The Debbie Fleming Prize for Choral Composition Finds Its First Winner
When Debbie Fleming joined the TMC in 1973, she was hoping to improve her sight-singing skills. But over her more than 40-years in the Choir, she gained much more than that! “It wasn’t long before the incredible music that we sang, from Bach to Stravinsky, seeped into my heart and soul, and made the choir into one of the most joyful experiences of my life,” she says, ” The friends I made, the great musical moments written by the masters and singing with the Toronto Symphony were just a few of the things I loved about the TMC.”
In 2015, with her time as a chorister in the TMC drawing to an end, Debbie wanted to give something back to the choir for all of those life-changing years. A prolific songwriter and arranger, she was inspired make a significant gift to the Choir to create the TMC Choral Composition Competition: an annual $1000 prize for a previously unpublished choral composition. Debbie created the prize thank you to the Mendelssohn Choir for the “joyful” 40 years she sang in it. “A few years ago,” Debbie says, “I became aware of the annual Christmas Carol competition sponsored by the Amadeus Choir. That inspired, and motivated me to write some carols, and enter them into the contest. I ended up with two honourable mentions, and felt very proud.” Debbie says that she wanted her gift to the Mendelssohn Choir, to similarly inspire other Canadian composers to put pen (or software) in hand, and come up with compositions, which they may not otherwise have created had there not been this competition.
In addition to the cash prize, the winning composition would be performed by the TMC at the annual Choral Conductors’ Symposium free concert. Associate Conductor Jennifer Min-Young Lee conducted this year’s winning composition, Psalm 100 by Stuart Beatch of Regina, at the Symposium concert on January 31.
Once Debbie’s prize was set up, the TMC publicized the new composition to universities and choral networks across Canada. Though the trickle of submissions was slow at first, by the deadline, the office had 28 submissions. Artistic Director Noel Edison set up a panel of judges that included composers and conductors across Canada—all musicians for whom Noel has “great respect.” On the adjudication panel, Noel was joined Timothy Corlis, a composer based in British Columbia; Mark Sirett, a conductor, composer and teacher based in Kingston, Ontario; and Mark Vuorinen, a conductor and university professor based in Kitchener, Ontario.
Each panel member received a copy of each submission. After some time to review all of the submissions, the panel members had a conference call, and each presented his ranked list of the top five. Noel notes that each panelist placed a different composition at the top of his individual list, but that the winner was in everyone’s top three. Spring Wind, the honourable mention composition by Nicholas Kelly of Penticton, BC, occupied a spot in each panelist’s top five. Despite their different approaches, this phone conversation was quite reasonable, and reached, in Noel’s words “a reasonable conclusion, without much debate.”
Noel himself looked at all submissions, of course, reading through them all quietly at first, then at the piano. He looked for compositions with a clear structure (beginning, middle, end), that contained something of what Noel calls “a personal choral expression.” A composition, he says, “Should convince me that this is a piece that is very valid,” but should also be sing-able. “If I have to put in a lot of work to make it sound like something, then I’m not interested.”
The Winning Composition
This doesn’t mean that Noel or any of the panelists looks for pieces that are facile or conventional: as any chorister can tell you, Psalm 100 presented some challenges, with shifting time signatures, some challenging melodic jumps, and an organ part that the composer himself described as “nigh on unplayable.” (Noel had no worries about the challenging organ part, as he was confident that organist Michael Bloss would be up to the challenge.)
Many congratulations on a wonderful concert this afternoon! I feel extremely gratified having my music performed by Jennifer Min-Young Lee heading such capable choristers — and a very special commendation to Michael Bloss for his work on an organ part which I had thought was nigh on unplayable. Thank you for the wonderful opportunity and best wishes for the rest of your season!
For herself, Debbie Fleming was at the Symposium concert this year, to hear the first winner of the prize that bears her name. “I felt proud that I could make a contribution to the concert, to the choir and to composers in our wonderful country,” she says.