Marc-Olivier Hardy was like any other 8-year-old when his parents brought him to audition for Les petits chanteurs de Laval more than 15 years ago.
Sure, he sang around the house; but so do many kids.
The family had just moved to Laval from the South Shore and a boys choir seemed like a good way for their son to get his bearings and make new friends.
Les petits chanteurs de Laval is Quebec’s biggest choral group, consisting of three choirs that bring together more than 300 young people to learn and share in the joy of singing with others.
Looking back as he prepares to submit his master’s thesis in marketing at Université du Québec à Montréal, the 24-year-old Verdun resident can only marvel at the hobby that has filled much of his spare time, shaped and helped define the past two-thirds of his young life.
“It’s exceptional,” Hardy said of the experience.
Founded as a boys choir in 1981, Les petits chanteurs de Laval opened its doors to girls with the creation of Les voix boréales in 1998. Then in 2012, it added young-adult group Le choeur des jeunes de Laval, due to popular demand — many choir members, entering adulthood, didn’t want to stop.
As you read these lines, Les petits chanteurs de Laval, like so many youth choirs throughout the city, are poring over partitions, preparing to partake in a beloved holiday tradition for singers, their families and other audience members alike: the annual Christmas concert.
Their show, Dec. 16 at Maison symphonique, featuring all three choirs, will be devoted to the grand tradition of British choral music.
The choirs of Les petits chanteurs de Laval have travelled the world and performed with the Rolling Stones and Céline Dion, Marie-Mai, Patrick Watson and the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal, to name a few.
Ophélie Savard-Gratton remembers her entry into the fold like a warm embrace.
“Oh my God,” said the 24-year-old Montrealer, who recently submitted her master’s thesis in literature at McGill, and continues to sing under the umbrella of the group of choirs she joined when she, too, was 8.
“It’s a large organization, but with so many people your age, you’re immediately integrated into a big family — with rehearsals two times a week, all the concerts, and tours starting in high school. There are so many occasions to spend time together. You very quickly find your place.”
Both Hardy and Savard-Gratton count fellow choir members among their oldest, closest friends, and it’s easy to see why. Sharing formative, once-in-a-lifetime experiences, year in, year out, can have that effect on young people.
“I’ve been to France, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Italy … Seattle, Vancouver, New Jersey, New Haven,” Savard-Gratton said. “The younger singers have been to Estonia and Finland. Before that, the boys went to Japan. We really go everywhere in the world.
“On tour, we’re billeted with families, we live together 24 hours a day and perform concerts. It’s really a special universe for kids, adolescents and young adults; it creates strong bonds.”
Those bonds are reinforced on a weekly basis. For the singers who stay on to sing with Le choeur des jeunes de Laval after high school, it’s as much about the music as maintaining relationships with lifelong friends who are setting out on different paths as they enter adulthood.
“We go for beer every Wednesday after practice,” Hardy said, “always to the same place. The waiter knows us all by name, and what we drink. There are at least 15 of us, every time. It’s that social aspect, first and foremost, that keeps us coming back.”
“It has helped me discover other cultures, and listen to others. It’s fun. When you sing with a lot of voices, you hear all kinds of things together. It’s cool.” — Étienne Gagné, 14
That’s music to the ears of Philippe Ostiguy, who knows that for his young charges to stick with it, they have to enjoy not only singing but the entire choir experience.
Les petits chanteurs de Laval’s artistic director describes the choir environment as a kind of “social milieu, a place where you live and create. You can find it elsewhere — in scouts, sports, figure-skating. It’s an area of life in which you do things, and friendships develop. Especially in adolescence, it’s important to be connected, to be part of something.”
He knows from first-hand experience. Ostiguy caught the music bug young, starting piano at age 6 and singing in a choir as part of the all-boys music program at Les petits chanteurs du Mont-Royal from age 9 to 17.
“If I’m doing this in life now, it’s because of how my time at that school marked me,” he said.
Ostiguy studied piano in university, but was always a prodigious singer. As a young boy, he was chosen as a soloist to share the stage with Luciano Pavarotti, when the opera tenor performed at Notre-Dame Basilica in 1978 (see YouTube clip below). He also recorded a song with Quebec legend Félix Leclerc.
“I was valorized by all of that,” said Ostiguy, 52, who sees a similar effect on his singers.
