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A chorister’s story: Our Sparkling Christmas with the Irene Becker Trio

This season, chorister Isolde Welby was “on the brink of yet another fantastic adventure.” This is her story of preparing for the 2016 Classical Christmas Concert.

“At first, the music of I Mørkets Sjernegnist was daunting. In fact, it is still daunting. But the first time we sang through it, in the hallowed halls of Camp Thunderbird, I found it to be an especially terrifying composition. It’s so long! And so many harmonies! Good heavens, the lyrics! I had sung in Latin and German and a whole handful of other languages before, but how on Earth was I supposed to say ‘over’ without pronouncing the V?

About the song: “In Danish, ‘i mørkets stjernegnist’ means ‘a sparkling a star in darkness.’ The lyrics are a poem about the long northern winters, when the sun cannot be seen for months on end. The poem speaks of churches, wind on rooftops, St. John the Baptist, the birth of Jesus, and (one of my favourite lines), ‘thoughts quivering in life’s noise.’ The main theme is one of hope, of waiting in the still night for the sun to rise and announce the end of the winter. The choral arrangement is absolutely beautiful, often dividing into six-part-harmony, some lines being sung repeatedly ad-lib, creating a thick cloud of fog, falling snow, wind, or a river, or even a feeling, with sound. But when the piano, guitar, and taragot are added in, the music is incredible.

“The first few times we sang through this piece I remember thinking that it seemed to go on forever.

“Every time I thought we’d gone through the whole thing, Mads would say something like, ‘Alright, everybody turn to number five,’ and I would wonder how an entire section of the piece had managed to hide from me for so long. I don’t know what it was, but we just weren’t progressing as quickly as the Choir had in the past. I put it down to the fact that a lot of the older singers left this year. Suddenly finding myself one of

“Suddenly finding myself one of the more experienced choristers was really kind of mind blowing to me. Being asked to look out for some of the younger singers and help them stay organized, understand the music, etc, when I myself felt that I still needed someone to help me stay organized and understand the music was, well, daunting. I was still in the mindset of relying on older singers to help me through the pieces.

“For any non-musicians reading this, an important part of being in any musical ensemble, whether it be a band or an orchestra or a choir, is knowing that rehearsals are for rehearsing. During the many days of practicec, we put together all the individual pieces and parts – and finally, make music. It is difficult to focus on dynamics and trying to blend with the rest if the Choir if you have no idea what note to sing where.

(“This is the part where I rant about Madeline. Wow. What a gal. Where would we be without her. …You see, Mads pushes us as individual singers and as a Choir of children who require patience and understanding. This is not to say she has low expectations; Mads doesn’t believe in that. If she wants energy, you give her energy. If she asks for dynamics, you sing softly at the end of the phrase. And you always bring your pencil – or three, in case one breaks and your friend eats another one.)

“So, we were slowly getting on with rehearsal, thanks to Mads and Jane (our scary-talented pianist) tireless effort to teach, persuade, encourage, gently nag, assign extra chores (‘Whoever doesn’t practice has to put everyone else’s chairs away at the end of the rehearsal’), and help us realize ‘you won’t be able to sing in the concert,’ without practice.

“But what really got me into gear was when it was announced, ‘the trio will be here in a week.’ What?

“You see, I was first amazed that Mads was in contact with the composer, often saying things like, ‘Oh, I’ll just email Irene and ask how she wants this verse to sound,” but, when I heard that the actual composer and her cool Danish jazz bros are coming in their fancy suits all the way from Denmark to perform with us… well, I was only a tiny bit excited. Just a tad. I didn’t freak out at all. [Cough.]

“After that announcement, you bet we practiced.

“A small group of potential soloists met weekly at Mad’s house to get that high note just so. A couple of Choir Alumni came to watch us and advise (‘The music is stuck in its box. You need to sing to get it out of the box.’). And candy was offered up at every rehearsal as an incentive to strive for great things. (This works by the way.)Finally, the day arrived.

“Finally, the day arrived. It seemed like a different piece of music altogether.

“When I had first laid eyes on I Mørkets Stjernegnist, it had reminded me of some of the baroque (1600-1750) music we had sung over the years, with its many parts, complex harmonies, and impressive bulk. It was later discerned that the piece was, in fact, jazz. (‘Wait, this is jazz?’ says one chorister). No, not the classic doobee-do-dat, slick quavering dulcet-toned music the mind generally jumps to when jazz is mentioned; but yes, I Mørkets Stjernegnist is the dictionary definition of ‘a type of music characterized by improvisation, syncopation, and usually a regular or forceful rhythm, emerging at the beginning of the 20th century. Brass and woodwind instruments and piano are particularly associated with jazz, although guitar and occasionally violin are also used.’ I Mørkets is all that.But the true nature of this piece cannot possibly be understood without the help of of Morten Carlsen, Pierre Dørge, and Irene Becker.

