“The choir is singing this Sunday? Oh good, I’ll be there for sure.”
You hear this often enough to appreciate that for many people, music is a vital part of any Sunday Service. In the Unitarian Church of Vancouver the choir sings two Sundays a month, on average, although it practises every week. And the face of the choir is the inimitable Donna Brown, currently celebrating her twentieth year as Director of UCV’s Chalice Choir.
Donna eased into the choir a few years after she joined the church in 1989. The previous director, Sallie Novinger, encouraged her to join as a soprano. Whenever Sallie was ill she asked Donna to direct and when she decided to retire, she suggested Donna take over. The first few years were tumultuous, with many guest ministers, a huge range in the organization of services and a never-ending need to check, coordinate and adjust. Things settled down when Steven Epperson arrived; he, Donna and Elliott Dainow formed a seamless, cooperative team. She credits Rob Taylor, Connie Wigmore and the late Donna Cook, for their support in the early days. Gavin Grandish and Nicola Hamilton fill in whenever Donna can’t be there.
Donna still quotes her mentor, Harold Brown, when the choir struggles to master a piece: ‘Perfection is an abstraction, one we must strive to reach though it will always be beyond our grasp.’
Donna’s patience in dealing with forty or so Unitarians, not unlike herding cats, has been honed by twenty-five years as an elementary school teacher. She remains pleasant and smiling even as she pushes singers to be better. Her determination to keep trained and talented section leads enables the rank and file members to ‘sing up’ a level so the choir can work on music that would otherwise be too difficult for many. As concert dates approach, she may have sleepless nights but she never panics. She will listen to everyone once and then make hard decisions when necessary. Although she never singles anyone out for blame, her bionic hearing for faulty timing and sagging pitch means the choir improves year by year. If the abstract of perfection is occasionally too far out of reach, Donna changes the program.
Over the last twenty years, the choir has performed a wide range of pieces at its two annual concerts. Proceeds from concerts (and choir-run church lunches in lean years) have funded the music library. Donna has a passion for requiems but the music varies from Bach, Rutter, Faure and Stravinsky to medleys from Queen, Gershwin, Village People and West Side Story. The choir has sung for the wedding of choir member Catherine Ponsford and the funerals of Harold Brown and Phillip Hewett. Last year at the Vancouver Push Festival, the choir even sang in the role of Community Choir for the play, ‘The Events’ starring UCV’s own Douglas Ennenberg. This past February Donna took the choir across the border to sing at the Bellingham Unitarian Fellowship service and at an interfaith concert to raise money for housing the homeless in the Bellingham area.
This year’s spring concert is titled ‘Donna’s Favourites’, pieces culled from her twenty years as Chalice Choir director. Mark your calendars, Sunday May 5 at 7:30. Come celebrate her stellar career with the choir here at UCV.