Lydia Adams

Lydia Adams

Choral leader continues to shape sound

Lydia Adams conducts from the legacy her predecessor, Elmer Iseler, left behind.

It was 15 years ago that Lydia Adams received a call from the board of directors of one of Canada’s most respected choral groups. Their esteemed leader had fallen ill, and they needed someone to take over the baton in the interim.

Adams, who was living in London, Ont. at the time and was, and still is, the conductor of the 100-plus voice Amadeus Choir, quickly travelled to Toronto to take on the job.

It wasn’t easy at first to step inside the shoes of one of Canada’s most revered choral leaders, but Adams soon found her place.

After Elmer Iseler succumbed to a brain tumour in 1998, Adams was asked to officially take the podium, and she continues to lead the choir that bears Iseler’s name with the same pride and passion her predecessor did.

“When Elmer passed away it was so tough on the choir. There was an uncertainty in the organization. We also felt so bad for his family. It was incredibly tough to sing at his funeral,” remembers Adams. “Not only did the board and the choir make the decision to go forward, every new audience had to go forward also.”

That passion for singing will be heard when the 20-member Elmer Iseler Singers perform two concerts in Vernon Monday. The North Okanagan Community Concert Association is rolling out the red carpet for the singers, staging a gala event for the evening performance.

It’s an honour owed not just to Adams and her group, but to Iseler, who was a sound pioneer and pivotal to the development of choral music in Canada.

He founded the Elmer Iseler Singers in 1979, and the choir would go on to become one of Canada’s most illustrious professional chamber ensembles.

“Elmer was a genius in shaping sound. He never approached the same piece of music the same way,” said Adams. “He could make the ordinary piece of music sound great and approached it from a whole different level to make it sound fantastic. It taught me a huge lesson and still does to this day.”

Born and raised in Glace Bay, N.S., Adams,  started her musical career as a pianist.

Her mother was a choir director and her father was a natural storyteller, and she grew up playing piano and learning theory, eventually going on to accompany her mother’s singing groups in the church and community.

“As I got older, mom would bring me to Sunday service and I would play the organ, even though I didn’t really know how to play the organ,” laughed Adams. “There was a positive sphere of influence growing up. My mom was my unofficial piano teacher, and I studied with another teacher. It was all encompassing, but luckily mom and her were on the same wavelength.”

It was in her home province where Adams first met Iseler when she was hired to play piano at a summer camp for the Nova Scotia Choral Federation. Iseler was there conducting.

“We hit it off immediately,” said Adams.

Adams’ respect for Iseler was further sealed the first time she heard him conduct Mozart’s Requiem.

“He would stretch the beat so long, you couldn’t take a breath,” said Adams. “He’d conduct workshops with people across the country, and all of a sudden they would be making this extraordinary music.”

Adams has ensured that Iseler’s legacy lives on, and that there is always a future for choral music, through the group’s education program. She and the singers often conduct workshops, working with high school students and up-and-coming composers.

“We have even invited some of them in the recording  studio with our sound technician Dave Burnham, who is a former recording engineer with the CBC,” said Adams. “He has helped young recording engineers to learn to record choral groups, which is a science in itself.”

Adams, like Iseler, is also a huge proponent of supporting Canadian content and composers, and says there is no better feeling as when she and the choir open up a brand new piece of music they have commissioned.

“We always look for things that will widen our scope, said Adams. “We like to expand our knowledge and experience and not just perform traditional choral music.”

In 2010, the singers commissioned Vancouver-based choral composer Hussein Janmohamed to write a distinctively Islamic  piece of music. The choir performed his Surah An-Nur, which comes from the Verse of Light from the Qur’an, at the Sing for the Earth Canadian Choral Celebration in Toronto.

“He wanted to make our voices authentic and to expand our approach. He built the piece with us, and had it all in his head,” said Adams. “We had a group of people come to the performance that had never been to a choral concert before.”

The Elmer Iseler Singers will engage local audiences with a repertoire that ranges from German motets and spirituals, as well as Schubert’s Ständchen, in an ode to late Canadian contralto Maureen Forrester. Also on the bill are traditional Scottish songs and a selection of Canadian-centric compositions entitled Songs from the Spirit.

Monday’s matinée performance takes place at 1:30 p.m., with the gala at 7:30 p.m.

“The audience is invited to take their gowns out of wraps, shake out their tuxedo and come formally dressed for the evening gala, if they wish,” reports the NOCCA.

Tickets are $35/adult, $17.50/student, $5/eyeGo at the Ticket Seller box office. Call  250 549-7469 for information.