One of St. Michael’s Choir School's choirs at dress rehearsal Dec. 2 for the annual Christmas concert at Massey Hall. Photo courtesy of Evan Boudreau

St. Michael's Choir School expanding its musical reach

By 
  • December 8, 2016

Since St. Michael's Choir School began pressing albums in the 1970s, those purchasing the choral soundtracks were much like the students – members of an exclusive club.

A promotion with the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) looks to break down those distribution barriers.

“If you weren't related to the choir school or have any connection you probably wouldn't have known about us in terms of our recordings,” said Stephen Handrigan, director of the Toronto choir school. “Now we kind of have a national distribution.”

Until recently the recordings, produced entirely in-house, were only available at the choir school (66 Bond St.) or from the merchandise table erected at the location of their concerts.

But that's no longer the case thanks to the bishops.

“They actually contacted us,” Handrigan said, “and asked if we'd like to put our CDs in their catalog and on their website. That was attractive to us, to have an online presence.”

By tapping into the bishops' national network, the choir school is able to directly further fulfill their mission “to bring sacred music to the world, to parishes and people who otherwise wouldn't have heard us,” he added.

Rene Laprise, CCCB's media relations director, noted that "CCCB Publications is always proud to distribute and promote various products from several Church organizations, like the St. Michael’s Choir, that bring light to the Word of God and the pastoral works of the Church in our world today."

The other positive note, of course, is the revenue from sales.

“Some of the money goes back into future recordings so that that we are kind of a self-sustaining,” he said. “But also the revenue, we use it to help us on our annual tour. So the money gets used to subsidize … the tour and also to sustain the future of the recording process.”

Next year, students from Canada's only semi-private choir school will travel to Germany where they'll visit a number of choir schools.

“When we go to Germany we are visiting four choir schools where the boys will actually get in an environment where they are seeing other boys who the same things but in a different country,” he said, adding that the two-week trip would also include stopovers at churches and historical sites.

Previous school trips have included France, the Czech Republic and the Vatican where, in 2013, the Canadian choir performed live in St. Peter's Square for Pope Francis.

While these trips provide the school's students and accompanying staff with unforgettable memories, Handrigan said it is the annual Christmas concert at Massey Hall, held this year Dec. 3-4, which generates the most excitement in the school.

“We look forward to the Christmas concert because we can let our hair down a little bit, so to speak, and have a little more fun where in the cathedral that wouldn't be appropriate,” he said.

The concert tradition began in 1939, two years after John Edward Ronan founded the then private school, at the Knights of Columbus Hall on Sherbourne St. It has been held at Massey Hall since 1965.

Similar to the CD partnership, the move to Massey was all about tapping into a wider audience.

“When we moved to Massey Hall it really was a Toronto Christmas tradition so we were reaching out,” said Handrigan. “Part of the experience of Massey Hall is evangelizing to the larger community because we primarily sing sacred music. We do sing some more secular holiday music but it still is primarily a sacred music concert.”

Handrigan said the Massey Hall concerts are a "big push for us with CD sales.”

“I can't tell you exactly how many we sell a year but sometimes it runs into the thousands.”

Last year to mark the 50th year at Massey Hall, a choir comprised of alumni took to the stage in a tribute to the brotherhood of choir boys created at St. Michael's.

Christian Umipig, a Grade 12 student who composed some original music for this year's concert, said the addition of alumni into the annual event helps strengthen the sense of fraternity among current students.

“(When) we are all in the concert hall singing together it is really a magical feeling because you're with all of these guys and it is like a brotherhood,” he said.

Some of the more well-known school alumni are late Michael Burgess, Kevin Hearn of Barenaked Ladies and Matt Dusk, who performed at this year's event with the massive choir containing students from Grade 3 to 12.

Umipig, 17, said he's also a fan of the school's CDs.

“It lets us leave our mark really,” he said. “I know listening to old CDs by all these older generations, it is an interesting feeling knowing that we ourselves are going to record CDs, too.”

(St. Michael's CDs, starting at $15, are available from the CCCB's 2016-17 Catalogue at cccbpublications.ca)

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