Interview: Stephanie Martin leads grand Elgar oratorio about ordinary people out to change the world

Pax Christi Chorale director Stephanie Martin

A visit to England’s 300-year-old Three Choirs Festival in 2004 sparked a dream in Toronto organist, conductor and York University music professor Stephanie Martin to present The Kingdom, one of Edward Elgar’s grandest choral works.

That dream turns into reality — via years of planning and months of preparation — at Koerner Hall on Sunday afternoon, as Martin leads her 120-singer Pax Christi Chorale, 48-piece orchestra and a worthy clutch of soloists in the first Canadian performance of the work in a quarter century.

All of this is in honour of the 25th anniversary of the Pax Christi Chorale, which Martin has led for many years.

Soprano Shannon Mercer, mezzo Krisztina Szabó and tenor Keith Klassen join British baritone Roderick Williams in Elgar’s massive oratorio, which had its premiere at the Birmingham Music Festival in 1906.

Elgar intended The Kingdom to be the second part in a sacred triptych. The first oratorio was The Apostles.

Elgar abandoned the final oratorio. “He just couldn’t wrap his brain around the Last Judgment,” Martin explains. “It’s just as well, since it wouldn’t have fit thematically with the other two works.”

Lovers of choral music in the English-speaking work are more familiar with Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius, most recently heard in these parts at the Elora Festival three seasons ago.

But The Kingdom is considered to be his finest oratorio, Martin explains as she guides me through a score packed with musical riches.

Elgar’s text, which draws largely from the New Testament’s Book of Acts, introduces us to the apostles Peter and John, Mary Magdalene and Mary the Blessed Mother after the Crucifixion, as they are trying to figure out what to do next. They remember the Last Supper, then are visited by the Holy Spirit in a day that the Church celebrates as Pentecost (the last Sunday in May, this year).

“This is the meat-and-potatoes scene,” explains Martin.

Then, as in any good story, there is a bit of a dramatic tangle as Peter and John heal a lame man and, as a result, get thrown into jail.

“They talk themselves out of jail, and then are able to break bread together in the end,” smiles Martin of the happy ending.

The way there is strewn with great choruses — in several different combinations of voices — and beautiful solo and ensemble arias bathed in Elgar thick musical syrup.

“He was a master of putting riddles and enigmas into his music,” Martin says as she points to specific examples of leitmotifs and even a thematically appropriate plainsong hymn braided into the score. Some of these tidbits are only recognizable by the conductor, who has to tease them apart, one by one, in order to fully grasp the meaning of the music.

“Anything this good has many layers of meaning,” says Martin. “I think it’s even better than Wagner; it has all of these leitmotifs, but also has melodies from the English countryside.”

The score is so dense that Martin has had to dissect every line of music horizontally (to see where each melodic fragment is going for every instrument and singer) as well as vertically (to ensure the right tempo, rhythm and provide each musician with the right cue).

“I’ve had to physically practice what I do,” says Martin of the hours needed to ensure that every gesture will help along the flow of music. “I need to think of all the players and when they need to do their best.

“That can drive you a bit crazy, because, of course, you can’t possibly show everything in the score, but it needs a lot of forethought.”

Martin says she kept detailed notes when she observed rehearsals of The Kingdom at the Three Choirs Festival in 2004. She recalls how it took seven tries to get just three pages of the 90-minute score done right.

“It was a warning to me,” she smiles.

Elgar’s musical challenge is enough for any conductor, but Martin says she was doing this for her choir. “Since this is their 25th anniversary, this was going to be all about them.”

She questioned singers in England, discovering that, “this is their favourite Elgar work to sing, even more than Dream of Gerontius.”

Booking their Koerner Hall début for the occasion and hiring an orchestra for a single performance has been huge financial gamble for Pax Christi. The choir has fundraised furiously to cover the huge costs — including having some of its Mennonite members sell fresh eggs from their farms.

(Pax Christi Chorale started as a Mennonite choir, but long ago expanded to include anyone interested in singing larger-scale works.)

Martin’s contribution to the fundraising drive was to write a four-movement string quartet, to be premiered by Toronto’s Windermere String Quartet in an upcoming season.

Although Martin, who is the director of music at the storied Church of St. Mary Magdalene on Ulster St, has a natural affinity for sacred music and texts, she underlines the universality of The Kingdom‘s theme.

The whole story, says Martin, “is about ordinary people setting out to change the world. It’s the same as for the choir; they get together every week and do something extraordinary.”


For more details, and ticket information for Sunday’s concert, click here.


For a taste of the musical experience in store at Koerner Hall on Sunday, here is Elgar himself, conducting the BBC Symphony in the Prelude, in 1933, followed by the late-and-lamented Richard Hickox conducting the London Symphony in the healing scene (the singers are Felicity Palmer, Arthur Davies and David Wilson-Johnson).

John Terauds


One thought on “Interview: Stephanie Martin leads grand Elgar oratorio about ordinary people out to change the world

  1. Pingback: Long before there was a symphony or opera company, choirs were the backbone of music in Toronto | Musical Toronto

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