Choirs and the Quest for Beauty

Every story a journalist writes involves a measure of compromise. The richer the source material, the larger that measure.

A case in point is the story about lyric baritone Russell Braun and pianist Carolyn Maule in our November 11 edition.

The transcript of our Skype conversation ran to several thousand words. There was room for only 1,000.

Trying to tell a coherent tale meant that a wealth of delightful material was destined for the cutting-room floor.

Out went the fact that Braun’s first stage role was as a corpse. A non-singing corpse with a habit of tumbling out of unusual places.

Gone was the reference to his adopted brother who plays in a heavy metal band.

Lost was the lovely story about the first time Braun performed publicly with his late father, world-famous baritone Victor Braun. It was in a tiny Mennonite church in the Saskatchewan village of Rabbit Lake (population: 87) where his grandmother, Oma Olga, then lived.

Accompanied by Carolyn on piano, Braun père et fils sang a few hymns – a light workout for their 1997 triumph together at the prestigious Salzburg Festival in Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande.

It was hard to leave out Carolyn’s recollection of how noted mezzo-soprano and voice teacher Patricia Kern gave a youthful Russell the advice he needed most – to search for his own voice instead of trying to emulate his father.

But the biggest compromise involved leaving out some thought-inspiring things Braun had to say about the quest for beauty.

Earlier that day, he had given a master-class student a simple piece of advice: to go back to her regular teacher and ask, “Am I making a beautiful sound, just by itself?”

From there he went on to muse about whether or not there is such a thing as absolute beauty.

“Just in terms of this abstract thing, ‘What is beautiful?’ there is a certain way a voice sounds that one can sort of quantifiably say, ‘This is beautiful; a beautiful sound’.

“I think there is a value in that just in itself, in realizing that there are absolute things in life that are beautiful. I know that’s maybe not a really popular opinion, or maybe useful even, but I think it’s really important somehow.”

And where does that awareness start? In many cases, Braun says, it’s in a church choir.

While he didn’t come from that tradition himself and began singing in choirs only as a young adult, he estimates that 85-90 per cent of professional singers got their musical grounding in a church choir.

“To teach a young boy who is eight, nine, ten years old to find that wonderful quality in his voice that is so pure – there’s something so valuable in that. Or a girl, of course. But for boys in particular it’s something that is harder to connect to, because boys don’t allow themselves to be beautiful very often, and girls have to fight with that because everyone expects them to be beautiful in other ways.”

So here’s a nod to dedicated choir directors everywhere – in church choirs, school choirs, youth choirs and community choirs such as our own wonderful Whitehorse Community Choir.

You are helping to create beauty in a world that needs it. Thank you.

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