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.
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.