November 6 2017

Vancouver’s choral scene, 60 years ago. 

It was the late 1950s and the world was changing. In 1957, the Soveit satellite Sputnik was launched and in 1959, Xerox introduces the first commercial photocopier to the market. Locally, in 1957, the Oak Street bridge opened, Elvis came to town (while fans ended the performance with a riot, read more here), and in 1958, Oscar Peterson performed at the Orpheum Theatre.


By the late 1950s, Vancouver could boast not only of the Vancouver Bach Choir, but also its many active church choirs of properly robed singers and its smaller community amateur choirs.  But to a few observers, there was hopefully room for yet another choral ensemble, a somewhat smaller one that might be able to work with CBC. Hugh McLean (Choirmaster and Organist at Ryerson United Church) teamed up with like-minded friends to see whether they could form a new small choir for performing works being overlooked by the city’s other ensembles. Thinking outside the box, these daring visionaries decided to perform Bach’s Mass in b minor (Friday, February 6, 1959, Christ Church Cathedral). Lacking backers, rehearsal space, library, administrative structure and even singers, they placed an ad inviting people to audition for the proposed ‘Vancouver Philharmonic Choir’. Hugh quickly realized that the choir’s proposed name was sending the wrong message to singers who might otherwise be interested, so when he recalled hearing of a choir in New York City called ‘Cantata Singers’, he adapted that name for his new group in Vancouver.


Chester Nobbs was the choir’s first business manager/administrator. Chester remembers the excitement of obtaining the choir’s first grant, $1,500 from The Thea and Leon Koerner Foundation in October 1959 “to cover a bond of $1,000 required by the Musician’s Union for the orchestra . . . for Bach’s Magnificat and Britten’s St. Nicholas, fees of $75 payable to the City of Vancouver for the use of the new Queen Elizabeth Theatre, and $125 for general publicity for the entire season concerts.”  How times have changed!


Source: 2008 Gala Concert programme written by Evan J. Kreider


Hugh McLean

We are sad to learn of the passing of Hugh Mclean, organist, choirmaster, musicologist, and the founding conductor of Vancouver Cantata Singers, this summer. He was the first Canadian to be Mann Organ Scholar at King’s College Chapel, Cambridge and had a rich career in music in both Europe and North America. Read his obituary here.