Today’s talkBach features our Executive Director, Nina Horvath as she looks back on the choral pieces that shaped her. Nina has been the Executive Director of the Vancouver Bach Choir since 2017, and began working with the organization in 2015. She is also active as a pianist and singer in the Vancouver area.
I’ve had the pleasure of working with the Bach Choir for nearly five years now, but I’ve been involved with choral music for much longer. My path in music started as a pianist, and my love of choral music really crept up on me over the years. It’s only looking back now that I realize how important a through line it has been to not just my music making, but my sense of community, and to some of my most cherished friendships. I thought it would be fun to think back at what choral pieces had a lasting impact on me and really shaped my musical and choral evolution.
I grew up in Rossland, a town of 3500 people, nestled in the mountains of the West Kootenays. There were scarce opportunities for choral singing, but I grew up taking piano and listening to music at home. My grandmother was a musicology professor and spread the love of music to everyone in the family. There are somewhat apocryphal stories of how the only thing my family took when they left Slovakia in the late 60’s were records and books. I consumed a healthy diet of classical music at home, but I didn’t start singing until I was 17, and my route there might not be what you expect.
I remember that the Canadian pianist Stéphane Lemelin was visiting our town as part of the wonderful “Piano Six” program. I was scheduled to have the honour of playing for him in a masterclass, but I was struggling to memorize my Bach Fugue. My teacher was quite exasperated and told me I needed to get it memorized, otherwise I wouldn’t perform! I’m not sure how I arrived at this solution, but I was able to memorize it by learning to play one line while singing the other, until I had gotten through all the voices. It worked! I also discovered that I rather enjoyed singing. And wouldn’t you know it, this discovery happily coincided with the local singing teacher starting a girls choir. I joined and was absolutely delighted that I only had to sight read one line of music at a time, instead of several. I wish I could remember what we sang in those first rehearsals, but all I can recall is an octavo cover with a cartoon drawing of a jazzy Santa Claus.
After high school I took a gap year and spent three months of it travelling in Europe. This was still back in the day of CD’s and I had to carefully select the albums that would accompany me in a CD wallet. One of these albums was the Tallis Scholar’s 25, a compilation from their first 25 years as an ensemble. I was in Annecy, France, recovering from a nasty virus. The last hostel in Genoa didn’t let guests stay in during the day, so I had been forced to find something to do in the city while I was ill with a fever. Upon arriving in Annecy I was finally able to sleep as long as I wanted, staying in bed while I recovered. I have an incredibly vivid memory of listening to Josquin’s Prater rerum seriem and the Victoria Ave Maria for double choir. Maybe it was the last dregs of the fever but the cascading polyphony of the double choir was extraordinary. The way that you could hear each individual line weaving in and out of each other, building up a rich tapestry of sound, created a powerful sense memory that I can recall to this day. In hindsight this was the virus that started the autoimmune response that led to my Type 1 diabetes diagnosis about a month later.
The girls choir, and a year of voice lessons, with the same teacher was enough to spark my interest in choir. When I arrived at the University of Victoria, I auditioned for the UVic Chamber Singers. Alas, I did not get in my first year, but this ended up working out in my favour. That year, the Chamber Singers performed the amazing work by Stravinsky, Les Noces. All the pianists were asked if they were interested in playing, since the work requires four pianos, and I raised my hand, never thinking they would pick me, a first year student. But they did and this experience would not only teach me an immense amount, but be incredibly “ear-opening.” I had never heard anything like this work. With four pianos, eight percussionists, four vocal soloists, and a choir, it was a stunning fusion of the Slavic folk music of my youth, with the visceral rhythms and primal textures of Stravinsky’s writing. I will never forget the sounds of that first tutti rehearsal and the excitement of performing this work.
Several years later, I would get to complete the circle and sing in the choir for this piece with the Vancouver Bach Choir and conductor Leslie Dala.
In my second year at UVic, I was accepted into the Chamber Singers group, and the people I sang with are still some of my closest friends. The Chamber Singers were conducted by Dr. Bruce More during this time, who was equally passionate about choral music as he was about travelling. Thanks to his organizational energy, I was able to go on three tours – to China, Mexico, and Eastern Europe and Russia respectively. Dr. More also gave me my first job as a choral accompanist, a skill that has continued to serve me well. I have very fond memories of these tours and the experiences they brought, but that is a story for another time.
