It may seem a stretch to go from a spirited musical exploration of the bathhouse raids to an intense series of songs tackling the Holocaust but that’s just the kind of artistic stretch members of Forte: The Toronto Men’s Chorus and its musical director Edward Connell want to make.
The forthcoming concert celebrating the chorus’s 10th anniversary features an ambitious program, including an extremely rare piece “Missa In Nativitatis,” a Catholic mass written in 1943 by William Hilmsley, a Jewish and gay composer interned at Auschwitz. He wrote the mass as a Christmas gift to his fellow prisoners — a circle of Catholic gay friends. “It’s stunningly beautiful,” says Connell. “Serene, heavenly, angelic.” Hilmsley survived the war and died in New York in 2002.
The Hilmsley mass joins two other pieces written in the camps. Plus actor and Soulpepper cofounder William Webster will narrate Schoenberg’s harrowing six-minute piece “A Survivor From Warsaw.” “At the end, the chorus comes in with an atonal evocation of a Hebrew chant,” says Connell. “Live, it can be devastating.”
The Holocaust section is just one of four; the concert offers as much hope and light as pathos and devastation. Guests Stephen Erickson and Bruno Cormier sing the gorgeous Pearl Fishers duet by Bizet. And the bill includes sacred works by Gabriel Faure, well-known African-American spirituals and holiday fare like a Hanukkah hymn, a Puerto Rican carol and the Huron Carol in a new a cappella setting by Connell.
Connell has been Forte’s director since 2002; he’s also a pianist with the National Ballet Of Canada. A renowned organist, he was music director at Edmonton’s McDougal United Church and Toronto’s Timothy Eaton Memorial Church.
Connell feels some community arts groups sacrifice quality for inclusiveness. “Every program we do, whether it’s Steam Heat, or Queerly Beloved or this one, it has to be worthwhile,” he says. “The gay choir movement has suffered from a form of insularity. It’s not good enough. Forte wants to be recognized as a legitimate artistic force in this city. And we’re right on the edge of that.”