Music has a way of bringing people together. It’s a universal language that touches our hearts and resonates with us. Though we have many differences, as a global society and even within our immediate communities, almost all of us can appreciate a funky beat, a soaring ballad or a mellow groove. This is the sentiment behind the Unison Festival, a quadrennial celebration of song that brings together LGBT choral groups from across Canada. The festival began in Edmonton in 1998; since then Toronto, Vancouver and Winnipeg have each had the chance to play host city. This year, from May 16 to 19, Unison comes to Ottawa.
Bringing Unison here has been a nine-year labour of love for Tone Cluster member and Unison Festival Ottawa president Gianluca Ragazzini. The choir, along with the Ottawa Gay Men’s Chorus (CGOGMC) and In Harmony Women’s Chorus, will be hosting the festival. “We wanted something that all the GLBT choirs in Ottawa were involved in without threatening their existence,” Ragazzini says.
Putting on an event of this magnitude, with more than 500 delegates from 19 Canadian choirs, takes an enormous amount of time and resources. So much so that the inaugural festival nearly bankrupted its host choir. To mitigate this it was decided to register the festival as a charity, protecting the autonomy of the host choirs now and in the future. “It’s been a great experience bringing the three choirs together and building towards this event,” says Chris Peacock, musical director of In Harmony. The three host choirs will join forces to sing at the opening performance.
Visiting choirs from across Canada include the Vancouver Men’s Chorus, the Edmonton Vocal Minority, Ensemble Vocal Ganymède from Montreal and the Women Next Door from Halifax. “It’s an exciting time to gain repertoire and exchange repertoire ideas,” says Kurt Ala-Kantti, Unison artistic director and conductor of Tone Cluster. A banquet held on the Sunday night, featuring guest speaker Ivan E Coyote, will afford the choirs a chance for some much-needed socializing.
“This is one of the only non-Pride [LGBT] festivals that happens in Canada, and it’s on quite a large scale,” says CGOGMC board member Glenn Walsh. “I definitely think there’s a strong value to choral music in our community.” Performances and events, including the Show Tune Showdown, continue throughout all four days. To close out the festival, all 19 choirs will come together to sing a specially commissioned piece by Ottawa composer Laura Hawley, with lyrics by poet Lynn Andrews.
“Choral music in particular is about voice. It’s about bringing voices together to create a whole,” Walsh says. “So here’s a chance to have a voice that’s supported by other voices and to make a really loud and clear message through music.”
Following the success of last season’s Words concert, Tone Cluster is bringing back the concept for a second round, partnering with youth from the Ottawa-Gatineau region to explore diversity and address bullying through music. Inspired in part by the now ubiquitous It Gets Better Project, Tone Cluster will sing with a group of high school choirs, including Chorale De La Salle and Arnprior District High School choir Red Velvet, tackling pieces that include the Boomtown Rats’ “I Don’t Like Mondays” and the Rankin Family’s “We Rise Again.”
“I don’t think [bullying] is ever going to completely go away unless we keep talking about it,” says Tone Cluster conductor Kurt Ala-Kantti.
“Once you’ve learned the notes and the rhythms and stuff like that, you start talking about the message and why are we doing this,” adds Chorale De La Salle conductor Robert Filion, who will be guest-conducting Words.2. Many high school students now address the issue of bullying in their classes, but exploring it through music is a more dynamic approach. “I think it’s a great opportunity for them to sort of start being involved in community events outside the school,” Filion says. “[It shows them] you can have an impact outside of just your little life.”