The Beatles will meet jazz this Saturday, in the biggest Ottawa jazz concert of the decade.

Capital Vox choir director Elise Letourneau conducts December: Tidings of Light & Joy. photo ©Brett Delmage, 2010
Capital Vox choir director Elise Letourneau conducts December: Tidings of Light & Joy. photo ©Brett Delmage, 2010

On November 19, the Capital Vox jazz choir will be inviting another choir, a string quartet, a jazz orchestra, high school soloists, and a CBC announcer – plus their regular band – to interpret the music of the Fab Four.

Almost 75 singers and instrumentalists will take part in Beatlemania. Even in the expansive space of Dominion Chalmers United Church, it's going to be crowded on stage.

Capital Vox choir director Elise Letourneau said that the Beatles' music – besides being fun to sing and to hear – also lends itself to different interpretations.

"There's lots of opportunity to showcase different groups of musicians. The music has stood up to the test of time and it also stands up to varying interpretations. There are so many great Beatles tunes, we probably could have done three concerts."

She said she was open to requests when picking which songs to include, but "a lot of the requests were for the biggest of the big hits, and while it's important to tip our hat to some of those, if we programmed exclusively those, we would have no room for anything perhaps a little quieter to provide some contrast. There were some really, really interesting B-sides. We had to pick and choose among the big hits."

The line-up ended up with "a pretty good representation from Revolver. We're tipping our hat to Yellow Submarine a bit. Tipping our hat a bit to Sgt. Pepper simply because of the presence of so many horns."

But the whole concert is also a tribute to George Martin, the Beatles' long-time producer, who had a small connection to Letourneau: "When I graduated from Berklee, he was actually one of two guys receiving his honorary doctorate, and he gave me my degree: we shook hands and he handed out the pieces of paper."

Letourneau said she had been working on the arrangements for this concert since May of 2011.  "I looked for tunes had that inherently had elements of counterpoint within them, or tunes where the backups contained as many hook-like elements as the melody itself. Anywhere there was room for counterpoint, I looked for that. I also took the lyrics into consideration a lot. You can only do so many variations on "I Wanna Hold Your Hand", especially when you're asking a group of adults to come and sing together."

With almost 75 musicians, this concert surpasses in size the previous record holder: The Ottawa Jazz Orchestra's performance of Duke Ellington's Sacred Concerts in March, 2010. About 50 musicians participated in that concert, including the Capital Vox choir.

Letourneau said she saw the concert – and its size – as an exercise in community-building.

"We wanted to collaborate – we wanted to reach out to the community. We are a community choir. And there's a lot of community music going on and we wanted to reach out to that and tap into some of that, and present it as a big group effort."

The Capital Youth Jazz Orchestra, university-aged musicians from Ottawa who play traditional big band music, will provide the brass and horn sections. As a big band, CYJO will present "Yellow Submarine", "Can't Buy Me Love", and "When I'm 64" – and will also play in a brass-choir arrangement of "Penny Lane".

Five high school students from arts program at Canterbury High School will be guest vocalists, with one song each. Letourneau said this will be a unique experience for the students, having "a professional rhythm section backing them up, a choir, in some cases a horn section or a string section". They also get to see how their tunes morph from beginning to showtime, she said.

©Brett Delmage, 2011
Vox Eclectica, a women-only daughter choir of Capital Vox, will perform one song, "Blackbird" with piano and bells. Letourneau said that choir was started when "we had so many requests for auditions and we were literally bursting at the gills. We were out of chairs and out of space and we didn't have enough guys to support all those female voices. So it's a chamber women's choir, and again it was a way to involve the community more."

The Four Seasons String Quartet will be providing strings on several numbers. CBC announcer Amanda Putz will be emceeing the concert. And the rhythm section (Mark Alcorn on bass, Marilee Townsend on drums, Mark Ferguson on piano, and Tim Bedner on guitar) is "also factoring in pretty largely throughout the whole concert".

The available rehearsal space cannot hold all the musicians in the concert, so Letourneau said they had been "rehearsing in pockets". Six days before the concert, the Capital Vox singers and Capital Youth Jazz Orchestra as well as the rhythm section got together and ran through the numbers with horns, with further joint rehearsals with other musicians scheduled for the last week.

"The Saturday of the show is when a lot of the knitting together will be accomplished. We've got the venue for the whole day and it's the first time we'll have a venue that's big enough for everybody. So everybody's rehearsed their portions on their own, and then we've got to put them all together and stir the soup."

I asked Letourneau what the jazz connection was to Beatles music, since Capital Vox is a jazz choir.

"Jazz in a strict traditional form? There's going to be people out there who are going to say "That's not jazz". There's always people who say, "That's not jazz"."

But, if you "look at the concept of standards as being fluid and moving forward along with the people who make them standards, then [it] works. If you look at the concept of new standards, how can you possibly leave the Beatles out? "

She said there was a clear jazz influence in the arrangements. "Some of the songs lent themselves very nicely to swing and to a jazz quartet accompaniment. Some of the songs, when I sat down and arranged them: they had the same 32-measure AABA form as so many of the jazz standards that came before them, from the Golden American Songbook. The presence of horns naturally lends a jazz infusion to it. On some of the songs – one in particular, Honey Pie – there are no horns in it at all, but there is a section where the choir basically does a Big Band shout chorus."

She said she hoped that doing music like the that of the Beatles "might pique some interest of people who say, 'Well, I've never seen a choir, but maybe I'd like this'."

What about people who are into vocal jazz? Would the concert will attract them as well?

"I would hope it would. If it's people who are into the traditional trinity – Ella, Sarah, and Billie – this is definitely not this kind of vocal jazz concert. But there is a lot about this concert to like. There is a lot of harmony, there's a lot of energy, a lot of variety. If you're coming looking for a traditional vocal jazz concert: no, this would not be it. We're not a traditional choir. We've been hailed basically by you guys as Canada's first community jazz choir."

Letourneau said that Beatlemania would be the biggest of Capital Vox's three concerts this year. They will be performing a 70s Flashback at the NAC Fourth Stage on March 9 and 10, and a tribute to the WW2 era and the Golden American Songbook (with more traditional jazz music) at the Aviation and Space Museum on May 12.

    – Alayne McGregor

Capital Vox Presents: Beatlemania at Dominion Chalmers United Church on Saturday, November 19, 2011 at 7:30 p.m.

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