Imant Raminsh, Aura Chamber Choir founder and director, ponders the past and future of the choir as he sits in his studio at the Vernon Community Music School Wednesday, Nov. 8. (Parker Crook/Morning Star)

Renowned Vernon choral director prepares to pass the torch

The power of the human voice is unmatched, with tones and words capable of bringing people together

The power of the human voice is unmatched, with tones and words uttered capable of bringing people together.

And, as evidenced in the Baltic’s following perestroika, the voice can spark a revolution.

Latvian-born and Vernon-based composer Imant Raminsh uses the human voice for choral beauty, founding the AURA Chamber Choir in 1979.

But after nearly four decades of choral excellence, director Raminsh is preparing to pass on the torch to one of two new directors who will be put to the test at AURA Chamber Choir’s Nov. 18 to 19 performance, Welcome To All The Pleasures.

“The concert is essentially an audition for our upcoming directors,” Raminsh said. “Basically, I wanted a smooth transition, and, in my heart of hearts, I wanted there to be some kind of continuity.”

Featuring longtime AURA accompanist Marjorie Close, Welcome To All The Pleasures brings forward Tami Harker and Terry Pitt-Brooke as guest conductors, vying for the role of director. The eclectic program showcases pieces chosen by the two conductors.

Both with Vernon roots and extensive musical and choral experience, Pitt-Brooke and Harker bring different aspects to the table. The evenly-matched duo won’t make the decision easy for the choir, though.

“Fresh ideas are always good for an organization,” Raminsh said. “I’m really looking forward to this. I think it’s going to be a very different choir.”

And it won’t be a torch that is easy to pass.

“I think you have to go into it realizing there will be bittersweet moments. If it’s been set on the right track, it will take on its own identity.”

Raminsh founded AURA Chamber Choir, a not-for-profit society boasting 40 members from across the Okanagan-Shuswap region, shortly after arriving in Vernon to find the teaching job he had been offered hadn’t materialized.

“When I arrived here with my wife, we were a little bit at loose ends,” Raminsh said. “I was looking for a way to make a living because the job I had been offered suddenly didn’t exist.”

To pay the bills, Raminsh began instructing violin at the Vernon Community Music School — a position he has held since 1977, and for a brief stint Raminsh served as choral director of the Okanagan Symphony and later conducted the Okanagan Youth Symphony Orchestra.

“I thought, well, I really wanted to sharpen my skills and I felt there was a need for a small chamber choir,” Raminsh said. “AURA started when there were really few choirs around.”

So, with the help of co-founder Valerie Witham, AURA Chamber Choir was born. Now, 39 years later, the choir—whose repertoire reaches from the Renaissance period to works from Raminsh himself—has garnered international appeal, having played Raminsh’s Magnificat and Missa Brevis alongside fellow B.C. choristers at Carnegie Hall in New York City.

With a music diploma in violin from the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto, a bachelor’s of music degree from the University of Toronto and training from the Austria’s Universität Mozarteum, Raminsh’s compositions and choral work led him to win two biennial Canadian National Choral Awards in Outstanding Choral Work for Magnificat (1990) and Veni Sancte Spiritus (1994).

While he has achieved international renown, the 74-year-old musician remains loyal to his roots.

Fleeing recoil from the Second World War, Raminsh, who was just a boy at the time; his mother, a trained concert pianist; his father, a forester, and his siblings sought refuge in Canada.

“Having not much more than the clothes on our backs, my mom thought one way to support our family income was to teach,” Raminsh said, recalling the strong influence music had on his family.

“Any refugee family, they take advantage of whatever opportunities are available.”

It was then that Raminsh’s love of music was born.

“My exposure to music was really from an early age,” Raminsh said. “I happened to latch on to the violin.”

Despite his long connection with the string instrument, Raminsh concedes that there is a more powerful instrument available: the human voice. And the Baltic region’s connection to singing is unmatched.

“It’s a very powerful tradition, not only culturally but spiritually and politically,” Raminsh said, referencing the June 10 to 11, 1988 Singing Revolution — an event that greatly influenced independence from Russian influence in the Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

And it’s a choral history that Raminsh has brought with him to AURA Chamber Choir.

“I feel happy about the work that I have done and I feel confident that it will be put into good hands, always recognizing that there will be moments of nostalgia,” Raminsh said. “I always felt that I was their conductor, but it was not my choir.”

His time with the choir isn’t over yet, and before he goes, Raminsh will have a night dedicated to his original compositions, though it won’t be his last.

“I didn’t want to finish with all my self-works, because that’s a bit self-serving,” Raminsh said. “My last official appearance we will be doing the Bach B minor Mass. It’s a really monumental work.”

While Raminsh is preparing to pass the torch, AURA Chamber Choir will forever bear the humble musician’s mark.

Aura Chamber Choir’s Welcome To All The Pleasures, featuring guest conductors Hark and Pitt-Brooke, plays at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 18 and 1:30 p.m. Nov. 19 at the All Saints Anglican Church, 3205-27th St.

Tickets are $18 adult and free for students, available from choir members and at the door.

For more information, visit www.aurachamberchoir.com.

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