ERIN LINN MCMULLAN
Special to the Westerly
The warm blue lights illuminate the Tofino and Ucluelet choirs, still in their casual clothes, as conductor Sophie L’Homme runs them through one last pre-show rehearsal and a medley of classics inspired by her grandmother’s Christmas mix-tape. Her treasured grandmother’s gold bracelet dances as L’Homme’s hands clap time and she sways from side to side in the unique choreography that is her special signature when conducting. Christmas lights strung across the stage at the Ucluelet Community Centre and a pair of poinsettias matching the lonely red bass waiting on its stand help keep the black winter west coast night at bay.
The December concerts, performed in both Tofino and Ucluelet on Dec. 16 and Dec. 17, put a unique west coast twist on the season and showcase the reasons the choirs have quickly become the heartbeat of the community. The program unfolds like an end-of the-road anthem from L’Homme’s haunting duet with Filimoni Saininaivalu of gospel song, “Can’t Give Up Now”, to the adapted “A Nightingale Sang in Barclay Sound”, to the calypso beat infusing “Bring Me a Higher Love” that has the audience dancing in their seats.
Both the complex “Nightingale” and “Bridge O’er Troubled Waters” are performed by the alumni of the choir retreat held this fall at Cedar Cove Field Station or what L’Homme calls “camp for grownups”. L’Homme delights in discovering and featuring her chorists’ special talents from Saininaivalu’s “fantastic” vocal register to instrumental flourishes like Donald Cornwell’s solo sax and Therese Bouchard’s lively turn on the djembe.
“I love my choir family,” says L’Homme, who, describes how it has become “an organic part of this community with deep roots” and formed connections between people from all different generations and backgrounds. It has also provided L’Homme with a sense of belonging she has not experienced anywhere else, despite strong ties to her family in Montreal. She was also very moved to learn how choir had changed people’s lives during that first dinner at their retreat. “I feel so blessed to be close to community,” she adds, explaining that to connect that way is like winning. It’s a confirmation of her instinct to call this coast home, even as she reflects in concert on how “life here is pretty but not easy” as she discovered that first summer in 2008 when she drove across Canada in her Toyota Corolla.
Like her talented choir, L’Homme has evolved over the past two years from a novice to a professionally trained conductor, augmenting her foundation in jazz and arranging from the University of Montreal. Arranging all but two of the program’s numbers, the alchemy of her hundreds of hours at the computer turning pop tunes into choral music transforms the already-rich “In Dreams” from The Breaking of the Fellowship. Its spirit of resilience as the lyrics describe winter’s cold and the “bitter rain” highlighted in the song’s introduction by Dr. Pam Frazee echoes the soft drizzle outside the auditorium and the experience of the audience who sit warm and enthralled. It seems apropos as we are embraced by L’Homme’s fully realized dream: a choir to lift a community’s spirits.
Coming full circle, L’Homme is expanding that dream by composing, a new piece exploring our relationship with the ocean. She created it in collaboration with author Joanna Streetly and hopes to have the choir ready to perform for Pacific Rim Whale Fest.
Choir begins in the new year in Tofino on January 25 and Ucluelet on January 30.