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Thirty years and going strong: the choir looks back

The Grand Forks Choral Society is celebrating its anniversary with a spring concert.
From left, Mary-Ann Westaway, Anna Groeneveld, Nanci Gillmor and Cianda Bourrel in 2004 when the choir got new risers. (Nanci Gillmor/Submitted)

The Grand Forks Choral Society has changed over the years. From its beginning as a 20-odd person choir pulling together a few songs, to a large-scale choral ensemble that has performed on one of the world’s most famous stages, it’s been 30 years of growth – and they’re just getting started.

It was October 1988 and a few members of the community had the idea to start a choir. Music educators Tracey Garvin, Bill Gratten and Jill McVie decided to host the first meeting, which took place in a classroom at Perley.

Garvin said about 20 or so people attended that first meeting. By Christmas, the group had managed to pull together a few songs and performed for the first time with the Grand Forks Secondary School choir By acclamation, Garvin said she ended up the music director, a position she would go on to hold for the next 20 years.

Garvin said that in the early days the choir worked a lot on technique, bringing in coaches and attending workshops. Garvin said they did a mix of classical, Canadian and folk songs.

“The singers were really eager, right from the beginning,” she said.

In a copy of the Gazette from the founding of the choir, Bruce Gratten said they wanted to give everyone in the Boundary a space to sing, regardless and free from “religious or ethnic” affiliations.

“I’m quite excited by the potential of it all,” Gratten said.

Nanci Gillmor is one choral society member who has been involved from the beginning and a longtime president of the society.

She said she thought the choral society started up because there was “a piece missing” from the cultural and social fabric of Grand Forks and the Boundary.

“I like to sing. We needed a choir, I don’t belong to a church so there is not that opportunity, I had three young kids and it was something I could do for myself,” she said.

While the group started out with around 30 members that first year, it has grown to over 60 now, Gillmor said.

A common theme emerged in why members past and present had decided to join the choir: belonging. Gillmor said some of the greatest benefits of the choir to her have been the friendships, especially her friendship with Tracey Garvin.

It was a sentiment echoed by Garvin, who said she had recently moved to the Boundary when she got involved in starting the choir. Former music director Joan Thompson said she was looking for a musical community. Current music director Kirsten Rezansoff said she became involved when she moved to the area as a new teacher at Christina Lake Elementary.

“I didn’t know anyone in town. I started showing up on Wednesday nights and it was such a great sense of belong to be with other singers like that, and it helped me make connections in the community where I hadn’t before,” Rezansoff said.

Thompson, music director for the choir from 2008-12, has a doctorate of music education, skills she said came in handy while the musical director.

“I think because a lot of my skills could be used, it was a variety of things I could help with… it was a multi-musical role,” she said. “They are lovely people to work with, I felt very appreciated, and knowing it was key to the musical health of the community.”

During Thompson’s tenure, Gillmor said the performances became productions – something Thompson also recognized. Performances became elaborate, often involving at least three choirs, costumes and sets.

“My vision for performances involved a bit more musical theatre, a little more drama,” Thompson said. “I liked to visually present what we were singing.”

The audiences have grown, Gillmor said, and have come to appreciate the choir and all involved.

The choir was then, and still is, always eager to learn and constantly improving, Garvin said.

“They were really open to learning,” Garvin said. “There are people from all walks of life, it builds community and family. They are so warm and supportive. “

Gillmor said while the choir has changed over the 30 years – membership has fluctuated, the type of music and performances has varied – the thing that has remained constant is the choir’s commitment to the community.

“We keep tickets to $10, not because we don’t do a quality production but because we believe it needs to be affordable, that everyone can come,” Gillmor said.

The group has travelled over the years, sometimes to Nelson and to other Kootenay-area festivals and concerts. But the group’s most exciting trip may have been the most recent, as it travelled to New York to perform at Carnegie Hall last fall.

Everyone has a favourite memory of a performance they loved. For Thompson, it was her last concert as director, the Peace on Earth Concert, at which they performed with the Doukhobor Community Choir.

For Gillmor, one of the more memorable was the first time the choir performed “Concerto for Singing Chickens” – the entire choir was wearing beaks, and Gillmor herself was the singing chicken, complete with a football ‘egg” laid on stage.

Across the board, current and former choir members said how healthy and impactful it has been for them to sing in a group.

“It has been my sanity, it is my community participation, my volunteer work,” Gillmor said. “It’s not the concerts that are the most wonderful, it is going every Wednesday night to sing with other people that want to sing. It is very healthy.”

Garvin, for her part, described Gillmor as the “glitter glue” that held the choir together for 30 years. There from the beginning, Garvin said Gillmor was key to making the choir what it is today.

The choir has so much to be proud of, Rezansoff said: they handle every challenging piece of repertoire she gives them and rolls with even the most unusual asks –like a song including kazoos.

“We persevere, and the sense of accomplishment when we take something that is really challenging is really exciting,” she said.

The themes of the last 30 years will be running through their upcoming concert. Garvin, who has retired from the choir now, will be coming back to do some guest conducting, and Rezansoff said they will be pulling some favourite pieces from the choir’s music library.

Over the years, since Rezansoff joined in 2006, she said she’s seen membership grow and see more young members joining all the time, something she believes is reflective of the community as a whole.

And for the next 30 years, there are hopes that the choir remains strong, growing and vital to the community.

“I always say to the members on opening night we are a community choir and that word ‘community’ comes before ‘choir.’ I hope there is a real sense of building that team, community, that cares not just about each other but the boundary,” Rezansoff said. “Singing together is medicine, it is community building.”

The Grand Forks Choral Society will be presenting 30 Great Years on April 28 and 29. See the program in the April 25 issue of the Gazette.

The choral society went carolling in 1990. (Nanci Gillmor/Submitted)