Artistic Director Spotlight: Mark Vuorinen, Grand Philharmonic Choir

With a long and rich history, the Grand Philharmonic Choir has been an integral part of the region’s community. We caught up with Artistic Director Mark Vuorinen to see what makes this choir so amazing.

Q: Tell me about your journey to the Grand Philharmonic Choir?

A: It has been a long journey. I always had a real interest in choral music. I sang at a local boys’ choir and as a teenager, I attended many GPC concerts and heard the big works that I now conduct. I remember thinking to myself then, “Wow that looks like a neat job – It would be neat to be a conductor.”

After studying at Wilfred Laurier, Yale, and completing my Doctoral Musical Arts degree in Conducting at the University of Toronto, I was the Music Director of the Toronto Chamber Choir before coming back to the region in 2010 and becoming the Artistic Director of the Grand Philharmonic Choir.

Q: What can we expect in the current season?

A: Our next major concert is Handel’s Messiah. We perform it almost every year and it is one of our most attended performances. We’re always excited to put that concert on because there’s always a lot of energy put in to this production with the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony.

In February, we do a concert that I’m quite excited about because it has to do with music and peace – something that I’m quite passionate about – called Grant Us Peace. We will be performing three different works that will come together to make an interesting program.

The last concert that we hold at The Centre is our Good Friday concert. It is a tradition that goes back many, many years. We rotate through three works by Johann Sebastian Bach each year, so this year it’s St. Mathew Passion. We’ve got two returning soloists that I’m looking forward to having back: Rufus Müller, world renowned for his role of the Evangelist; and Tyler Duncan, a Canadian living in New York taking on the role of Christus.

Q: Has there ever been a time you broke away from tradition and did something different?

A: I’ve taken the choir in some slightly different directions in regards to repertoire. We are a large symphonic choir of 100 singers, with our repertoire coming from choral orchestras of European-heritage composers like Bach, Handel, Mendelson and Mozart. In early November, we gave two performances of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana where we did a lesser known version of the piece. Instead of using a full orchestra, we used two pianos and quartet of percussion players, creating the unique effect of voices and drums.

We currently have over a hundred singers in our main choir, and a chamber choir of 30-35 singers who are all in the main choir too. We also have a children’s choir for ages 7-14 and a youth choir for those in high school up until they’re in college, ranging from ages 14-22. One of the important things we do with the children and youth choirs (and to a certain extent the adults), is to include some formal music education. They learn how to read music, as well as learn music theory and history as they sing in the choir.

Q: Have you had people who move on from the children or youth choir in to the adult choir?

A: Yes, although it takes a little bit of time. Those from the youth choir graduate from high school and then move away to university, but some do come back after they’ve finished their studies. We’ve had a resurgence of youth choir singers who left 6 or 7 years ago and have returned to the adult choir this year as 25-26 year olds. That’s great because it carries on the tradition, and also brings youthfulness to the adult choir. One of the great things about having a choir system like us is that it takes us from age 7 to age 77. You can be with the GPC and sing right through life.

Q: How do you select the pieces that will be included in the season’s repertoire?

A: In some ways that decision has been made for me already. I inherited some well-established traditions like the Good Friday concert from my predecessor and I’m so pleased to continue that tradition. We also do Messiah regularly so that’s another great tradition.

There are a few concerts in the year that I have a little more freedom to choose works from. Part of the choir’s mandate is to sing newer music and Canadian music. This year, our February concert Grant Us Peace features a Canadian composer John Estacio with his piece inspired by the Middle East conflict. What happens sometimes with Canadian works is that they only get performed at their premiere and then never again. I wanted to make sure this work got heard again another time, so I designed this concert around this one Canadian piece to make sure that we got to perform it again.

When I look at a multi-year progression of the concerts that we do, I try to blend it with a mixture of older and newer, of sacred and secular, so that we have a variety of themes to work with. I look for at least one opportunity to have all of our choirs sing together in some capacity, which is a challenge because there are not that many works that are written for an adult and a children’s choir. So I’ve commissioned a couple of pieces that I’ve specifically requested to have a separate part for each of our choirs.

Q: What’s your vision for the Grand Philharmonic Choir?

A: The choir has been here since 1922, and part of my vision is to maintain some of the traditions that the choir has established. That can be more and more difficult as our audience and singers age, but we’re always looking for new audience members and singers. My job is to balance the history and tradition of this choir while still being a vibrant and important part of the cultural landscape. That means trying to find our audience in different kinds of ways.

We’ve designed a number of outreach opportunities like the Philharmonic Sing-In where we use the Kitchener City Hall rotunda on Saturday mornings and invite members of the public to come and sing with us. They don’t have to have any experience whatsoever, and they can come sit among the choir and we’ll sing parts of whatever we’re working on at the time. We also rent out the Princess Cinemas at least once a year where we show a documentary that has something to do with the music that’s coming up in our next concert to appeal to those who are in to movies.