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Professor Stephanie Martin's canticle settings sung by University of Cambridge choir

Professor Stephanie Martin's canticle settings sung by University of Cambridge choir

With the rich monastic history of some of England’s universities, the tradition of choral evensong still thrives, creating a thirst for new settings for the canticles. As Canada is not steeped in the same rituals, few Canadians take this work on, making York music Professor Stephanie Martin the exception. She composed a new setting of the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis, evening canticles which were premiered last month by the Selwyn College Chapel Choir.

“For a choral composer, a premiere sung by a Cambridge Choir is like a dream,” says Martin, who has just returned from three weeks at the University of Cambridge immersed in the daily life as a Visiting Bye-Fellow. The 24-voice strong Selwyn College Chapel choir is comprised of male and female choral scholars and students, who performed the world premiere under the direction of Sarah MacDonald, the choir’s director of music.

Right: Stephanie Martin conducting

Martin had the Selwyn College Chapel Choir members in mind when she composed the new settings, as they perform a traditional version of evensong several times a week. “They are students, but functioning at a professional level. They rehearse and perform at least four days every week,” she says.

Monastic communities throughout the world still sing these prayer services called “offices” several times a day, but it is the service of evensong that has survived in common practice at Cambridge, and is now a big draw for tourists. Choirs like the famous King's College, Cambridge have been making recordings for decades. She calls the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis canticles “beautiful and inspired poetry” with the Magnificat being quite dramatic in places, and the Nunc Dimittis gentle and comforting.

Already, Martin has been contacted by choirs in Edmonton, Ottawa and Toronto, who would like to perform her settings when they go on tour in England, and that, says Martin, “is pretty exciting.”They will be able to sing a Canadian composition. “It’s one thing to create a piece that is performed once, but quite another thing to compose a piece that has legs and will be sung for years.” She hopes this premiere in England will interest other choirs in her music.

Left: Selwyn College Chapel at the University of Cambridge

“The difficulty for modern composers with thousands of years of Western music behind them is to strike a balance between honouring tradition and saying things in a new way, while keeping the performers in mind,” she says. The desire always for composers is to express their own voice.

A recipient of the Lilian Forsythe Award for excellence in church music and the Leslie Bell Prize for choral conducting, Martin has had plenty of opportunities to express herself while on sabbatical this past year. She’s launched a new CD – Alleluia: Sacred Choral Works by Stephanie Martin, won the Association of Anglican Musicians competition for new choral music and has been accepted as an associate composer into the Canadian Music Centre, which keeps a library of some 600 composers of which Martin will now be one.

What has been really close to her heart, however, is the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of young people with cancer. She was recently asked about having her Alleluia CD available as an online resource for young people coping with cancer in Northern Ontario, and, of course, she said yes. “I do this pretty self-indulgent thing. I just write music and perform. Sometimes I step back and wonder how I’m helping anyone,” she says. “So I think that this is just such an amazing thing. This is kind of special because it will actually help someone.”

As the director of music at the Church of Saint Mary Magdalene, she is also involved in fundraising for Christchurch Cathedral in New Zealand, which lost its tower in the recent earthquake. A doctor from the Christchurch area, sang with the Gallery Choir at the Church of Saint Mary Magdalene during the recording of Martin’s Alleluia CD. The choir won in their category of the CBC amateur choir competition in 2008.

In addition, she is getting ready to launch another CD, this one with Pax Christi Chorale in Toronto, a 90-voice oratorio choir, which Martin has conducted since 1996. After putting out a call for submissions to their Great Canadian Hymn Contest, the Pax Christi Chorale picked one winner out of 75 submissions. The judges felt there were at least 10 more hymns deserving of wider dissemination and decided to have the choir perform the hymns for a CD that will be part of a book containing all 11 new hymns.

As if that weren’t enough, Martin will conduct the opera La Serva Padrona in Calgary in May, head to England for the Three Choirs Festival and be back in time to starting teaching once again in September.

To listen to a preview of Martin's Alleluia CD, visit the cdbaby website.

By Sandra McLean, YFile writer

Republished courtesy of YFile– York University’s daily e-bulletin.