Archive for the ‘Behind-the-Scenes’ Category

20 years in the making.

Thursday, April 4th, 2013

Today, I was sent this email message from a KSS bass, new to the choir this season. It’s good to hear how things seem from the choir’s perspective—or maybe we don’t want to know? Anyway, it made me laugh, so I share it with you…


This concert has been 20 years in the making. Did anyone envision this program during some of those rehearsals during that first year?

Both works are recognized within choral circles as challenging and not for the musically faint of heart. Compliments from the players from Orchestra London are not given out easily! We are in the “A” league of ensembles.

What makes KSS unique is the next concert. With equal technical finesse, we will take our LIVE audience down a different musical road with an entirely different style. Rare is the choir anywhere that can sing this with the KSS flair.

From the ranks, an apology is in order for all the unspoken rehearsal utterances and e-mail note comments – things like “If she goes over this ONE more time!!” or “we weren’t THAT far out of tune!!” or “where in the @#$&% are we supposed to get that pitch from?” & “how are we supposed to count when the time signature and the @#$&% tempo keeps changing every bar!?!”

In strange way and a first for me as a singer, am looking forward to late Saturday afternoon, after a long nap, to listening to the recordings one final time (a suggestion from Paul Grambo to get my head in the right space), then to the church for warm ups and all those vocal exercises that back in January made no sense.

Kudos are earned for all your work, patience and shear determination over the last few weeks.

Now at that bar I have to remember to…

Dave Burnett

Off to Festival 500 in TWO Days

Saturday, July 2nd, 2011

In two days we will be leaving for Newfoundland and Festival 500. A few from the choir are already there, vacationing before the Festival begins. We have had a marvelous adventure preparing for this festival. We do theme concerts, with a variety of themes each season. In fact, our performance mandate states that we do one classical, one populist and one concert ‘especially expressive of the human condition’ each season. That keeps our seasons balanced for our audiences and our repertoire varied for the singers and myself. We repeat music whenever we can, but it is not very often, and certainly rare within one season. The music for our festival performances we performed at our April Going to the Rock! concert.

After an intensely busy spring with two invitations in addition to our final concert of the season, the ‘Small Choir’, as we call the group going to Festival 500 (about 2/3 of the whole choir, since not all were able to commit to the nine-day trip), started rehearsing in earnest to prepare for the three concerts we are to perform while in St. John’s. I knew the high level of quality expected at these events from attending choral conventions. My job was to make that level clear for the choir, who had just come off the busiest spring we ever had and were very happy to slide into summer mode, to set that bar, and in the few rehearsals we had left, to get them singing music they already know at a level they’ve never done before.

The biggest surprise for them has been the fact that they sound much different without the whole choir. The level of individual responsibility and care of tone and tuning go up markedly in a small group and they have to change everything about how they listen and how they sing.

What a joy it has been. Through recording the rehearsals, individual work, voice matching, and meticulous attention to the finest details, they sound great. From my background in music performance, I know that the best you can do is get the music up to the highest level of which you are capable, then let the inspiration and excitement of the moment take you the rest of the way. With part of your brain, you keep track of the details and the musical information rushing past you and with the other part you let go to let the text and the story come alive. It’s a thrill.

Finishing rehearsals with a short concert for friends and family to give us a dry run before the event and put it all together. The couple of surprises that cropped up (there are always surprises that never happened before—that’s part of the excitement of live performance) were enough to keep them focused for the twelve days we will be apart before gathering in St. John’s on Wednesday. Our friends and family said, “You sound wonderful, now go have fun!”, which is exactly what we intend to do!

This trip has been three years in the making for us and I have to say that we are surprised how truly excited we are to go. Our cohesion and musical beauty as the Small Choir has been a reward in itself. The Festival will just be the icing on the cake. Look out Newfoundland!

