It all started simply enough. In January 1996, Clare Jantzi, worship leader at Valleyview Mennonite Church in London, invited three men from the congregation to sing an introit during four consecutive worship services.
One year later, encouraged by the previous year’s experience, Clare planned another choral musical introit for the worship service. In consultation with Henry Boldt, the church’s volunteer coordinator of music, he invited a larger group of men from the congregation to sing. Fifteen men volunteered. The chosen anthem was the familiar “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty.”
The men were inspired by the experience and decided to continue getting together to sing, just for the enjoyment of it. By May 1997 they had organized a spring choral program for the church community. Little did anyone anticipate that event would serve as the harbinger of many more spring concerts yet to come.
On June 4, 2016, the Valleyview Male Chorus (VMC), by now expanded to fifty singers, presented its 20th annual spring concert. In the past twenty years VMC has changed from being a small church choir to an established feature of the London musical landscape. By its tenth year half its singers were community members. Today it is a solidly ecumenical group, with more than half a dozen denominations represented in its current membership.
Although the chorus’s formal Mennonite connections are now less apparent, the Valleyview church continues to be deeply involved. It provides a range of office resources and free space for rehearsals. Thirty-eight of its members have sung in the chorus over the years. Church members continue to volunteer in carrying out many of the administrative duties of the chorus, as well as in the positions of conductor and accompanist.
Few of the singers have any formal musical training. For some, it is their first experience singing in a choir of any sort. Four-part singing was new to some when they joined the chorus.
So what brings all these men together weekly? A love of music, certainly. A desire to experience the joy that is evident during concerts. A sense of camaraderie shared during rehearsals and beyond (think Tim Hortons on Thursday evenings).
The key to the success of this enthusiastic choral group has been the patient yet demanding and persevering work of its dedicated conductor of twenty years, Henry Boldt. For much of its existence the chorus had counted on Elenor Taves as its patient primary accompanist.
The chorus seeks to blur the lines between sacred and secular, believing that all music can be a spiritual experience. While religious selections constitute about half of its typical concert menu, its repertoire includes classical, modern, folk, sea shanties, spirituals, pop, and other genres.
Along with its major annual spring concert, VMC has also had opportunity to sing at funerals, anniversaries and in numerous seniors’ centres. It has been invited to participate in fundraisers for the Canadian Foodgrains Bank and local charities, and in special events such as the annual outdoor pork farmers’ barbeque and a somber worship service in the chapel of the impressive St. Peter’s Catholic Seminary. Some of its members have enjoyed participating alongside the London Amabile choirs and singing in the Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.
Although the early concerts were free, with expenses covered through donations, the chorus now charges a modest fee for its concerts. Guest performers, often up-and-coming young artists, are appreciative of opportunities to present their talents for public enjoyment. There is no fee for members.
Having outgrown its concert space at Valleyview Mennonite Church, the male chorus now performs at a downtown United church and offers funds for that church’s Out of the Cold program, which provides a weekly free hot meal for needy Londoners during the winter months.
VMC is no longer a church-affiliated venture. Even so, its commitment to service in the community continues as strongly as ever, and service has become an important part of the chorus’s unwritten mission statement.
The Valleyview Male Chorus is like the proverbial biblical mustard seed. It has grown into a big tree, serving people today as surely as it did on the Sunday it sang its first song at a Mennonite worship service 20 years ago.