“Many people who attend are neither Catholic nor connected to (St. Michael’s) Cathedral. They come to hear the boys sing,” said Stephen Handrigan, the famed choir’s music director. “Many families attend year after year and the concert has become not only a cherished family tradition, but also a Toronto Christmas tradition.”
On Dec. 5 and 6, the St. Michael’s Choir School will celebrate 50 years performing at Massey Hall, the renowned concert hall just steps from the school’s front doors. To mark the milestone, the choir school will pay tribute to all those who have previously graduated. An alumni choir will be performing at this year’s concert, and its performance will serve as a testament to the school’s legacy and many years of service to the community.
A wide diversity of music will be performed, ranging from sacred music to pop music to well-known Christmas carols, all focused on reawakening our hearts to the warm joy of Christmas. However, sacred music will be the foundation of the musical repertoire.
Handrigan said the ancient music of the Church is truly an expression of reflective prayer.
“It brings me into my interior to slow down and internalize things in a way that we don’t often do in our daily lives,” he said. “I think that people really crave that. And that’s why our concerts are generally sold out.”
Choir conductor Maria Conkey said the choir school also recognizes the importance of making the spirit of Christmas relevant in today’s contemporary society. She said this year’s concert offers a blend of sacred and secular music.
“Secular music takes on a new meaning when you re-interpret it in light of Christ,” she said.
“We live in a secular society,” Handrigan adds. “Some people do not identify with any religious group, and this is why I believe that we can be sort of like Church for people. When they come to Massey Hall we remind them what the Christmas season is really all about… the birth of Christ. And we remind them through our music.”
The concert is meant to engage the audience to actively experience the fundamental joy that is inherent in the Christmas season. For the choir school, it is an opportunity to serve the community by sharing this joy with others who might not necessarily experience it anywhere else.
“It’s not just the 200 boys on stage, but the 2,700 in the audience singing along and it’s so powerful when we’re all singing about the joy of Christmas,” said Handrigan. “The concert brings families and friends together in an environment that not only celebrates the coming of Christ but also helps each and every member of the audience to prepare mentally, spiritually and emotionally for this joyous event.”
The St. Michael’s Choir School has a tradition of academic and musical excellence spanning multiple generations in Toronto. Founded in 1937 by Msgr. John Edward Ronan, it was originally established to provide a rigourous musical education for choir boys at St. Michael’s Cathedral.
As it grew over the years, moving from new building to new building to accommodate increasing enrolment, it joined with the Toronto Catholic District School Board to offer Ontario’s only public/private school partnership that allowed the school to achieve academic innovation growth and excellence while still remaining committed to service through sacred music.
Handrigan said the school takes great pride in its identity and heritage as a Catholic institution, which is tremendously exemplified in the school’s musical productions.
“When we perform at Massey Hall we introduce ourselves as a Catholic institution. We are not pretending to be anything but a Catholic choir school and we are proud of that,” he said.
(Adragna, 17, is a Grade 12 student at Bishop Allen Academy in Toronto.)