Ottawa choirs won't be silenced by pandemic

Local ensembles are finding ways to spread a little Christmas cheer and cut through the gloom of 2020.

Local ensembles determined to spread Christmas cheer, especially this year

‘Christmas is synonymous with music’: How concerts are going ahead during the pandemic

CBC News Ottawa

5 months ago
Soprano Suzie LeBlanc and harpist Caroline Léonardelli performed for a virtual audience this year for the Music and Beyond Christmas concert, which was posted online in a series of twelve videos. Julian Armour, executive director of Music and Beyond, says the virtual concerts are “the next best thing” to live performances. 2:19

Whether the setting is a concert hall, a crowded church or a shopping mall, the sound of yuletide carols being sung by a choir is a staple of the holiday season.

"Music is synonymous with Christmas," said Julian Armour, artistic director of Ottawa's Music & Beyond festival, which entertained more than 800 ticket holders at its annual winter solstice concert last December.

This year, the very act of singing together has been deemed a health risk. With large gatherings forbidden, choirs and music ensembles have been forced to scrap their traditional concerts. Instead, many are trying something different.

As a choir, we are supposed to lift people higher, and I see no reason why we shouldn't continue doing that.- Roxanne Goodman, Big Soul Project

Music & Beyond is offering 12 days of professionally produced classical music videos on a holiday theme, available online for free. Top-quality recording and multiple cameras will help replicate the concert experience for viewers, Armour said.

"It's not the same as doing it in person, but it can still be really warm," he said. "It will be the next best thing."

The Cantata Singers of Ottawa are usually booked solid through December, but not this year.

"2020 could not be more different," said music director Andrew McAnerney. "We can't gather together the whole choir. Everything is very, very small, very low key. "

Soprano Suzie Leblanc rehearses at Southminster United Church for her part in Music & Beyond's virtual festival. (CBC)

This year, McAnerney is taking his singers outside — in small, safely distanced groups — where the masked vocalists will brighten the chilly air with surprise pop-up concerts. 

"You'll have to be lucky to hear us perform," said McAnerney, who isn't revealing times or locations of the performances. "We don't think it's responsible if we tell people where we're playing or singing because we don't want large groups together. We want everyone to be safe."

'More than just singing'

McAnerney said the choir's members have been missing out on the substantial benefits that come with belonging to an ensemble.

"Choirs are more than just singing," he said. "It's fantastic socially, and it's a wonderful, creative outlet for people. And obviously, all that has disappeared with the pandemic, which is a great loss." 

Andrew McAnerney directs a small group from the Cantata Singers in a physically distanced rehearsal. (submitted by Cantata Singers)

Local theatre troupe Bear & Co. is delivering Christmas cheer directly to people's doors this year with its "Catch a Caroler" initiative.

"You can commission someone to come and sing specifically in front of their house," said Eleanor Crowder, the company's artistic director. "They can open their door or they can crack open the windows and hear one of us, an actor who loves Christmas, singing it to you." 

Local actor and choir director Scott Richardson delivers some old-fashioned Christmas carols as part of Bear & Co.'s 'Catch a Caroler' project. (CBC)

Ottawa's Big Soul Project community choir is also making a joyful noise to cut through the gloom this Christmas. Members recorded their individual parts at home, then the tracks were mixed and edited into a series of fundraising videos for the Ottawa Food Bank. 

Choir director Roxanne Goodman said despite the challenges, it was more important than ever to sing out this year. 

"As a choir, we are supposed to lift people higher, and I see no reason why we shouldn't continue doing that, especially in the midst of what is going on in the world right now."

The members of Ottawa's Big Soul Project recorded their individual parts at home to create a fundraising video for the Ottawa Food Bank. (Big Soul Project)


Sandra Abma


Sandra Abma is a veteran CBC arts journalist. If you have an event or idea you want to share, please do at

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now