphony, and as an extra for the Tudor Singers and the CBC while still a student. Suddenly, Puiu was back in the thick of music and loved it.

After graduation, Puiu worked five years at the Douglas Hospital, which was “very difficult.” She then joined Iwan Edwards at the FACE School as choral music specialists, a position she held for 21 years.

There is something about choral music that connects with Puiu. Conducting became the culmination of all her talents. “My greatest love and passion are working with people, and working with choirs,” she explained. The rehearsals are her performances. “When I give a concert, I don’t really hear the applause,” she said.

The watershed moment for Puiu came in 1980, when Suzanne Byrnes, then president of the McGill Music Association asked Puiu to revive the McGill Choral Society. A vibrant student club in the 1950s and 60s, when it was directed by McGill professor Gifford Mitchell, it had folded shortly after Mitchell retired, in 1969. Puiu, who was starting a Master’s degree at the time, agreed but enlisted the help of her friend, conductor Marilyn Brain. Within a year, Puiu became the sole conductor.

The choir started with 34 members, but that soon changed, partly due to good marketing but mostly from word-of-mouth about the Puiu experience. A rehearsal with Mary-Jane Puiu is part charisma, part entertainment, part learning and most importantly great music making. “My FACE kids used to say that I’m strict, I yell at them, but we make wonderful music,” said Puiu. It’s her ability to bring the best out of people who love singing, that keeps members (including McGill staff and the larger community) coming back. “I tell them, ‘When you sing a phrase of music, it’s like making love,’” said Puiu. And some of the former members of the MCS, such as tenor Michiel Schrey, have gone on to successful careers in opera or music activism.

By the time I joined in September 1985, the choir had already increased to 70, but it was still performing various choral songs at cramped venues such as the 280-seat People’s Church on Sherbrooke Street. Within a year, that changed when Puiu began programming a major classical work in the first half of the concert. During my six years in the choir, we performed Handel’s Messiah, Mozart’s Requiem, Schubert’s Mass in C, Vivaldi’s Gloria, Rutter’s Gloria and Haydn’s Nelson Mass. The second half would include medleys of Broadway musicals. “I felt it was important for students to learn classical music, but I also felt that pop music would connect better with the students’ friends and family, many of whom don’t understand classical music,” said Puiu. That unorthodox formula worked, as the venues got larger, always filling the house. By the time I left, the choir had grown to 180 members. Today, the group’s Christmas concert in late November always features a major classical work followed by a Christmas sing-a-long, while the spring concert has a Broadway second half.

Seven years ago, Puiu was diagnosed with lymphedema, a non-curable debilitating disease that she had been suffering with for more than 15 years. For a workaholic and a ‘people’ person, stopping work and going on disability has meant being cut off; she also had to drop the Cantare youth choir (which folded without her), leaving only a few hours for conducting the McGill Choral Society and her church choir. She stated, “Music is my life. I’m in pain 24/7, but for two hours a week on Wednesday nights, I’m pain free.” Yet, even today, she has no regrets. “I realized at a young age that I had a talent, to be another Maureen Forrester, but that was not I wanted. I realized I had a gift to offer, that is, to make music with people and to share the love I have for music.” Now 60, Puiu looks to another five years of sharing this gift before retirement.

» McGill Choral Society Fall Concert, November 21, Dvorak’s Mass in D, Mary-Jane Puiu, conductor. www.mcgillchoral.ca
» The MCS’s Spring 2011 concert will feature Brahms’s Requiem. Previous members are invited to participate.

(c) La Scena Musicale