The Vancouver Men’s Chorus “brings such an effervescent joy to the shows and the spring season in particular is a big party for the chorus and audience alike.” (photo by Mark Burnham Photography)
The Vancouver Men’s Chorus (VMC) Sizzlin’ Summer concert promises to be a lively and entertaining experience.
“The VMC is more than just your average choral concert – we have the chops to pull off some pretty complex vocal arrangements, but we also like to mix that up with pure upbeat fun,” said Jewish community member Dr. David Rothwell, who is one of the choreographers of the show, which sees several performances June 9-17 at Performance Works on Granville Island. “The group brings such an effervescent joy to the shows, and the spring season in particular is a big party for the chorus and audience alike,” he said. “Whether it’s pulling out some disco moves for a nostalgic trip to ABBA’s heyday, or donning umbrellas after a hairy forecast from the Weather Girls, the choreography put together by myself and my fellow choreographers (Randy Romero and Jason Yau) helps tell the story of our music and elevates that entertainment factor even higher. We even get the entire chorus to join along in their own way.”
Humphrey Tam, VMC’s vice-president of marketing and communications, as well as a singer in the choir, shared a sneak peek at the repertoire.
“In Sizzlin’ Summer,” he said, “we have music ranging from your pop classics like ‘The Raining Men,’ ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,’ ‘Summer Breeze,’ to new hits like ‘Summer Time Sadness’ by Lana Del Rey and ‘New Rules’ by Dua Lipa, to the world première performance of ‘Ocean Songs’ by composer Gerry Ryan (former arranger and first tenor of the VMC) who, sadly, passed away few years ago.”
Conducting Sizzlin’ Summer will be VMC artistic director Willi Zwozdesky, who has been with the chorus since its inception; resident accompanist Dr. Stephen Smith has been with the VMC since the 1990s.
“Both of them are instrumental in the success of the Vancouver Men’s Chorus,” said Tam. “In 2021, we expanded our musical team to include an assistant conductor, David Buchan, who brought in another layer to our sound. On top of that, we have a full orchestra band in our concerts!”
The chorus rehearses every Wednesday, except during July and August, when they take a break; there are also extra rehearsals on Sundays a month or two before a concert.
While VMC is an audition-required group, Tam said the “singers are a mix of people with tons of background in music and theatre to someone who has no previous musical experience. We welcome everyone to audition and, even if you can’t sing, there are plenty of opportunities to join the chorus as a volunteer to help out with productions.” He said he was, before joining the chorus, “one of those who had no musical background except for playing the clarinet for one year back in Grade 8.”
Rothwell, who used to teach dance before moving to Canada from Australia, is an animator by trade, so “movement is my bread and butter, whether on the stage or the screen,” he said.
“After moving to Vancouver in 2018 with my husband, we saw the VMC performing their hearts out in the annual Pride Parade. We were quick to reach out to see if they were taking new members and, five years later, we’re basically part of the furniture!” said Rothwell. “We both grew up immersed in music, and it’s been a perfect way to pursue our interests and build a network of vibrant, talented friends in Vancouver’s queer community.”
About Jewish community, Rothwell said, “My mum reconnected with our family’s Jewish roots when I was a teen, so while I wasn’t immersed in that side of my heritage until that point, I’ve grown to recognize and appreciate the tenacity, humour and joie de vivre that I feel is ingrained in the Jewish spirit, including my own. These days, I’ll gladly join a seder and keep everyone’s cups full to the brim!”
For VMC member Dr. Etienne Melese, much of his connection to Judaism also came from his mother. “When I was young,” he shared, “she taught me about all the Jewish traditions, holidays, and growing up in New York helped, too.”
Proud of being Jewish, he said, “I feel the history deeply.” While Melese’s paternal grandfather survived the Holocaust, other members of his family did not. “We still visit their memorial in Paris (Mémorial de la Shoah) every time we visit, and I think about the courage it took survivors to live through that time,” he said.
Melese, who earned his PhD in immunology from the University of British Columbia and is currently working in biotech on designing new therapeutics for diseases such as cancer, said, “I came to the Vancouver Men’s Chorus because I wanted the opportunity to sing again. I had spent six-plus years doing my PhD and, during that time, had not been singing in a choir, which I used to enjoy so much! Also, the community – I wanted to expand my network of friends.”
Melese has been in many choirs over the years. What draws him to singing, he said, is “being able to express yourself. I find, through music, I am able to access so many feelings that are hard to just put into words…. I find there is an energy to choirs that can really change your outlook that day.”
Knowing that such benefits can come from choral singing, the Vancouver Men’s Chorus remained active during the pandemic, albeit in different ways.
“It was a very difficult time for the chorus,” said Tam. “From a choir point of view, not being able to sing as a group and perform was a huge loss to us; but, on top of all things, the VMC is a huge support group for our members, it’s a huge chosen family. Every week when we meet, we share our stories and we socialize. Not having that bonding time with each other definitely was strange and hard for some of us. Luckily, despite not being able to sing together, we still continued to have Zoom activities throughout the entire 2020 and 2021, and we recorded two digital concerts to keep doing what we love. Starting September 2021, we rehearsed together again but with masks and social distancing, and performed our first in-person concert in two years with Making Spirits Bright 2021 (also with masks on). Thinking back, I really don’t know how we did that.”
The VMC is a diverse and inclusive group, with members ranging from 18 to 70+ years old, said Tam. “We have open rehearsals every September and January for anyone to come join us at our rehearsals and sing with us,” he said. “From there, they can see if we are a good fit for them and sign up for an audition.”
Rothwell is keen for more people to experience the choir. “In addition to our spring season in June, the VMC also is well underway in preparing for our December season, Making Spirits Bright,” he said. “As always, our music selection committee makes sure to include songs for all holidays of the season; celebrating Hanukkah continues to be a mainstay of our setlist, along with the winter solstice and more. We’re gearing up for another great show this December, so I’d also encourage readers to keep an eye out for our next show, Cheers!, later this year.”
But, returning to Sizzlin’ Summer, Melese shared his favourite song: “‘The Summer Nights,’ a play on Grease, so fun!”
For tickets and more information, visit vancouvermenschorus.ca.