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Annual holiday tradition returns to Massey Hall

The boys of St. Michael's Choir School at their concert in December 2008 (Photo courtesy of: St. Michael's Choir School)

With the hustle and bustle of the holiday season, some of the season’s traditions are sure to offer some peace of mind, such as sipping on some eggnog, carol singing, baking gingerbread cookies, or even putting up the Christmas tree.

In Toronto, one of the most beloved traditions of the season is the annual St. Michael’s Choir School concert at Massey Hall. For 70 years — 44 years at Massey Hall — the boys of St. Michael’s Choir have enriched the festive season with joyful and spiritual music.

This year’s concert program, entitled “Sing We Noël, Noël We Sing,” was created especially for this anniversary, filled with both spiritual and secular melodies.

“It’s a collection of sacred and traditional Christmas music [and] there are some festive songs where we ask the audience to sing along,” said Katheryn Trainor, the administrative director of St. Michael’s Choir School. “[The pieces] really show the beauty of the Christmas season.”

Some of the songs include excerpts from John Rutter’s choral song-cycle, “Dancing Day,” featuring harpist Sanya Eng, Felix Mendelssohn’s “Ave Maria Op.23, no. 2”, “Dashing Through the Snow,” George Frideric Handel’s “Hallelujah!” from Messiah and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” to name a few.

“[Dancing Day] … it’s very beautiful, a lot of people in the music industry would be familiar with that,” said Trainor.

There’s also a sacred piece called, “E’en So, Lord Jesus Quickly Come,” which is based on a poem by Paul Manz, and the French carol, “Noël Nouvelet.” There’s also an alumnus connection to this year’s concert. The senior choir will be singing, “Hodie, Christus Natus Est,” an original composition by former student Dr. Kola Owolabi.

“We’ve tried to really bring in this year the joyful spirit of Christmas, the praise and happiness of the Christmas season,” explained Trainor. “So that when you leave the concert, you’ll be humming something in your head, and basically, it’s a great start to the Christmas celebrations that we’ll have with our family and friends in December.”

The performances will also showcase three conductors — Jerzy Cichocki, the artistic director and conductor of the senior choirs, Caron Daley, the conductor of the junior choir, and Teri Dunn, the elementary choir’s conductor — and organist William O’Meara, who is also a teacher at the school.

But, the concert’s main highlight is the ethereal, powerful and jubilant sounds of the boys in the choirs, who are from the ages of eight to 18.

“[…] There’s some beautiful soprano songs where you’ll just hear the lovely young soprano male voice. And it goes all the way up to four-part harmonies — soprano, tenor, alto, bass — with all the boys involved,” said Trainor.

And it is this musicality and talent that has made St. Michael’s Choir School such a respected institution. It also holds the prestigious distinction of being connected with the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music in Rome. Notable alumni have included jazz crooner Matt Dusk, Celtic singer John McDermott, Kevin Hearn of the Barenaked Ladies and Michael Burgess, Les Misérables fame.

The school was formed in 1937, with the concert’s inception in 1939. Trainor said at that time, the role of the school was to provide sacred music to next door St. Michael’s Cathedral.

“Back then, the school was very different than it is today. It was a smaller school […] so at the time they were doing the music, but they weren’t getting their academic studies here, which they are now,” she explained.

The students not only receive the best of both worlds, but they also get the privilege of performing at Massey Hall, which in its over 100-year history has seen iconic musicians on its stage, from James Brown to Gordon Lightfoot. It is this experience that the students will never forget.

“The young ones are very nervous, they’re excited, there’s a lot of emotion involved because it’s quite a beautiful but intimidating performing environment at Massey Hall, they know that other famous and professional musicians have performed there before them,” said Trainor.

Performances will be held on Friday, Dec. 11 at 8 p.m. and Saturday, Dec. 12 at 3 p.m. Tickets are from $22.50-$36.50, available for purchase by calling 416-872-4255 or online at: www.masseyhall.com