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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Phoenix on fire: local chamber choir reawakens

Dr. Nicholle Andrews named as new artistic director following a year-long search

With the recent appointment of Dr. Nicholle Andrews as its new artistic director, Ian Bannerman as its new assistant director, and changes among its ranks, Vancouver’s Phoenix Chamber Choir is living up to its name in a new season appropriately titled Reawakening.

Founded in 1983 and comprised of 28 volunteer musicians, Phoenix has a reputation as one of Canada’s finest vocal ensembles. Performing a diverse repertoire, the choir is also known for its support of Canadian composers and choral artists.

As the choir prepares for Elements, the first concert of its 37th season on October 26, we asked Dr. Andrews about the performance, her background, and her vision for the ensemble.

This interview has been edited.

Where are you from originally, and where are you currently based?

I am from St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador, however, I currently live in Southern California where I am Director of Choral Studies at the University of Redlands.

Why choral music?

I completed a conjoint bachelor of music in oboe performance and music education at Memorial University. During my studies, I auditioned for the MUN Chamber Choir under the direction of Dr. Douglas Dunsmore, and I immediately fell in love with choral music.

My mom always tells a story of when I was three years old and listening to a boys choir at the Anglican Cathedral in St. John’s. I asked people around me not to sing too loud during the congregational singing as I wanted to hear the choir. So, I guess my passion started much earlier, but I wasn’t aware of it until my undergraduate studies.

I played in the semi-professional Newfoundland Symphony Orchestra for six years and the Youth Orchestra for ten years. I loved every minute, but there was just something special about choir.

How did you become the new artistic director of the Phoenix Chamber Choir? What drew you to this position?

I was invited to guest-conduct the Phoenix Chamber Choir last season, and I had such a wonderful time working with them. I knew that if there was a way in which I could balance living in California and conducting in B.C., I had to give it a go.

When I was in my doctorate at McGill University, I created a student ensemble. Its mission was to perform new choral music and support contemporary Canadian composers.

When I worked with Phoenix in March of this year, it felt so natural and resembled what we had created with our Montreal choir.

Dr. Nicholle Andrews takes over as the new artistic director for Vancouver's Phoenix Chamber Choir.
Dr. Nicholle Andrews takes over as the new artistic director for Vancouver’s Phoenix Chamber Choir.

What do you anticipate to be the biggest challenge for you in this role with the Phoenix Chamber Choir?

The biggest challenge is not being in Vancouver to rehearse with the ensemble every week. However, with Ian Bannerman as the assistant conductor, the choir is doing a wonderful job preparing for run-up week.

What does the rest of the year look like for Phoenix?

We have three concerts this year and, in February, we are participating in a choral workshop at the Banff Centre with Pro Coro Canada.

What is your vision for the ensemble over the next few years?

My goal is to respect the tradition created by previous directors of Phoenix. Over the years, Phoenix has done so many wonderful concerts and events.

My vision for the next five years is to build our audience base. I plan to make this happen through collaborations with choirs, visual artists, dancers and other art forms and performing in different venues with a wide variety of repertoire. We also plan to host gala concerts and tours.

Tell us about the upcoming concert, Elements, on October 26.

Elements will be a concert featuring music based on the themes of air, water, fire and earth, with works by composers William Barnum (America), Matthew Emery (Canada), Ben Parry (England), Ēriks Ešenvalds (Latvia), Carlos Guastavino (Argentina), Kristopher Fulton (Canada), Eric Whitacre (America), Rob Dietz (America), Stephen Eisenhauer (Canada), Norman Luboff (America), Alberto Grau (Venezuela) and Marie-Claire Saindon (Canada).

As you can see, composers from all over the world are represented in the concert. I am sure the audience will be introduced to music that they have never heard.

What are some pieces audiences should pay special attention to?

It’s hard for me to choose. Each piece was selected for a different reason.

I would encourage listeners to experience the extended vocal techniques used in Whitacre’s “Cloudburst,” or the energy created by the accompaniment in Guastavino’s “Viento Norte.” The use of handbells in Ešenvalds “Stars” will transport the listener to another world, and in Grau’s “Kasar Mie La Gaji” (“The Earth Is Tired”) you can hear the tension in the text painting.

What piece are you most looking forward to conducting in the upcoming concert Elements?

I honestly could not pick just one. However, I am looking forward to performing “Deep River” with the alumni of the Phoenix Chamber Choir!

Who should attend?

Everyone. This concert has something for every listener. If this is your first concert, you are in for a treat, and if you are a seasoned concert-goer, there will be new works and interpretations for your listening pleasure.

Elements will take place at Shaughnessy Heights United Church on October 26 at 7:30 pm. Visit for tickets and more information.

Editor’s Note: Vancouver Presents contributor Kira Mari is a member of the Phoenix Chamber Choir.

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