Missa Gaia Photos

Sunday, June 5th, 2011

Karen warming up the choir
KSS finished off its subscription season with a heartfelt presentation of Missa Gaia / Earth Mass last night. Scroll down to enjoy some photo memories from the concert. Above and below, Karen warms up the choir before the show.
KSS warming up before the show
Before the music starts, Karen introduces this phenomenal work, which celebrates planet earth an all the creatures on it.
Karen introducing Missa Gaia
And the music begins…
Karen, Denise Pelley and the Karen Schuessler Singers
Guest soloist Paul Grambo rocked the house with the energetic Beatitudes.
Paul Grambo
Other stellar musicians included pianist Steve Holowitz, sax player David Wiffen, Margaret Stowe on guitar, Steve Clark on bass, and organist Ronald Fox. Percussionists Rob Larose and Alfredo Caxaj thrill the crowd in Ubi Caritas, below.
Alfredo Caxaj and Rob Larose
The incomparable Denise Pelley held the audience spellbound with her moving interpretations of Mystery and His Eye is on the Sparrow.
Denise Pelley
Denise Pelley
Denise Pelley
At least one audience member was overheard to say “I don’t want to leave,” after the concert was finished.
Standing ovation
Special guests from Salthaven Rehabilitation and Education Centre, our partner for this concert, were waiting to greet our patrons at the after-concert reception. Below is a barn owl – rare in this part of Canada – and his young handler.
Salthaven barn owl
Brian Salt, founder of Salthaven, introduces another “animal ambassador,” a red-tailed hawk. During the winter he visits schools and service groups, educating people about the amazing work that Salthaven does.
Salthaven red-tailed hawk
Another raptor guest enchants concert-goers, below. Founded 25 years ago, Salthaven rehabilitates sick and injured wildlife, and is currently working on a capital fundraising campaign for a new, $2.5 million clinic that will allow them to admit virtually all the animals that they get calls about each year. They are currently able to admit only about 20% animals that are brought to their attention.

Please visit the Salthaven website – – to learn more about the vital work that this organization does. Be sure to check out the photo gallery of patients, and read the many heartwarming stories of animals rescued, treated and released back into their natural habitats.
Salthaven raptor

Missa Gaia Memories II

Wednesday, May 25th, 2011

Blue green hills
KSS recently asked former Missa Gaia / Earth Mass choristers for their favorite memories of this unforgettable work. Here are some of their responses:

“I remember our first Missa Gaia/Earth Mass performance in 1994, how thrilling it was to sing this work and how much it touched the audience. I also remember what happened at the end of Return to Gaia. This movement is a soprano sax and organ duet intended to evoke the wonder of the Earth as seen from space, and the safe return of the spacecraft back to Earth. It was not quite a soft landing. At the climax of the piece, with George Laidlaw on sax and Angus Sinclair on organ, holding down notes with all ten fingers and both feet, the organ completely ran out of air. That’s when folks at Wesley-Knox decided it was time to have the organ rebuilt. (It was rebuilt, quite magnificently, in 1996.)”


“Missa Gaia was the first memorable work I sang with KSS. The choir was called The Village Singers then. I have enjoyed singing it more each time – particularly our times away in Detroit! It brings everyone together!”


“I first heard Missa Gaia when the then Village Singers performed it in St. Thomas. I immediately fell in love with the piece, and approached Karen after the concert to ask her if the choir was ever going to do it again. She said yes, the following year in May as well. I asked when the auditions were – had to join the choir to sing this fabulous piece of music. Been there ever since! My favorite part to sing is the Sanctus and Benedictus… love the rhythm!”


From a chorister who is also a member of Wesley-Knox United Church:

“My favourite parts of Missa Gaia are the organ solo and the choruses where the audience participates – they always seem too short. The organ piece is fairly long, as I recall, and it builds from quiet to very loud and powerful, like a huge thunderstorm, and then gradually passes back to peaceful reflection. I guess because the organ is an integral part of Wesley-Knox, and because the organ was re-built and enhanced during my time there, it represents the power and the solidity of our church and congregation.”


From a husband and wife who have sung Missa Gaia several times:

“The first time we performed Missa Gaia, the organ had just been restored and the piece about the trip to space was spine tingling, as the organ swelled to its crescendo. That is something I’ll never forget. My favorite piece is Agnus Dei. The music is so moving and beautiful as it moves majestically thru the piece. When we went to Detroit, the bass section of their choir were intially quite blasé about the whole thing. But as they filed out at the intermission I heard them say, ‘This is really something, isn’t it?’ We both love to sing Missa Gaia, and have been holding our breath that we could do so again. Hurray!”


