Former musical director Jo-Anne Preston puts the Island Voices choir through its paces in 2012.

Island Voices – 20 Years of Musical Excellence

It was the spring of 1997 and a group of Campbell River Singers was chatting in the local pub.

Frances Keen shared her secret dream with friends Lorill Vining and Beth Kingston: “I’ve always wanted to have a chamber choir that sings excellent music and is top notch.”

“What’s stopping you?” was the reply. The seed was sown, and within a few months, 16 local musicians were singing in a circle at the former Passages Resort. At the end of the piece Keen closed her eyes. There was silence. Then she smiled. Island Voices had been born.

In Nov. 1997, Island Voices gave its first concert and this year, 2017, marks the choir’s 20th anniversary. Keen’s wish for a choir striving for excellence has continued through three conductors, a warm “family” of singers, and the support of their valued audiences.

The Fran Years

A passion for music, and especially choral music, fuelled Keen and her singers’ drive to do more, do better, to try new things. A local music teacher, conductor and member of the Board of the BC Choral Federation, Keen invited singers from Quadra to Denman to join the group, Expectations were high, but Keen understood that singing had to be a joy as well (but you’d better practice your music at home!)

Like all arts groups, Island Voices functioned on a shoestring budget. They needed uniforms, so the group (including men) created an assembly line at Anne Classen’s house. Keen did not take a salary, preferring instead to use any extra funds the choir had to do professional development, including courses with Elmer Eisler and Jon Washburn (where she conducted the Vancouver Chamber Choir at the Chan Centre!).

The tradition of “learning from the best” was established early. The choir traditionally has an annual retreat on Quadra Island, and brings in well-known conductors to work with the singers. Diane Loomer (Chor Leoni, Elektra), Ramona Luengen (Phoenix Chamber Choir), and Bruce Pullen (Vancouver Bach Choir) were among the early clinicians. Keen had a knack for getting her choir taken seriously, and that sometimes involved pushing her singers. At the 1999 Chorfest, Keen somehow wrangled a separate workshop with Robert Cooper of the CBC. The sopranos will never forget having to sing, one by one, for this famous conductor, at 9 am!

Keen wasn’t afraid to tackle difficult repertoire, and she wasn’t afraid to tackle projects that many small town choirs wouldn’t take on. In 2000, Island Voices entered the CBC Choral competition for the first time, followed by entries in 2002 and 2004, when they were national quarter-finalists. Fran took the choir to the Kathaumixw International Choral Festival and received a second place award.

A Time of Transitions

Sadly, Keen fell ill with cancer in 2002, but was at the helm of Island Voices as much as her health would allow, even recording their second CD in 2005. When Fran’s health was precarious, long-time friend and colleague, Jo-Anne Preston, stepped in as necessary, so that Island Voices continued without missing a single rehearsal.

Upon Keen’s passing in 2006, Preston became Musical Director. Still singing mainly a cappella music from a wide variety of historical periods and genres, most of Island Voices’ traditions remained in place. In 2008 the choir again entered Kathaumixw and received two second place awards, and for the first time, commissioned a work. In honour of Keen, Ramona Luengen composed “My World, My Heart”, a setting of a poem by Holly Benson, Keen’s daughter.

“I’m so glad I was conducting this one,” says Preston. “By the end, half the audience was crying, and most of the choir!”

The choir continued to take on a variety of projects – a Shakespeare concert incorporating scenes performed by local actors, two collaborations with Cantiamo and the Comox Valley Community Justice Society, and a third CD. Island Voices performed as part of the Quadra and Saanich Concert Series, and loved their “tour” of Quatsino and Port Alice. A collaboration with Shelter Point Distillery enabled “A Wee Taste of Christmas”, a sell-out concert where the audience not only tasted a variety of carols, but also home baked goodies and “a wee dram”. The choir also continued its tradition of supporting charities, doing benefits for such groups as the Stephen Lewis Foundation, Grandmothers-to-Grandmothers, and the Hospice Society.

In with the New

When Jenn Forsland moved into the Comox Valley, she sang for one year with Island Voices.

It was clear that she was an amazing talent, so while the choir was sad to lose her, they weren’t surprised when she returned to university and returned as a teacher. Now a well-known performer, clinician and adjudicator, Forsland returned first as a clinician, and then became conductor of Island Voices upon Preston’s retirement in 2014.

With her background as a vocalist and educator, Forsland has brought a new energy to Island Voices.

“Each rehearsal is like a voice lesson,” says one member. Forsland also enjoys mentoring young conductors. Island Voices continues to develop, to take on new challenges, and to work with other arts groups.

A Musical “Family”

When singers are asked what is special about Island Voices, the most common answer is that it’s a family.

“In a small group like this,” says past conductor Preston, “it’s important that people feel comfortable taking risks, trying things that are maybe a little out of our comfort zone. Also, like most arts groups, we also operate on a shoestring budget, so everybody has to pitch in (no pun intended). Whether it’s John Elson’s famous lines as Master of Ceremonies, Doug Colwell’s financial planning, or Jean Valikoski’s archiving, we all do our share. I remember the big assembly line when we (including the men) got together to sew our first uniforms, and when I had to be away a lot for work and Michelle Weckesser jumped in to co-conduct. And the year we made our first CD, funds were so low that two members brought out their chequebooks and made loans to the choir. Of the original 16 members, seven are still in the choir – I think that speaks well to the way the choir just becomes like a second family to us.”

Save the Dates!

Island Voices will be celebrating its 20th anniversary with not one, but three special performances.

On Nov. 11, they will again perform in “Voices in Remembrance”, with the Canadian Military Wives Choir (Courtenay) and the Campbell River Children’s Choir (Campbell River). On Jan. 26 and 27, they will present two gala nights, complete with candles and wine, a special musical work, and a massed work performed with their alumni. To finish the season they will Sing into Spring with performances April 20 and 21. Be prepared for an unusual venue!