The hol­i­day sea­son is upon us and with it, that an­nual tra­di­tion: the Christ­mas concert. As chil­dren ev­ery­where prac­tise their parts, T’Cha Dun­levy drops in on re­hearsals with Les Pe­tits Chanteurs de Laval — Que­bec’s largest choral group.

Montreal Gazette - - CITY -

Marc-Olivier Hardy was like any other eight-year-old when his par­ents brought him to au­di­tion for Les pe­tits chanteurs de Laval more than 15 years ago. Sure, he sang around the house; but so do many kids. The fam­ily had just moved to Laval from the South Shore and a boys choir seemed like a good way for their son to get his bear­ings and make new friends. Les pe­tits chanteurs de Laval is Que­bec’s big­gest choral group, con­sist­ing of three choirs that bring to­gether more than 300 young peo­ple to learn and share in the joy of singing with oth­ers. Look­ing back as he pre­pares to sub­mit his mas­ter’s the­sis in mar­ket­ing at Univer­sité du Québec à Mon­tréal, the 24-year-old Verdun res­i­dent can only marvel at the hobby that has filled much of his spare time, shaped and helped de­fine the past two-thirds of his young life. “It’s ex­cep­tional,” Hardy said of the ex­pe­ri­ence. Founded as a boys choir in 1981, Les pe­tits chanteurs de Laval opened its doors to girls with the cre­ation of Les voix boréales in 1998. Then in 2012, it added youn­gadult group Le choeur des je­unes de Laval, due to pop­u­lar de­mand — many choir mem­bers, en­ter­ing adult­hood, didn’t want to stop. As you read these lines, Les pe­tits chanteurs de Laval, like so many youth choirs through­out the city, are por­ing over par­ti­tions, pre­par­ing to par­take in a beloved hol­i­day tra­di­tion for singers, their fam­i­lies and other au­di­ence mem­bers alike: the an­nual Christ­mas concert. Their show, Dec. 16 at Mai­son sym­phonique, fea­tur­ing all three choirs, will be devoted to the grand tra­di­tion of Bri­tish choral mu­sic. The choirs of Les pe­tits chanteurs de Laval have trav­elled the world and per­formed with the Rolling Stones and Cé­line Dion, Marie-Mai, Pa­trick Wat­son and the Orchestre sym­phonique de Mon­tréal, to name a few. Ophélie Savard- Grat­ton re­mem­bers her en­try into the fold like a warm em­brace. “Oh my God,” said the 24-yearold Mon­trealer, who re­cently sub­mit­ted her mas­ter’s the­sis in lit­er­a­ture at McGill, and con­tin­ues to sing un­der the um­brella of the group of choirs she joined when she, too, was 8. “It’s a large or­ga­ni­za­tion, but with so many peo­ple your age, you’re im­me­di­ately in­te­grated into a big fam­ily — with re­hearsals two times a week, all the con­certs, and tours start­ing in high school. There are so many oc­ca­sions to spend time to­gether. You very quickly find your place.” Both Hardy and Savard-Grat­ton count fel­low choir mem­bers among their old­est, clos­est friends, and it’s easy to see why. Shar­ing for­ma­tive, once-in-a-life­time ex­pe­ri­ences, year in, year out, can have that ef­fect on young peo­ple. “I’ve been to France, Ger­many, Switzer­land, Aus­tria, Italy ... Seat­tle, Van­cou­ver, New Jersey, New Haven,” Savard- Grat­ton said. “The younger singers have been to Es­to­nia and Fin­land. Be­fore that, the boys went to Ja­pan. We re­ally go ev­ery­where in the world. “On tour, we’re bil­leted with fam­i­lies, we live to­gether 24 hours a day and per­form con­certs. It’s re­ally a spe­cial uni­verse for kids, ado­les­cents and young adults; it cre­ates strong bonds.” Those bonds are re­in­forced on a weekly ba­sis. For the singers who stay on to sing with Le choeur des je­unes de Laval af­ter high school, it’s as much about the mu­sic as main­tain­ing re­la­tion­ships with life­long friends who are set­ting out on dif­fer­ent paths as they en­ter adult­hood. “We go for beer ev­ery Wed­nes­day af­ter prac­tice,” Hardy said, “al­ways to the same place. The waiter knows us all by name, and what we drink. There are at least 15 of us, ev­ery time. It’s that so­cial as­pect, first and fore­most, that keeps us com­ing back.” That’s mu­sic to the ears of Philippe Os­tiguy, who knows that for his young charges to stick with it, they have to en­joy not only singing but the en­tire choir ex­pe­ri­ence. Les pe­tits chanteurs de Laval’s artis­tic di­rec­tor de­scribes the choir en­vi­ron­ment as a kind of “so­cial mi­lieu, a place where you live and cre­ate. You can find it else­where — in scouts, sports, fig­ure-skat­ing. It’s an area of life in which you do things, and friend­ships