This week we talked with our fabulous Music Director of the Vancouver Bach Children’s Choirs, Marisa Gaetanne. Marisa, or “Ms G” as the students refer to her, has been with the VBCC for more than 20 years. Her energy, expertise and enthusiasm has made her beloved by students and audiences alike. We asked her a few questions about her early choral years and some of her inspirations.
What are some of your earliest choral memories?
My family lived in an enchanting small town by the Cheshire Cliffs, England, called Alderley Edge, (made famous by the children’s books of Alan Garner). It was Christmas time and I was in grade 2 I think. The class was practicing for the Christmas Concert and my beloved teacher, Mrs. Morris, with typical aplomb said something like, ‘Right, crawl up here on the desk Marisa, you are going to be the angel’. I had no idea what she was on about but I trusted her implicitly so up I went. ‘Sing this’ she said, ‘it is called a descant’. (Everyone sang, daily, in the classroom and in the daily assembly, so there was no embarrassment or fluster). ‘Now hum that to yourself’ she said, ‘while I get Joseph and Mary sorted out over here’. A little later, when we all sang together (I think it was ‘the Angel Gabriel from Heaven came’), I experienced singing a descant for the first time, soaring over top of my classmates. (this was England so it was likely sung in parts already at Gr 2!) I was entranced with the sounds in my ear, and a diva was born.
Extraordinary classroom management now that I think back: because absolute trust and a loving relationship was created in the classroom we children did anything asked without knowing that it was hard or awkward. Even Mr. Leach, who terrified and beguiled us with his dramatic reading of the Tales of Narnia (C S Lewis), was beloved. He carried me out of the ‘hole’ one morning (I finally realized they meant ’the Hall’, where morning assembly’s were held) after I threw my cornflakes up all over him one day. I was deeply embarrassed and ashamed that my ‘American’ family ate cornflakes. He was so matter of fact and kind. What a wonderful start I had there at that little Village school, my first experiences beyond my own family. The deep love of language and literature and music in England seeps into your pores. I was very lucky that my mother was an adventurous spirit and that we had landed in that lovely little town.
You were the youngest person ever to sing with Vancouver Chamber Choir; what are some of your favourite memories, musical or otherwise, of your time performing with them?
The first time I sang/heard Palestrina was a revelation. Ben Heppner was sitting behind me on the tenor line, the most gorgeous spinning light sound enveloping me (and he goes on to sing Wagner!). Then Ray Nurse, big booming bass, takes the polyphonic line. It was like seeing a gorgeous geometrical design in sound. I could hardly speak afterwards, truly transported to another realm.
I had just turned 16 and was starting music school at Van Community College, where Jon Washburn ran the choirs. He asked me to sub in for a concert with the Van Chamber Choir. I was terrified. All these older people with huge voices who could sight read anything. I loved watching him conduct..the gestures you know…and then he told me on my second day, in front of all these amazing adults, to clean up after myself, not leave my cough candy wrapper behind and to remember to put my chair away. I was so ashamed. He was just instilling a professional environment and I guess I was clued out.😊 What consummate musicians they are-I learned so so much about how to listen, about the vastness of choral repertoire, about getting yourself together every night for a concert-hair, make up, gowns etc. Everything is a revelation at that age…my first escargots in a little French restaurant in Northern Quebec on tour…singing my first Messiah at the Orpheum….hearing Bruce Pullan sing for the first time in that concert, when he first came to Canada and sang tenor, and gosh, the way he smashed those pottery shards on the top A in “Thou Shalt Break Them” was so so effective and riveting …joining the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir in Toronto for double choir yummy rep. Then there was the time a decade ago when I again subbed in for a few shows and the tenors sitting behind me told me to go get a new hair colorist because mine had missed a big spot of grey…thank you boys!
When were you first inspired to start conducting choral music?