“My most memorable performance was at St. Peter’s Cathedral Basilica in downtown London. Several parishioners at the Basilica had become convinced that Missa Gaia was a pagan, not a Christian work, and they picketed the concert. Karen was a bit upset with this, but we told her not to worry. We told her you couldn’t buy publicity like this. The concert, which featured liturgical dancers choreographed by London’s Anna Douthwright and Carla de Sola from the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City, was a sellout.

“Another memorable performance was at Christ Church Episcopal in Detroit. A few days before that concert, Denise Pelley’s son, Jason Edmonds, had been killed in a tragic car accident. Denise still sang the concert. All we could do was marvel at her inner strength.”


“I sang Missa Gaia at least three times, including once in Detroit, plus the recording session at St. James Westminster. The most memorable detail about going to Detroit was that Denise Pelley travelled on the bus with the choir just three or four days after the funeral for her son, Jason, who had been killed in a traffic accident in London. Denise’s tremendous will and spirit overcame obvious sorrow and allowed her to perform her role in a moving, convincing performance. What a wonderful person!”


“I heard Missa Gaia and simply had to perform it. I especially remember the time in Detroit after Denise’s son died, and being awestruck by her strength.”

Missa Gaia Memories I

Monday, May 23rd, 2011

I first heard Missa Gaia / Earth Mass in 1999 or 1998. I was singing in another of Karen Schuessler’s choirs at the time, and Karen invited me to a Missa Gaia dress rehearsal because I had never heard the work before, and I couldn’t make it to the actual concert.

I was spellbound.

I joined KSS as an alto for the 1999-2000 season, and one of the highlights of my musical life has been learning and performing Missa Gaia, and participating in the KSS Missa Gaia recording. This work, which celebrates our relationship to the earth and all its creatures, almost defies description… but I’m going to try.

Canticle of Brother Sun
The concert opens with Canticle of Brother Sun, which uses the words of St. Francis of Assisi, patron saint of animals and the environment. “All praise be yours through Brother Sun, all praise be yours through Sister Moon…” The chorus paraphrases a quote from the book of Job in the Bible: “Ask of the beasts, and they shall teach you the beauty of the earth.” To this day, every time I hear the text, my eyes fill with tears.

What also struck me about this song, and many of the others in the Missa Gaia suite, was its uptempo fusion of jazz and world beat-inspired rhythms. If, when the song ends, you wish it would continue, don’t worry – it’s reprised at the end of the show. The following video gives you just a sample its charms:

If Canticle of Brother Sun got my toes tapping, the beginning of the Kyrie initially stunned me. The silence is pierced by a recording of a wolf howling. A saxophone then plays the exact same notes – making haunting music of the animal’s call! The wolf howls again… and this time a tenor’s voice sings the notes, to the Greek words kyrie and eleison, which mean “Lord have mercy.”

In the Christian mass, the Kyrie underscores humankind’s need for redemption; in Missa Gaia, Paul Halley’s Kyrie poignantly underscores our fellow creatures’ plight at our own hands. Towards the end of the song the music swells after an instrumental solo, and every time I sang this part, I felt a sense of urgency at our planet’s future.

The video below features a 1982 recording of the Kyrie:

The Beatitudes is probably one of my favorite pieces from the entire show. A moody introduction gives way to complex gospel harmonies interweaving with a male vocal solo, and the song ends with multiple repeats of a driving, double-time refrain.

More than anything else, it was the clapping that originally attracted me to this gospel tune. There’s a stunning moment right at the end when the instruments cut out and the choir continues a capella, accompanied only by its own clapping. I was thrilled when, after joining the choir, Karen chose me to be one of the designated “clappers.”

During our 2000 recording session, Karen went to listen to the result after the first take of Beatitudes, and came back with the pronouncement that the claps were too loud, and not precise enough. (It’s not as easy as you think to clap and sing synchopated rhythms at the same time!) The ranks of the clappers were reduced to five, and we were given strict instructions to keep a close eye on each other during the next take, to make sure that we were in unison.

I was standing in the front row with the rest of the clappers behind me, so I half-turned to include them in my peripheral vision, and sang the entire take from memory, never taking my eyes off the hands of one of the tenor clappers. Karen immediately disappeared to the temporary “recording booth” set up in our recording venue, St. James Westminster Anglican Church, and came back with the good news: That take would do. Good thing, because all of that clapping had left my hands raw.

