Conductor & Musician
Published, EAC Communiqué, August 1986
oel Edison believes that “you can turn people on to any type of music, if you capture their imagination”. It is this philosophy which inspires the Artistic Directorship of the Elora Three Centuries Festival.
Noel first came to Elora when he was 18 in order to continue piano lessons with his teacher who had moved to Elora to teach at St. John’s – Kilmarnock School. By the time Noel was 19 years old, he had mastered the organ, become choirmaster of the girls’ choir at St. John’s Anglican Church, and was teaching music theory and singing at St. Margaret’s School while pursuing a degree in music at Wilfred Laurier University. The youngest of four children, he was fortunate to grow up in a family sensitive to the arts. His mother, a former member of the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, encouraged her family’s involvement in music. His father, as he puts it, “has two tunes: one is God save the Queen – the other isn’t”!
It was inevitable when Michael Purvis-Smith wrote a proposal for an early music festival to be held in Elora, that Noel would be invited to participate. In 1979, with Annette Smith as legal advisor, and Dr. William Ellis, an astute businessman and musical devotee, they formed an executive board and the Three Centuries Festival was born. In the second year Noel began the Festival Choir, and when he assumed the position of Artistic Director in 1983, he broadened the musical base of the festival and established its choral focus. The critical acclaim that his choir receives attests to his singular talents and devotion to the art of singing.
His personal goal has always been that of professional musicianship, from the time he sang for the Queen Mother as a boy soprano at Westminster Abbey to the present day, as he makes plans for a chamber orchestra and choir which performs and records on a regular basis. “Art should form an integral part of life and not be merely a social adjunct to it. – I would like to see Canada develop the rich cultural fabric of Europe.” A cosmopolitan at heart, Noel’s favourite cities are Venice and New York, and he would like to take a year or so
to study under an orchestra conductor in Europe. Elora, however, is his home, and his personal preference for chamber music repertoire ideally suits the small and charming atmosphere of the village.
“I enjoy challenges,” Noel states, and certainly each of his demanding commitments as teacher, choirmaster, organist and artistic director have the element of challenge in common. They all require dedication, enthusiasm and innovative approaches to stay fresh and intriguing. This has not proved a problem for Noel who dreamed up “The Concert In The Quarry”, a now legendary success. With the special affinity he feels for water, what better way could he have chosen to combine his two passions?
The challenge of programming for the Three Centuries Festival is apparent as Noel works within stringent budget restrictions to achieve not only unusual and interesting programming for the current season, but also, to shape the Festival for its future role as the major choral event in Ontario with a summer school for voice and instrumental students. This process demands a strong sense of purpose and artistic vision to carry it through. The Festival, he says, “should mature as a multi-media presentation incorporating drama and dance to complement the music”. But for this,” he says, “we need support of the other artistic groups in the area, and I want to let them know that we are eager to join forces and work with them.”
As a conductor, it may be expected that Noel places a high value on co-operative effort. He views Elora as an amazingly rich pool of specialized talent and resources, which can be effectively shared to generate dynamic growth in all artistic endeavours without duplication of effort. Making an effort to avoid the dangers of insularity, Noel belongs to the major choral associations, subscribes to international music journals and attends workshops in places such as Toronto, Montreal and New York. He feels strongly that it is important to challenge your own standards. For him this means not resting comfortably on past repertoire and the standard already set, but to inject new life into an ensemble by introducing singers into the choir whose vocal range and personalities “add a new dimension to the sound.” He points out that choral music does not really have as great a scope as operatic or symphonic repertoire, “because in these there are a rainbow of colours and in a choir, you have only four different colours to work with.” Being alert to the ever-changing tastes of the public keeps him on his toes, as he says, “the main thing is to stay fresh.”
His perception of the seventh season of the Festival is that of a promise: “a promise to all those who have given so much to us, and for those who have yet to acknowledge us, that we are here to stay and grow.” He explains that Three Centuries Festival is well established as a valid artistic event in the professional music world, and that the strong choral component interwoven with the summer scenes “offers a rare and special theme” which should be cherished. This year the Festival affirms and enriches the vocal element with the talents of the Toronto Boys Choir and Mark DuBois. The move into other artistic media is evidenced by the narration of Nicholas Pennel in “Nine Lessons and Carols for Summer”, and the introduction of Rod Beattie in his one-man comedy play for the Cabaret. Extra drama and spice is added in the complex production of “African Sanctus” which uses a slidere presentation, tapes of tribal drums, special sound effects as well as percussion, electric guitars, piano – and, of course, the choir.
After matters artistic were settled, Noel spent a long, hard spring of performer contracting, production scheduling and developing promotional strategies. His summer “vacation” comprises holding a choir camp in Muskoka before returning to Elora for intensive rehearsals in preparation for the Festival. The man who spells his name, “you know, as in Christmas and light bulbs”, does not seem to have the word “relax” in his vocabulary! Where is the time for private life? “Music is my life,” he claims, “With a recording of Jesse Norman in the background, good friends, a game of bridge and an unbruised martini in hand… life’s not bad!”
by Hazel Jones, August, 1986
Art should form an integral part of life and not be merely a social adjunct to it.
UPDATE – 1997
In the intervening years since 1986, the name has changed to The Elora Festival, but Noel continues as its innovative and dedicated Artistic Director. In 1997, more of his original vision became reality with Dance programmed for the first time.
Now Director of Choral Studies at Wilfred Laurier University and Director of Music at St John’s Anglican Church, Elora, Noel is also a regular juror for the CBC, Ontario Arts Council, Juno Awards, and on the Board of Directors of the Association of Choral Conductors of Canada. He is the founding conductor of the Elora Festival Singers, and tours with them throughout the year.
Noel has commissioned many new works from Canadian composers. His career expands with ambitious projects, like the 1994 Festival production of the commissioned opera “Florence” by Timothy Sullivan, Berlioz “Requiem” in 1995 and the 1997 performance of Bach’s “Mass in B Minor”.
Noel is an avid golfer and gourmet in his personal life. “It takes composers, performers and listeners to make good music,” Noel says. “Fine people make fine music – this is always my goal. That, and a good golf swing.”
It takes composers, performers and listeners to make good music
UPDATE – 2004
Noel is now the conductor of the 180-voice Toronto Mendelssohn Choir and the newly founded, 65-voice Toronto Mendelssohn Singers. He also serves as organist and choirmaster of St. John’s Anglican Church in Elora, one of the few all-professional church choirs in the country.
The Elora Festival celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2004. Noel has overseen the growth of the Festival into one of the finest summer festivals in Canada.
Over the last decade, Noel has made 10 CDs with plans for two more over the next year, and commissioned some 40 new works. He conducts his own Festival Orchestra, which is in residence at the Elora Festival each summer, and is the orchestra for the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir concerts.
In 2002, he received an honorary doctorate from the University of Guelph. Noel makes his permanent home in Elora, where the Centre Wellington Chamber of Commerce has honoured him for his longstanding contribution to the economy of the community.