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Nanaimo Sings virtual performance features 66 vocalists

Fifth Nanaimo Sings festival was to have taken place this year
Conductor Willi Zwozdesky and pianist Nico Rhodes led 66 local vocalists in song for the Nanaimo Sings video project Keeping Calm and Singing On. (YouTube screen shot)

Despite being forced to cancel the 2021 Nanaimo Sings festival because of the COVID-19 pandemic, organizers still found a way to give singers in the area an opportunity unite in song.

This year was to have been the fifth Nanaimo Sings festival, an event which usually features performances by 16 vocal groups from Ladysmith to Lantzville as well as a “massed choir” of around 400 singers.

“This pandemic has been so devastating for choirs because it just has shut us down and a lot of the choirs have gone completely dark and only a few of them have actually carried on with any kind of singing and it’s all been virtual,” said Linda Dier, Nanaimo Sings chairperson.

Dier said organizers couldn’t see themselves doing nothing, so in lieu of a festival last week they unveiled Keeping Calm and Singing On, a video project featuring 66 singers representing 14 choirs performing a pair of songs from their homes.

“In Nanaimo Sings we really try to keep people connected and we try to communicate and get them collaborating with each other,” she said. “So our thinking was that with everybody either not singing at all or singing online, maybe what we should try to do is bring people together and create something like a massed choir.”

Returning to conduct Nanaimo Sings for the third time is longtime Vancouver Men’s Chorus conductor and artistic director Willi Zwozdesky. Joining him on piano is Nanaimo’s Nico Rhodes, who last accompanied Nanaimo Sings in 2011.

The first song in the video is Hearth and Fire by American songwriter Gordon Bok. It’s an arrangement of Zwozdesky’s that the Nanaimo Sings massed coir performed at its last festival in 2018.

“We knew that singing virtually is really so different than singing live and we knew that we needed to have one song that was familiar and very loved,” Dier said.

The other song, Island Oohlahey, by Protection Island’s Rick Scott and Valley Hennell, was chosen as the result of a “song search” that garnered 31 entries from 14 local songwriters. Rhodes, a collaborator of Scott’s, arranged the song.

To create the video, each singer watched Zwozdesky conduct and, while listening to a recording for reference, recorded themselves singing their part. A Cappella Plus director Patricia Plumley led rehearsals over Zoom to help the singers prepare. Those individual videos were then edited together by Tidesmen member James Chappell to make the singers appear to sing in unison. Dier said everyone was “absolutely delighted” with the result.

“Our message in Nanaimo Sings right from the get-go has been that the pandemic is shutting us down but it’s just for now,” she said. “We have to hang in, stay together, stay connected, stay singing however we can and be optimistic and know that it’s going to end and we’ll get back to this.”

Keeping Calm and Singing On can be viewed here.

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