During the three years I sung with the Chamber Singers, I was exposed to a variety of music and many pieces that have stayed with me to this day. I will always remember the stunned excitement of that first rehearsal where we sight read through our entire fall concert program, and it seemed like everyone around me could just read anything! One of the pieces we performed on this first concert was Veljo Tormis’ Curse Upon Iron. I had never heard anything like this work and had no idea that choral music could sound so dark, angry and, well, scary. It’s still one of my favourite pieces to this day and was my first exposure to the rich history of choral music from Scandinavian countries.
I also sang my first German Requiem with Chamber Singers in a special arrangement for organ, harp and timpani. This work has a deeply special place in my soul that has only grown over time. Brahms is my desert island composer. The German Requiem is a piece that is an absolute joy to sing, especially as an alto – you get melodies! It is also a piece that I have turned to again and again during times of grief, sadness or longing. With each event it seems to mould itself to the comfort that you need and my appreciation for it grows deeper with each listening or performance. (Alex Ross wrote an excellent article about this recently)
In my third year, Dr. More was on sabbatical and the choir was taken over by Christopher Butterfield. He programmed Janáček’s Rikadla, which is an absolute delight. For me, it was another perfect fusion of the records of Slovak and Moravian folk music I had grown up, with modern classical music sensibilities. It is not only delightful to listen to, but delightful to perform.
In writing this I noticed that the pieces that stood out the most to me were either those that challenged me immensely as a musician, and those that are just pure beauty. The pieces that you can turn to like comfort food, that envelop you in their rich harmonies and melodic beauty. Works like Samuel Barber’s The Coolin or Vaughan Williams The Turtledove. I can listen to these works whenever I need a pick me up, and they are equally satisfying to sing.
My first round with the Vancouver Bach Choir
One thing that has remained a constant in each place that I’ve lived is choir. It is a way to find an instant community of like-minded people. It has also always reinvigorated my sense of joy in music making. No matter how challenging the pressure of my piano studies was, I could go to choir and make music with friends for the sole reason of joy. When I first moved to Vancouver in 2011 I looked for a choir to join. I found the Vancouver Bach Choir and was motivated to sing with them by the programming that featured two of my favourite pieces – Brahms’ German Requiem and Stravinsky’s Les Noces. It was such a delight to get to sing Les Noces after having played it 7 years earlier, even if it meant learning a lot of Russian.
To Halifax and back again
In 2014 I left Vancouver for a position at Dalhousie University. This was a challenging move with a heavy workload and not much time to meet and make new friends in a new city. Part way through the year, I thought how can I meet new people? And I remembered, that most of my closest friends came from choir. In December, I joined with the Halifax Camerata Singers in time for their holiday Messiah performances. I know many choral singers tire of Messiah, but I have not yet reached that point. I love performing it. These performances were conducted by Jordan de Souza and I remember being invigorated by his thorough understanding and insight of the text and how he married it with his articulation and dynamics choices. I’m grateful to this choir, and conductor Jeff Joudrey, for welcoming me in and reminding me how vital choir can be. I was even fortunate enough to record a CD with them. My only regret is that I wasn’t able to sing with them longer as I left Halifax that spring to return to Vancouver.
I returned to Vancouver a little adrift. I was incredibly lucky that I fell in quickly with two organizations that have indelibly shaped my life – the Vancouver Bach Choir and the Vancouver Cantata Singers. I began working with the Vancouver Bach Choir shortly after my return, and well, here I am today. I also began singing with the Vancouver Cantata Singers and have built a new family of choir friends and many new performance memories. I have loved every concert I have gotten to sing with the Cantata Singers, it makes it difficult to choose a few moments. Especially memorable have been the performances with Early Music Vancouver for their sheer excitement (often precipitated by some breakneck tempos!), and the deep insight they’ve given me into period performance. Being able to sit on stage and watch the musicians of the Pacific Baroque Orchestra work and rehearse has been better than any masterclass.
I will leave you with one transformative work – Schoenberg’s Friede auf Erden (Peace on Earth). Often described as one of the more challenging works in the repertoire, we performed it this past November. The text, the harmonies, the freshness of it over a hundred years after it was debuted, and the cumulative effort that went into performing this will make it linger in my memory for a long time.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of the works that I love. It will also no doubt continue to grow over the following years, but these are some of the works that have the most powerful memories attached to them. While we can’t make music together at present, it has been a comfort to revisit the memories that surround these pieces.