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Artistic Profile: Aella

Classical Ottawa felt both fortunate and excited when invited to listen in on a rehearsal with one of the newest choirs in the city, Aella. After I had been treated to a lovely and diverse suite of songs, I sat down with the founder – Jenn Berntson – and three other members of the choir – Erin Joyce, Amy Reckling and Teri Slade, to hear some background on the group and find out why Ottawa needs to be excited about this new choral group.

I started by asking how Aella came about. Last year, Jenn was asked by her husband Shawn Potter, who is Director of Music at the First Baptist Church, to sing at the church’s Canada Day celebration. She had just returned from Saskatchewan where she had been singing in the 20th anniversary concert of the Saskatoon Children’s Choir, and wanted to continue to sing more choral pieces than solo. So she asked a few female friends from other choirs to join her for the performance. Following the concert, the group really wanted to keep singing together, so she added more members and repertoire. Aella was born.

The name came from a creative process, according to Teri. “After the first rehearsal we were brainstorming names, and we were coming up things in Latin. We had also just sung Warrior by The Wyrd Sisters and I really liked the concept of women being warriors. I sent a list of names of different warrior women to Jenn, and she chose Aella.” Teri explained that, “Aella was the woman who fought Hercules with her doubled headed axe when he came to steal Hippolyte’s girdle. The name also means ‘whirlwind’.”

(And In case you – like me – are less schooled in the classics, it is pronounced eye-la.)

Aella is new onto a scene where there are already 30 local choirs performing. Why then did they want to start a new choir – especially when all of the members are also singing in other choral groups? “I wanted to do some different things,” Jenn explained. “For example, movement, which audiences in Ottawa don’t see a lot of. I was also interested in different types of programming, and singing without a conductor.”

If audiences think that conductorless performance is just a gimmick, the rehearsal I was lucky enough to attend would smother that rumour. It was an impressive feat, beyond the great sound the choir produces: while five singers were in the altar area of the church, three other members were in the rear choir loft. Without a conductor the group produced a manifestly cohesive performance, and even included the movement that Jen had hoped for, as three members branched out to stand and sing over the audience from the sides of the church.

As Amy said, “It also means a longer, more collaborative rehearsal process. And when we are ready with a piece we are really ready.”

That seemed evident from the rehearsal I attended: the group sang around the piano, beating out a tattoo with their hands on the instrument, but without conducting. “Everyone really has to listen to everyone else,” says Erin, “which is really possible with a smaller group like ours. Jenn fosters a wonderfully collaborative and cooperative rehearsal space, and we respond to that.” And the lack of a conductor, and the use of movement adds a definite extra level. “We all kind of conduct,” says Teri. “If we all sway with the song it helps us keep in time.”

Because the group is smaller there is a lot of knowledge of each other’s voices and a trust that people will work out any issues they are experiencing with the repertoire. “There is a great deal of faith in everyone else. If there is a mistake in a rehearsal, we just work through it without blame. It isn’t because people don’t care – it is that they have belief that people will work it out,” said Amy. Many members are from the Capital Chamber Choir and the First Baptist Choir, as well as other local choirs. The women are generally in their 20s and 30s, but not exclusively; the oldest and youngest members are in fact a mother and teenage daughter.

Because the group is relatively small, Erin explains, “Jenn can do something called voice matching. She spent a long time listening to us all sing in pairs.” The result is a comprehensive understanding of which voices blend best in different ranges for different pieces of repertoire.

“This was inspired by Victoria Meredith who conducted the 2010 National Youth Choir,” Jenn explained. “She did the same with a 40 person choir and when she was finished with us it felt amazing and so much easier to sing.”

Another unique aspect that Jenn encourages is the exploration of different voices by singers who may have only sung one voice for much of their choral career. So singers who have sung alto for a number of years are now singing soprano parts. Why would Jen want to push singers into new ranges? “It’s about using the voices I have to get the sound I want for a specific piece. For example, [in a particular piece] the soprano sound I wanted was much lighter. Instead of choosing people with bigger voices and then asking them to hold back all the time, I assigned people with lighter voices to sing soprano. Later, if we’re doing something that needs a warmer, fuller sound, I will redistribute the parts. A lot of our choristers have strong ranges, so I care more about who they will blend with comfortably than whether they are traditionally a soprano or alto.”

“It’s fun!” says Teri. “I’ve never got to sing to first soprano before.”

When I ask Jenn what direction she would like to see for choir music in Ottawa, she says, “It would be great to collaborate more – I am excited to work with more artists. In general our aim is to try to open choral music up to a bigger audience – all our concerts are by donation to encourage people to come along.”

Aella is also encouraging this with a varied rep and some interesting concepts for shows. When I met with them, for example, they were practicing a Bulgarian folk song, Ergen deda (the piece they were self-accompanying with the hand-tapping on the piano); next year one of their planned concerts is on a theme of favourite tv shows, movies and video games. (I suggested the music from Tetris!) They want to make the music appealing as well as accessible. This season, their second full-length concert, “Her Voice,” will explore women’s experiences and stories. Half of the programme will be by women composers or lyricists, and there will be readings of poetry by women in-between pieces of music.

Aella is everything modern choir should be – innovative, technically precise, joyous, comforting and representative. My time in their rehearsal space showed me that we have all that to look forward to from this excellent new choir. Performances this season include:

Carolling with Aella and Friends
Carols and Lessons
Snow Angel
Her Voice

And you can find out more at Aella’s website

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