Music alumna heads Ontario Youth Choir

Debora Van Brenk // Western NewsVicki St. Pierre, BMus’96 (Performance-Voice), MMus’98, spent the week as conductor of the Ontario Youth Choir (OYC), Aug. 9-16, at Western. A five-year OYC alumna, her experience with the group “absolutely shaped the singer that I am, the conductor that I am, the teacher that I am.”

It may have sounded perfect to an untrained ear, but to Vicki St. Pierre, her young choir still needed polish.

Pianissimo on the final bar, please, not so much gusto. First sopranos, be sure you keep time so the seconds don’t have to slow down when you come in. This note here is less important than the one that follows it, so you have to leave that first note just a bit sooner.

And before they break for lunch, the praise that rewarded their hard work on a Renaissance piece they’ve practised together for a little more than a week: “Good. Great. You really rocked my socks there.”

St. Pierre, BMus’96 (Performance-Voice), MMus’98, spent the week as conductor of the Ontario Youth Choir (OYC), Aug. 9-16, at Western. The choir is a hand-picked group of 39 singers, aged 16-23, from across the province for a 10-day immersive music experience.

The choir wrapped its work with performances Friday evening at Western’s von Kuster Hall, Saturday evening at Lakeshore United Church in Goderich and Sunday afternoon at Toronto’s Grace Church-on-the-Hill.

St. Pierre, a music professor at Mount Allison University, adjudicates music festivals and competitions, was Director of Music at the Cathedral Church of St. James in Toronto, taught voice at Wilfrid Laurier University, conducts an auditioned community choir, was the music director for the New Hamburg Live! festival, was a lecturer at the Royal Conservatory of Music, has been an assistant conductor with Opera Atelier, and until 2017 was on faculty at COSI, a summer opera training program in Sulmona, Italy.

And, perhaps most relevant to last week, she is also an alumna of the OYC, having been part of the group for five years in the 1990s.

“Before that, I had sung in some groups and in informal choirs, and suddenly I was singing with Jon Washburn (now conductor of the Vancouver Chamber Choir) and the Ontario Youth Choir. This was a shock to the system – and a really pleasant one.

“You get here and your colleagues are all like-minded. They’re your crew. You’re family.”

Her experience with OYC, along with her experience as a student at Western, formed the musician she became. “It absolutely shaped the singer that I am, the conductor that I am, the teacher that I am.”

Each year, OYC is led by a different conductor and collaborative pianist. This year, the pianist is Kathryn Tremills, a Sessional Lecturer at the Faculty of Music, University of Toronto.

“To be asked to do this was really exciting,” St. Pierre said. “I was honoured because I know how important it is to work with musicians like this, musicians who are on the cusp of some great things. Some are already doing great things.”

And, she said, the young people return to their communities to share what they’ve learned with their peers, which leads to greater development of musical talent even for those who don’t attend the camp.

St. Pierre has performed various works with the Toronto Philharmonic Orchestra, Tafelmusik, and the Edmonton Symphony, as well as appeared in several operas in London, U.K., in Victoria, BC, Montreal and Carnegie Hall in New York.

Long before Western’s new Music Building was built, she and fellow students practised in a choral rehearsal room, with its 1970s-era lighting and paint. “I don’t think we noticed because we were so busy making music.”

She recalled the choir’s large performances back then took place at Alumni Hall and remembered one year when they performed Berlioz, known for his massive choral and orchestral compositions. “I played the gongs. Fortissimo,” she said with a laugh.