The video below is the only recording of the piece that I can find on YouTube. Most of it is much slower than our own performances and recording, but it gives you an idea of the excitement of the ending:

Mystery is a haunting folk song by an American physician, Jeremy R. Geffen – an integrative cancer care specialist whose holistic practices are informed by the healing traditions of the world, including Ayurveda, Tibetan Medicine, yoga, meditation, and other approaches to health and self-awareness.

The lyrics speak of the divine in a way that can be embraced by many faiths:

But when I listen deep inside, I feel you best of all.
Like a moon that’s glowing white, and I listen to your call.
And I know that you will guide me, I feel you like the tide
rushing through the ocean of my heart that’s open wide.

As sung by Denise Pelley, the song is a highlight of Missa Gaia for many listeners.

Return to Gaia
An instrumental piece, Return to Gaia, is another audience favorite, since it features the full power of the venue’s pipe organ. The song is meant to suggest the thrill of seeing dawn creep across the face of the earth as viewed from space.

“The Earth was small, light blue, and so touchingly alone, our home that must be defended like a holy relic. The Earth was absolutely round. I believe I never knew what the word round meant until I saw Earth from space.”
Aleksei Leonov, Russian astronaut

“My first view – a panorama of brilliant deep blue ocean, shot with shades of green and gray and white – was of atolls and clouds. Close to the window I could see that this Pacific scene in motion was rimmed by the great curved limb of the Earth. It had a thin halo of blue held close, and beyond, black space. I held my breath, but something was missing – I felt strangely unfulfilled. Here was a tremendous visual spectacle, but viewed in silence. There was no grand musical accompaniment; no triumphant, inspired sonata or symphony. Each one of us must write the music of this sphere for ourselves.”
Charles Walker, US astronaut

Sanctus and Benedictus, and Promise of a Fisherman
Sanctus and Benedictus features the eerie song of the male humpback whale. Hunted nearly to extinction in the 19th and 20th centuries, the humpback whale has made a comeback in the world’s oceans, but is still at risk from entanglement in fishing nets, collision with ships, and underwater noise pollution from offshore drilling.

Both Sanctus and Promise of a Fisherman use the joyous rhythms of Brazilian music, and I’m afraid I could never stand still whenever I sang either of them. One of the things I love most about the animal calls and the music of Missa Gaia is that they seem to permeate every cell of your body, so that you leave the concert feeling fundamentally changed.

The video below shows a live performance of Sanctus and Benedictus:

Ubi Caritas
Without a doubt, Ubi Caritas is one of my all-time favorite choral pieces ever. I have had the pleasure of singing it not only several times with KSS, but also with a mass choir in a South London choral festival, and at the Church of St. Timothy in North Toronto with the incomparable Joe Sealy Trio.

Ubi Caritas begins with a well-known Gregorian chant, which fades to a quiet piano solo that swells and ebbs like waves on a lonely beach. Then, in one of those quintessential moments that composer Paul Halley is known for, the mood turns on a dime with the introduction of African drumming, and the chorus comes back in with a traditional African chant. Many times I have thrilled to watch percussionists Rob Larose and Dale Brendon intently ply the skins of their drums as the song builds to a thundering crescendo, accented by the counterpoint of the Latin and Yoruban singing.

The video below includes the piece in its thrilling entirety:

Agnus Dei
The evening comes to a close with a prayer from the traditional Christian mass: “Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, grant us peace.”

In this song we hear the call of the harp seal – the animal which Moravian missionaries in Labrador used to explain the concept of the Lamb of God to the Inuit, who had never seen sheep. Seal hunting continues to be a controversial animal rights issue, and images of seal pups mercilessly bludgeoned for their pure white fur during annual seal hunts are forever burned into our cultural memory.

There are songs I haven’t mentioned: For the Beauty, Sound Over All Waters, Blue-Green Hills of Earth… each with their own moments to savour and hold dear. Missa Gaia is a work designed to transform its listeners (and its performers), then release them into the world to spread the energy of life and hope. I’ll be sitting in the audience on June 4, eager to hear the animals speak once again. I hope you will join us.

Michelle Lynne Goodfellow has been KSS’ Director of Communications for the past two years. She was also a chorister for our 1999-2000 and 2008-2009 concert seasons.

