Immersion in the sound

By Mollie Kaye, June 2015

Ensemble Laude presents two concerts in June, displaying the power of choral music.

It is a palpable experience, being in a choir of human voices. For the singers and their audience, the harmonies and overtones zinging around the room create a kind of echo chamber of “good vibrations.” Apparently choral singing is better for your heart and lungs than yoga, if the medical researchers at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden have it right.

Elizabeth MacIsaac, founder and artistic director of the 40-voice Ensemble Laude women’s choir, says they definitely do. “You’d think being in a choir would be yet another fatigue, but it’s not. It’s something that rejuvenates and reenergizes people.” The immersion in the sound, she says, brings health and healing. “Tons of oxygen is going into your body, abdominal muscles are being stimulated, endorphins released, so many good things.”

Being in the presence of blending voices has a positive effect on us too. This bodes well for those in the audience, and might explain why so many faith traditions involve a choral component. “I think that’s why I prefer a smaller, very reverberant space,” explains MacIsaac. “I wish we could hold a concert in a bathroom or a stairway. An audience receives sound if they are in a big hall, but in a small space they receive the visceral— akin to what the performer is experiencing, and it’s a glorious feeling.”

Audiences will have two opportunities to be engulfed by the sounds of Ensemble Laude this month, in a variety of settings. This a capella group is offering a bouquet of repertoire gathered personally by MacIsaac — with some new works commissioned specifically for the choir by Canadian composers. 

The group is preparing to take its show on the road in 2016, to compete in a choral festival in France. The commissioned pieces help shift some focus onto Canadian music. “Normally we have a broad spectrum from around the world, “ MacIsaac says, but being showcased in the international festival makes Canadiana an imperative. “People there want to hear us sing our heritage. And we need to get that music really, really memorized and solidly down, so it’s better do it a year before.”

The group has a long history of commissioning choral works by Canadians, including Newfoundlander Kathleen Allen, who has created a piece called “Hummingbird.” Allen researched texts of Canadian poets, narrowed it down to three, and chose the one she liked most. “It’s got a constant sense of whirling, just like a hummingbird,” says MacIsaac of the piece, which harnesses the “lopsided” time signatures of 7/8 and 5/8 to push momentum forward.

Another recent commission will also be featured in the “Ah, Canada!” concert. “Sanctus: A Requiem on Vancouver Island,” by composer Sarah Quartel, is described by MacIsaac as an exploration of four elements: earth, water, wind and fire, with each movement exploring the element as part of the Vancouver Island experience. Quartel wrote the piece for the choir as a sort of memoir after leaving the Victoria area. 

“Choral music is poetry, just with different tones,” explains MacIsaac. “When I first started the group, it was only Medieval music. Nobody knew anything about that genre, so it was an opportunity to share it, keep it alive, and educate. Then I realized I needed to explore more than just that.”

This summer, MacIsaac is headed to Pecs, Hungary for the Europa Cantat biennial choral festival, where she’ll share Canadian music with the world-beat crowd—and pick up some new gems for Laude. “I like to travel to find these things. It’s way more fun to find music in that culture than to listen on the computer, which I find quite tedious.” The festival in Pecs, she says, attracts people from all over the world—not just Europe—and has been a reliable source of repertoire from Asia and Africa as well as Estonia and Scandinavia.

MacIsaac’s solo travels are one thing, but taking a whole choir over to Europe calls for community outreach, so the group is hosting “Gala in the Gardens: Midsummer’s Eve with Ensemble Laude” on June 21. Choir supporters will dine on a catered dinner in the splendid post-and-beam pavilion at the Horticulture Centre of the Pacific, and have opportunities to bid on and receive table-side serenades from the singers in a “noisy auction.” There will also be a silent auction, and a 45-minute concert by the choir.

“Women sometimes don’t have as much liberty to up and go,” MacIsaac explains of the need to raise funds for the tour. “When choristers head to France, there are fees for participation, fees for accommodation, transport, the choir is trying to find enough funds to support 25 of us to go.” If there are singers out there in the general public who are inspired to join the choir, she says, “they can learn the repertoire and come with us to the south of France!”

Inclusion is a theme with this group, and one of their latest traditions is to offer a special door prize at each concert—the opportunity for an audience member to come up on the stage and have the group sing to them, so they can soak up all of those amazing vibrations the scientific researchers are raving about. Sometimes, too, the audience is asked to hum a “drone” (a single, sustained note in unison) as the choir sings a piece in tune with the audience’s foundation. “The sound is just huge,” says Meghan Robertson, who has sung with the group for ten years.

“We’re creating an experience,” says MacIsaac. “For the choir, for the audience— to lead them to a new place, with things along the way that are familiar to them. It’s like sushi...somewhere along the way, somebody said, ‘Hey this is wonderful, this Japanese food,’ and suddenly we’ve all had our horizons expanded. Music does the exact same thing. We’re exploring through poetry and song, through the instrument that every human being is born with.”


Ensemble Laude presents “Ah, Canada! Songs from Our Land,” June 14, 7:30 pm, St Mary’s Church, 701 Elgin Road, Oak Bay. $15 advance, $18 at door, $10 students, 12 and under free.

“Gala in the Gardens: Midsummer’s Eve with Ensemble Laude,” dinner, concert, and silent auction takes place June 21, 6pm (garden access at 3:30), Horticulture Centre of the Pacific, 505 Quayle Rd. $80 at 

Mollie Kaye remembers falling asleep as a child to live Brahms piano quartets echoing through her home, and grew up on a steady diet of Glenn Gould. She has sung in choirs all her life, performing at the Aspen Music Festival, Carnegie Hall, and with the St Paul Chamber Orchestra.