By Kathryn-Jane Hazel
When Malaspina Choir’s much-loved artistic director Lionel Tanod announced he was retiring earlier this year, educator and choral director Fiona Blackburn was keen to apply for the position.
Since 2004 Blackburn has been artistic director of the B.C. Girls Choir, which won the Children’s Choir of the World Trophy at the 2018 Llangollen International Musical Eisteddfod in Wales, and she has also directed the Zephyra Women’s Choir and Pacifica Singers.
When Blackburn was offered the position in mid-March, she was thrilled. There was the 50th anniversary gala concert to look forward to, as well as meeting and getting to know the choir’s 60-plus members.
Then the pandemic struck. No more choir practices, no gala concert, no celebration of Tanod’s stellar contribution to the choir during his tenure and no opportunity to meet choir members and discover their talents.
It was not the easiest time to be the new artistic director of a choir, but Blackburn’s long and eclectic musical career included many years of performing opera, musical theatre, Celtic folk music and solo work with Canadian orchestras from coast to coast, so she was up to the challenge.
With the possibility of choral silence dragging on through the summer, Blackburn and the choir’s executive decided to carefully open in-person rehearsals in September, following full COVID-19 protocols, in the large and beautiful acoustics of St. Andrew’s United Church, but then the second wave came and once again choir practices were suspended, after only nine weeks.
Although the time spent with the choir was cut short, it was still worth it, said Blackburn.
“We had some spine-tingling musical moments and plenty of laughs,” she said. “Even though we were not rehearsing for a concert, it was still uplifting to just sing. When – not if – we start up again, we will already have forged the start of our new relationships.”
Malaspina Choir will not be holding its annual Sing-along Messiah, a part of Nanaimo’s Christmas celebrations since 2010, and its 50th anniversary celebrations will be put on hold until 2021.
However, plans are underway for a new season sometime next year, and Blackburn says “I look forward to meeting many returning and perhaps some new singers to launch into the choir’s sixth decade.”