May 2011 KiSS Notes

Wednesday, May 18th, 2011

May 2011 KiSS Notes cover
The Karen Schuessler Singers publishes a twice-yearly newsletter called KiSS Notes. Click here to download a PDF of the May 2011 KiSS Notes in a new browser window.

KSS Receives Special Honour from City of London

Friday, November 19th, 2010

Anne-Marie DeCicco-Best presenting plaque to Karen Schuessler
This past Monday night at the final meeting of the outgoing City Council, Mayor Anne Marie DeCicco-Best presented KSS with a plaque of recognition as this year’s Featured Community Organization, for “striving to make London a caring and compassionate city through dedicated and valuable contributions to the community.”

Above are Karen and KSS board members Lorraine Landgren, Marilynne McNeill and Harry MacLean receiving the award from Mayor DeCicco-Best.

Choristers’ Favorite Pieces from Voices of Light

Thursday, November 18th, 2010

Voices of Light dress rehearsal
KSS will be presenting the first concert of our 2010/2011 season – Voices of Light – on Saturday night. Here are some of the choristers’ favorite pieces from the program.

Says one of the singers about Morten Lauridsen’s Magnum Mysterium: “Such a beautiful & moving piece of music.”

Listen for yourself to the University of Utah Singers performing this piece, which uses the beautiful O magnum mysterium text. Says Lauridsen himself: “This affirmation of God’s grace to the meek and the adoration of the Blessed Virgin are celebrated in my setting through a quiet song of profound inner joy.”

Says another singer: “Lauridsen’s O Magnum Mysterium contains rich harmonies that are wonderful to sing. It has an ethereal quality as the melody develops, winding its way from one voice to another. My hope is that the audience will be drawn into our experience and transported to another plane.”

Yet another singer loves singing Lauridsen’s rich harmonies. The same singer also likes Eric Whitacre’s Lux Aurumque because it has “intriguing harmonies and it sounds kind of ethereal.” Learn more about Lux Aurumque here.

Randall Thompson’s Choose Something Like a Star from Frostiana is another favorite. Listen to the Harvard University Choir singing it, below. (This video also features the lyrics.) One signer calls it “up close to heaven!”

Says another singer: “The music of The Magnificat by Pergolesi [actually by Francesco Durante, formerly attributed to Pergolesi] is quite exquisite, featuring the talented string ensemble that is joining us for this concert. It’s also a thrill to hear individual choir members as our soloists, highlighting some of the talent hidden within our ranks.”

Here’s a video of the opening movement – a baroque delight.

Paul Halley’s Voices of Light – the program finale – merits mention as well: “With Fiona Wilkinson’s amazing interpretation, fingers flying over the keys of her flute, Ron Fox on the organ & the choir soaring, it’s a musical experience unto itself.”

One chorister sums up the program this way: “Once again, Karen has woven together yet another interesting program to challenge the choir & entertain our audience.” Check out the entire program, below.

Bach – Break forth, o beauteous heavenly light (German/English)

Mendelssohn – There shall a star come forth (Christus)

Whitacre – Lux Aurumque

Bach (Kuhnau) – Cantata #142 for Christmas Day

Lauridsen – O Magnum Mysterium

Pergolesi (Durante) – Magnificat

Thompson – Choose Something Like a Star

Halley – Voices of Light

Featuring string quintet, two flutes, organ/piano, timpani and percussion instruments.

New KSS Website!

Monday, September 6th, 2010

Screen shot of KSS homepage
We are thrilled to unveil our new website for you! The project began with a rebranding project that we undertook in the winter of 2009/2010 with the help of Compass project funding from the Ontario Arts Council.

We hope that you will enjoy navigating our new website, and will check back often for updates here in the blog section, as well as on the main pages.

Leave us a comment below to let us know what you think!

Road to Freedom – Songbird

Thursday, August 26th, 2010

In the fall of 2008 KSS recorded Road to Freedom, which features readings by Bryan and Shannon Prince of first-hand accounts they have collected of enslaved people who found freedom in Canada via the Underground Railroad.

The CD was produced by renowned producer and recording arts educator Kevin Doyle at Fanshawe College in London, Ontario, and a small team of students from Fanshawe also documented the recording process on video. Above is the result.

If you enjoy the music featured in the video, you can purchase it here.