“The true nature of this piece cannot possibly be understood without the inclusion of the absolutely incredible Morten Carlsen, Pierre Dørge, and Irene Becker.

“They arrived at our rehearsal after what was probably eight or more hours on a plane from Denmark, and sat, fantastically jet lagged, in the pews of our very own St. Aiden’s Church, to listen to us sing. Absolutely terrifying. However, we sang it through. There were a couple of mistakes, but apparently our Danish pronunciation is excellent. All those ‘repeat-after-me’s’ with a wonderful Danish woman that Mads seemed to magically have met, right when we started learning the piece, had clearly paid off.

“We did it! We didn’t scare them all the way back to Denmark! In fact, I think it wouldn’t even be a stretch to say the trio actually enjoyed it. At the next rehearsal, they played with us and what had previously seemed like a gloomy monotone was transformed into a glowing gift of warmth and kindness. What had at first been a song about a small and innocent child born into a terrible world suddenly became a story about a peaceful baby glowing with hope, soon to bring light to a darkened earth. I think we collectively caught our breath, it was really that amazing. Next was the public performance. [Cue ominous music.]

“Our Choir’s annual Classical Christmas Concert was the first time I Mørkets Stjernegnist had ever been performed in Canada.

“We were singing at Christ Church Cathedral, which is to my knowledge and experience one of the most beautiful places to sing – with wonderful echoey acoustics and beautiful stone ceilings under which you can get lost in music and imagination… this is one of the reasons I sing. To achieve that feeling of floating and spinning in the waves of sound, you have to know the piece inside and out, the notes, the words, the small technicalities of the phrases. But above all, it requires you to listen. To hear subtle changes in the chords played by the keyboard, the way the air pushes through the taragot, the way the strings vibrate inside the guitar, the voices of the singers on either side of you. You must match every change in your voice to theirs in order to fill the space around and inside you. It is amazing to get lost in the sound, but it is also crucial to be aware of signals and cutoffs and cues from Mads (‘I don’t care if there is a purple elephant parading around, you must watch me!’)

“During one of the songs (and I’m still not entirely sure what happened), something went wrong.

“We knew the piece inside out and backward, but something slipped. The phenomenon, while strange, was imperceptible because of the way everyone responded. Choristers simply went along with the mistake, and when we got to the end of the phrase, Mads made us all stop singing with an almighty wave of her conductor arms. The trio played on, (in an utterly seamless way because I can never tell where it happened when I listen to the recording), and with a gesture to Mads in that mysterious musician sign-language, we simply started again at the right place. This is the magic of jazz, and the mark of a truly amazing musician. Amazing.

“The Classical Christmas performance ended with a tremendous round of applause – and some very proud, but relieved, singers.

“To share this wonderful music, and other great holiday pieces, we also sang in Nanaimo (where the trio were each gifted with a Nanaimo bar, which someone had probably been out frantically searching for, at noon on a Sunday), and at Oak Bay High, where the Choir got to do a workshop with Irene, while Morten and Pierre worked with the school’s band. Irene taught us a song that Pierre had written, one of those simple repeating songs, easy to learn and fun to sing and play with. She taught us how to improvise, giving small groups of us different parts to sing and repeat, then telling us to sing something individually, and then go back to the original line, in the same way that her trio could take a song that was written out and make it their own by adding, stretching out, and changing the notes. It was the same song, but it could be anything they wanted it to be. We had seen them play like this during a pre-concert warm-up, when Irene started playing chords on the keyboard while Morten and Pierre joined in on their instruments. It was amazing to watch them play together, and even better to be able to join in with them. Jazz is about listening, I decided; but also about taking chances and just playing with the sound, trying this and that, and trusting your fellow musicians to just go along with it.

“We sang Pierre’s song, Tilo Akandita, with the ‘intimidating high school band’, and then they played what they had learned from the trio for us, and then the trio played, and we sang I Mørkets Stjernegnis one last time. I still feel proud thinking of how impressed the band members were when Morten swung his taragot madly to distort its sound, or when our lovely soprano sang an incredible solo.

“I still like to brag about how my choir sang a Danish piece for the first time outside of Denmark, and about the most incredible jazz trio that came all the way from scandinavia with their fancy suits and instruments to play with us. But I remember most how amazing they are as musical mentors. Their patience, tolerance, and high expectations for a children’s choir is something none of us will soon forget. What started out as another daunting piece that Mads had to nag us to practice became an enchanted song – full of feelings of falling snow, the rising sun, and jazz.

“We will hum this music the backs of our minds for years, and remember the people we met and the experience we had, and everything we learned from it. Music is a place you go to, and the journey can be enjoyed and last as long as we let it (especially when shared with those around us).”

Submitted by chorister Isolde Welby


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