Hah! I wasn’t inspired, I was commanded! I had a new born baby daughter, recently returned from a few years working in Toronto (where in addition to working as an usher at Roy Thompson Hall and hearing so many world class singers rehearse and perform, I sang chorus in a Murray Schafer opera. We had to climb up miles of steps on the onstage scaffolding to sit & sing high above the stage. I was pregnant and dizzy and realized then that I don’t like heights😊). Also sang in several shows, premiered a wonderful opera by Mavor Moore and studied voice in NYC & TO…)
But I digress. I was trying to create a life for myself in Vancouver. Joyce Maguire (another amazing Brit-who actually had a degree in choral accompanying from the RAM) was the creator/manager of the VBCC with Bruce Pullan. She had been my piano teacher, she sent me at 15 to my first singing teacher and then told me to go to VCC for first year music study. So, now she told me I was going to conduct one of the Junior choirs at VBCC in the Fall. I said : ‘I can’t do that Joyce, I don’t know the first thing about conducting.’ She then asked me for the names of all the conductors I had sung with and pointed out that I was a good singer and role model and that these were little children who needed a good leader, etc etc. So, I started that Fall after reading every book I could find about children’s choirs (thank you Mrs. Bartle)
Any highlights of your time working with Bruce Pullan and Joyce Maguire?
I learned something from Bruce every single time he did a workshop for the combined Junior choirs I led. Such imagination and a plethora of skills he had. Another fond memory is sitting with the Juniors at the Orpheum every December at the Christmas Concert and watching Joyce play from the audience seats below. Her hands and arms so deft and relaxed, her eye on Bruce and the kids, you could feel her listening and creating. She was stunning. She enhanced the bass when needed, added an upper octave if the kids were going out of tune, raised an eyebrow if she disagreed with Bruces’s tempo. It was a whole course in phrasing & collaboration to watch the two of them work.
What is one of your favourite pieces to conduct?
Oh Holy Night at the end of our annual Christmas with the Bach Choir concert. Tingles, every time.
Any favourite VBCC memories to share?
My favourite moments at VBCC are watching the faces of the children as they experience what their voices can do, as they sing & fall in love with new music, or when they attend a rehearsal with orchestra for the first time. They often sit right behind the brass in Carmina Burana or Mahler 8 and they can’t believe the sound!
Your favourite opera role to perform?
I sang Zerbinetta in New Yorkat Long Island (something) Opera 100 years ago. That was great fun-so much staging and dancing while trilling on high D’s. I sang the angel in Mahler 8 with VBC & Bruce, standing up in the audience in the Gods. That was fun too. Loved doing the Brahms Requiem with Iwen Edwards and VBC too-such a musical conductor-he really let those phrases arch.
Your favourite musical?
Oh gosh, that’s hard. I made my Mom sit through ’Sound of Music’ 3 times in a row when I was little, so I guess that’s the one for me.
What have you been doing during COVID to relax – reading, walking, listening to music, watching TV, staring at a wall?
I haven’t relaxed yet. I plan to soon 🙂 April-June were a wash of endless webinars & tech issues, cables & equipment to teach voice & choir online. Developing and assessing new skills I needed. I’m happy to say that online voice lessons are going really well now and I’m so glad to be able to continue connection with my students this way. I’m looking forward to online choir in Sept too-there is much we can do together, despite the awful lag and hearing issues. I enjoy popping down to the beach in the evenings with my Tommy Bahama chair and reading a good book with my toes in the water. So far, I have read ’24/6’ by Tiffany Slain, ‘Samantha Power: the education of an Idealist’, Madeleine Albright ‘Facism: A Warning’ and of course my summer go-to books about Commissario Brunetti in Venice by Donna Leon. I am still plowing though ‘Behave’ (Robert Sapolsky) & ‘Home Deus’ (Yuval Noah Harari), which I suspect will go on for a while until I can absorb and retain.
Any guilty pleasure music or favourite albums you’ll listen to when you have the time?
I rarely listen to music at home as I am using my ears all day long. I enjoy the sounds of silence. This summer I have had many early mornings on my lovely deck, full of flowers, listening to the birds and the little waterfall nearby.