de­velop. Es­pe­cially in ado­les­cence, it’s im­por­tant to be con­nected, to be part of some­thing.” He knows from first-hand ex­pe­ri­ence. Os­tiguy caught the mu­sic bug young, start­ing piano at age 6 and singing in a choir as part of the all-boys mu­sic pro­gram at Les pe­tits chanteurs du Mont-Royal from age 9 to 17. “If I’m do­ing this in life now, it’s be­cause of how my time at that school marked me,” he said. Os­tiguy stud­ied piano in univer­sity, but was al­ways a prodi­gious singer. As a young boy, he was cho­sen as a soloist to share the stage with Lu­ciano Pavarotti, when the opera tenor per­formed at Notre-Dame Basil­ica in 1978. He also recorded a song with Que­bec le­gend Félix Le­clerc. “I was val­orized by all of that,” said Os­tiguy, 52, who sees a sim­i­lar ef­fect on his singers. He be­gan work­ing with Les pe­tits chanteurs de Laval in 1992 as a piano ac­com­pa­nist, as­sis­tant con­duc­tor and re­hearsal leader un­der Gre­gory Charles (a fel­low alum­nus of Les pe­tits chanteurs du Mont-Royal), from whom he took the reins in 2005. Bud­ding singers can only join Les pe­tits chanteurs de Laval be­tween ages 8 to 10, en­sur­ing a strong group dy­namic in which chil­dren start at the same level and evolve as a unit. “You can’t come in at 12 or 13,” Os­tiguy ex­plained. “You have to start at the begin­ning and move up the lad­der.” Hook­ing the kids when they’re young is es­pe­cially im­por­tant when it comes to young male singers, he noted. “For boys, it’s a big­ger leap of faith. It’s less fash­ion­able for boys to do artis­tic ac­tiv­i­ties, sadly, and to sing.” Though all three choirs of­ten per­form to­gether, Os­tiguy be­lieves main­tain­ing sep­a­rate en­ti­ties for boys’ and girls’ en­sem­bles is es­sen­tial in cre­at­ing strong bonds be­tween his young singers as they each es­tab­lish their own rap­port to the mu­sic. Re­hearsals are sep­a­rate, with boys com­ing in on Tues­day evenings, girls on Thurs­days, and both choirs re­hears­ing to­gether on Satur­day morn­ings. The or­ga­ni­za­tion’s sum­mer mu­sic camp is di­vided into one week for the boys’ choir, and an­other for the girls, with singing in the morn­ing and ac­tiv­i­ties in the af­ter­noon. Tours are also sep­a­rate, with boys’ and girls’ choirs al­ter­nat­ing in­ter­na­tional and North Amer­i­can tours, ev­ery other year. As proof of the ef­fec­tive­ness of the ap­proach, Os­tiguy points to Les pe­tits chanteurs de Laval’s high re­ten­tion rate for its male singers, many of whom stick it out right up to the young-adult choir, which is evenly di­vided be­tween men and women. “There are very few boys’ choirs in Que­bec — there’s us and Les pe­tits chanteurs du Mont-Royal,” he said. “There are many (mixed) chil­dren’s choirs, but most have far more girls than boys. We have the op­por­tu­nity to travel a lot — in Europe and the United States. We meet and do ex­changes with all kinds of choirs. And I al­ways know in ad­vance, when it’s a mixed choir it’s go­ing to be five per cent boys and 95 per cent girls. So it’s im­por­tant the boys not feel like they’re com­ing into a mixed choir, or a girls’ choir. It helps with male bond­ing.” And then there’s the mu­sic it­self. Os­tiguy is a self-de­scribed per­fec­tion­ist, but he ad­justs his ex­pec­ta­tions to the sit­u­a­tion, with­out ever los­ing sight of the bot­tom line — that mu­sic sounds bet­ter when those mak­ing it are en­joy­ing them­selves. Os­tiguy’s choirs — in var­i­ous for­ma­tions, from soloists to smaller groups to all singers com­bined — par­tic­i­pate in ap­prox­i­mately 60 events per year.

There’s no rea­son to come ex­cept, ‘Is it in­ter­est­ing?’ Why is it in­ter­est­ing? There’s the reper­toire, but at a cer­tain level there’s also a pride, and a joy that comes with that. Choir di­rec­tor Philippe Os­tiguy


Is­abelle Van­debon­coeur helps the boys’ choir of Les Pe­tits Chanteurs de Laval hit all the right notes in re­hearsal.


Dali Tshuma keeps pace with her choir mates at a re­cent re­hearsal in Laval. The three choirs of Les pe­tits chanteurs de Laval have trav­elled the world and per­formed with the likes of the Rolling Stones, Cé­line Dion and the Orchestre sym­phonique de Mon­tréal.

At the Mai­son sym­phonique last Satur­day, the Choeur des je­unes de Laval — the young adults’ group — per­formed sea­sonal hits along­side the Orchestre sym­phonique de Longueuil and a roster of Que­bec stars.

Philippe Os­tiguy

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