He began working with Les petits chanteurs de Laval in 1992 as a piano accompanist, assistant conductor and rehearsal leader under Gregory Charles (a fellow alumnus of Les petits chanteurs du Mont-Royal), from whom he took the reins in 2005.
Budding singers can only join Les petits chanteurs de Laval between ages 8 to 10, ensuring a strong group dynamic in which children start at the same level and evolve as a unit.
“You can’t come in at 12 or 13,” Ostiguy explained. “You have to start at the beginning and move up the ladder.”
Hooking the kids when they’re young is especially important when it comes to young male singers, he noted.
“For boys, it’s a bigger leap of faith. It’s less fashionable for boys to do artistic activities, sadly, and to sing.”
Though all three choirs often perform together, Ostiguy believes maintaining separate entities for boys’ and girls’ ensembles is essential in creating strong bonds between his young singers as they each establish their own rapport to the music.
Rehearsals are separate, with boys coming in on Tuesday evenings, girls on Thursdays, and both choirs rehearsing together on Saturday mornings.
The organization’s summer music camp is divided into one week for the boys’ choir, and another for the girls, with singing in the morning and activities in the afternoon. Tours are also separate, with boys’ and girls’ choirs alternating international and North American tours, every other year.
As proof of the effectiveness of the approach, Ostiguy points to Les petits chanteurs de Laval’s high retention rate for its male singers, many of whom stick it out right up to the young-adult choir, which is evenly divided between men and women.
“There are very few boys’ choirs in Quebec — there’s us and Les petits chanteurs du Mont-Royal,” he said. “There are many (mixed) children’s choirs, but most have far more girls than boys. We have the opportunity to travel a lot — in Europe and the United States. We meet and do exchanges with all kinds of choirs. And I always know in advance, when it’s a mixed choir it’s going to be 5 per cent boys and 95 per cent girls. So it’s important the boys not feel like they’re coming into a mixed choir, or a girls’ choir. It helps with male bonding.”
And then there’s the music itself. Ostiguy is a self-described perfectionist, but he adjusts his expectations to the situation, without ever losing sight of the bottom line — that music sounds better when those making it are enjoying themselves.
“It’s really fun to be able to mix the musical side — where you sit, you’re serious, you listen, rehearse and create something together that makes you so proud — with the personal side. On breaks, you can talk with friends you get along so well with; it sounds cheesy but it’s really a family.” — Camille Chénard, 16
Ostiguy’s choirs — in various formations, from soloists to smaller groups to all singers combined — participate in approximately 60 events per year.
Last Saturday morning, he was at the Maison symphonique rehearsing with Le choeur des jeunes de Laval for Noël symphonique, in which they and the Orchestre symphonique de Longueuil would be backing an array of Quebec stars singing seasonal favourites later that day.
At the same time his two children’s choirs were working with rehearsal directors in Laval. Among them was Étienne Gagné, 14, who appreciates the wide range of sounds the choir exposes him to.
“We don’t just do one kind of music,” he said. “We do pop and classical, we see a lot of different universes. When we do things that are pop, we dance and move, and we know the songs. Classical is fun, too; I don’t know how to explain it — it’s more flamboyant, you could say, there are accents.”
His school friends who aren’t in choirs don’t quite get the appeal, he admitted.
“They find it strange.”
But that doesn’t deter Gagné. Singing with Les petits chanteurs de Laval is everything he hoped for, and more.
“I think it’s even better than I expected (when I started),” he said. “I didn’t know how we would learn all the songs. It takes a lot of work, but when the result is good, it’s fun.”
“Choir represents an escape, in a sense. I’m elsewhere (in my life). I’m in marketing, which is a serious milieu. But at least once a week, I get to free my mind. Singing in a choir is fun. It’s as simple as that.” — Marc-Olivier Hardy, 24
The choirs of Les petits chanteurs de Laval have participated in multiple events in recent weeks, all leading up to the Dec. 16 concert at Maison symphonique.
A recent visit to a Wednesday evening rehearsal of the young-adult choir revealed Ostiguy to be a brisk rehearsal leader, who leads by example in terms of the energy he brings to his work.
He played keyboard as he conducted, singing along, stopping frequently and speaking with rapid-fire precision as he made corrections or highlighted nuances, then picked up where he left off.
