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 by Katie Wilde

This Saturday marks one last chance to see the Guelph Chamber Choir perform under the direction of its founding artistic director, Gerald Neufeld.

After 37 years of leadership, under which the choir has developed its international reputation for excellence, Neufeld is retiring. The past year has seen a farewell season of sold out concerts and a new CD recording, Carols of the Bells, released at the end of 2017.

Truly, Saturday’s concert program could not be better timed. As the choir director explains,

“Easter weekend can be a time of reflection for people about their mortality even if they do not espouse a religious faith. Brahms’ Requiem is a deeply moving work of comfort and, ultimately, a work of joy. To quote Psalm 126 from the first movement, “They that sow in tears shall reap in joy. He that goes forth and weeps… shall doubtless come again with rejoicing.” The second half of the concert begins with three pieces that are like a Good Friday meditation with words from the traditional Requiem Mass. It ends with three pieces that encapsulate the essence of joy and a love for music, a feeling that people often have on Easter Day or with hints of Spring that we experience at this time of year.”

During a busy week of rehearsals, Neufeld found some time for an interview in which he reflects on this time of endings and new beginnings.

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Some members have been in the Guelph Chamber Choir since its inception. Gerald Neufeld and members of the Guelph Chamber Choir, 1986-86 (left) and 2012-13 (right). Images courtesy of Guelph Chamber Choir.

The article recently published in Dynamic (p. 20) is a great overview of your career with the choir. Are there any smaller significant memories, particular to a single place, time or person that you’d like to share?
An important occasion that I member fondly is the first major concert that was given in the newly constructed River Run Centre.  The GCC and friends performed Orff’s Carmina Burana for the opening of the Guelph Spring Festival that year.  Even with challenges of a bare stage with no sound shell, the excitement on stage and in the audience was palpable.  We were all so happy to have a concert hall that still needed a lot of finishing but was just right for Guelph.

You’ll be staying on as artistic director during the search for a new conductor, with finalists conducting the first two concerts of the fall season. Have you ever been on the other side, (at the risk of sounding overly dramatic) conducting for your life?
Yes. I have been in quite a number of important competitions.  The first one was for the Leslie Bell Competition for Choral Conductors which, to my surprise, I won when I was still quite young.  The second was for a Canada Council Grant to pursue doctoral studies at the University of Iowa. From the 14 candidates that conducted the Elmer Iseler Singers in competition for this grant, I was the fortunate winner of substantial funding for 2 years of study.  I have entered the Guelph Chamber Choir in many CBC competitions for amateur choirs, some which we won and more that we didn’t win. These were all very important learning experiences for me and the choir. 

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“Then and Now”, Gerald Neufeld in the 1980s, and in 2016. Images courtesy of the Guelph Chamber Choir. 

What can you tell us about what’s next for the choir? What does the transition of such a long standing leader mean for a musical group like this?
New leadership gives the choir an opportunity to develop in new and interesting ways.  A different Artistic Director will bring other skills to the rehearsal process as well as new repertoire to explore and different ways of presenting concerts to the community.  It’s really quite exciting to see what a new generation of conductors can bring to the podium.

Once a new artistic director is found, what’s next for you? Will you be in the audience or take some time away for family or travel?
I will certainly be in the audience to support the GCC and its new conductor.  There are many other interests that I’d like to pursue, one being travel to foreign countries, but I also look forward to spending more time with family and five wonderful grandchildren.

What will you miss the most about GCC? Is there anything you won’t you miss?
I will miss the rehearsals and concerts with the GCC.  I look forward to continuing the friendships I made over the past 38 years with members of the choir and the Board of Directors.  I will not miss some of the other duties of an Artistic Director that take up a huge amount of time, chief among them being many, many hours filling out grant applications. I very much appreciate the support of the City of Guelph, the Ontario Arts Council and other organizations and individuals.  However necessary and important these grant applications are to the survival of any arts organization, not many of us enjoy the amount of time and detail that goes into an application to the Ontario Arts Council. I must admit that making music is still my first love in this vocation. 

What has your farewell season been like? Has anything surprised you?
My farewell season has been a wonderful experience.  I have enjoyed immensely the work with other community choirs on our first concert and our collaboration with a highly skilled handbell choir for our Christmas concert.  Performing Handel’s Messiah is always very rewarding, even though I’ve conducted that piece over 30 times, and I am very much looking forward to our concert on March 31st featuring Brahms’s Requiem, one of my favourite works. I’ve been happily surprised to see sell-out audiences for all the concerts so far this season.   

What are you looking forward to about this weekend’s final concert?
Brahms’s Requiem, one of the major masterworks of the choral/orchestral literature, is a marvelous affirmation of life and hope. In this way it differs from the traditional Latin Requiem Mass.  The music is tender, yet powerful in many instances and gloriously beautiful.  I am delighted that we will have an orchestra of period instruments similar to those played in Brahms’ time. The specialists who play these very expressive instruments are wonderful musicians whose skill in playing them always amazes me.  Together with the GCC and friends, totalling 60 singers, this is a rare opportunity for us to perform music in a way that is unique in Canada.   

Don’t miss your chance to take in this weekend’s performance, and see Gerald Neufeld and the Guelph Chamber Choir off to the next stage of their adventures. Order your tickets now online from or phone the River Run Centre Box office at (519)763-3000.

For more pre-concert buzz, enjoy this video interview filmed at a recent Guelph Chamber Choir rehearsal from Guelph Life http://www.rogerstv.com/media?lid=237&rid=8&gid=290854.

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