“People come here on a volunteer basis,” he said, sitting in his office across the hall, the following day. “There’s no reason to come except, ‘Is it interesting?’ Why is it interesting? There’s the repertoire, but at a certain level there’s also a pride, and a joy that comes with that.
“It’s a fragile balance between rigour and pleasure. Too much pleasure and it’s chaotic; too much rigour and it’s dry, austere, dead. You have to find the balance between those two poles.”
He pointed to the wide variety of material performed by his choirs each year, from classical classics to custom-made medleys from the pop world, complete with elaborate dance routines that make up the choirs’ annual revue, each spring.
“If we did exclusively classical or sacred music, we would lose some kids,” Ostiguy said. “And the opposite is true, too. If we did only pop songs, we would lose kids who are capable of more. Not to denigrate one or the other — the two can co-exist. But the pleasure in each is different.”
The greatest pleasure comes from a job well done, he insists, whatever his charges are singing.
“Quality is a constant concern. It’s one thing to get to a certain level; it’s another to maintain it all the time, and to retain standards. I’m very demanding in terms of the standards we reach.
“I always say to the kids, ‘No matter where we perform, give to the best of your capabilities, and represent the choirs well — whether it’s on tour, at a corporate event, a big show for the Fête Nationale or with the Orchestre symphonique de Laval, or a kid doing a solo with the Opéra de Montréal.’”
“You learn to blend, and meld with other voices and the energy of the group. Each person is essential and brings something specific to this musical project we’re all in together. It’s like an orchestra; you have to adjust. If the tenors have the melody, we do softer backing vocals, then when it’s our turn, we take the lead. You learn to interact with one another, and to listen.” — Ophélie Savard-Gratton, 24
Camille Chénard, 16, doesn’t have the stereotypical choirgirl look. Sporting a buzz cut and dressed all in black, the Grade 11 student has a distinctly alternative style.
“Often when I say I’m in a choir, people are like, ‘This girl is in a choir? Something doesn’t click,’” she said. “When I invite my friends to see my choir show at the end of the year, they don’t expect to see us dance to Michael Jackson.
“All to say, it’s not what you think — it’s so much more enjoyable and fun.”
Chénard spoke enthusiastically about all the places she has visited with the choir — Austria, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Croatia, Denmark, Germany, Belgium — and of all the people she has met, and other choirs she has heard along the way.
“It’s such an enriching experience,” she said, “as much for the friendships as for the musical knowledge you develop.
“Choir gave me a general culture of music, artists and songs, and also helped refine my vocal technique. I love it.”
The St-Eustache resident will study graphic design at CÉGEP next year, but she intends to continue singing with Le choeur des jeunes de Laval.
And what about after that? What will she and the other singers do when they become too old for Le choeur des jeunes de Laval?
For Savard-Gratton and Hardy, who were part of the inaugural group that formed the young-adult choir in its first year, it’s a looming question. Officially, the ensemble’s upper age limit is 27; it used to be 25.
“They keep raising it according to the oldest member,” Savard-Gratton said. “For sure, I’ll come back until I can’t anymore. It’s hard to leave.
“I imagine we’ll try to launch an adult choir, to continue making music. We’re trained singers — it’s our instrument. It’s my way to continue making music. It’s hard to imagine a life outside Les petits chanteurs de Laval.”
Gagné has already started an offshoot: an all-male quartet called Quatuor de la 5e, a reference to the street on which the choir’s headquarters is located. The group gets booked regularly for events.
But he too has a hard time imagining a day when he won’t be part of the organization that formed him as a singer, and a person.
“It has made me who I am,” he said, “and how I am.
“It’s part of me now.”
AT A GLANCE: The boys’ and girls’ children’s choirs of Les petits chanteurs de Laval perform works by Bach and Vivaldi as part of L’Orchestre symphonique de Laval’s Grands concerts baroques, Wednesday, Dec. 12, at 7:30 p.m. at Salle André-Mathieu, 475 de l’Avenir Blvd., Laval. Tickets cost $55.90 to $61.50, available at osl.qc.ca or by calling 450-978-3666.
All three choirs of Les petits chanteurs de Laval perform at their Christmas concert, La grande tradition chorale britannique, Sunday, Dec. 16, at 3 p.m. at the Maison symphonique. Tickets cost $28.75 to $40.75, available at placedesarts.com or by calling 514-842-2112.
For more information on Les petits chanteurs de laval, visit petitschanteursdelaval.ca
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