The bright yellow neon sign in front of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church at King and Simcoe in downtown Toronto drew my attention as I left Roy Thomson Hall after the Vivaldi concert a couple of weeks ago. It cycled through several messages: “A Christmas Carol Read by Tenor Ben Heppner and other GREAT voices,” and then, “An Evening of Readings, Carols & Gingerbread, Sat, Nov 30 at 7 p.m.,” and finally, “FREE Admission, Give generously to our Refugee Program.” I thought that this would be a wonderful way to start the holiday season. And so it was.
I took my new favourite TTC route downtown, using the Bathurst streetcar southbound to the marvellous King streetcar, which runs constantly without any waiting. The dark wooden balconies of the beautiful old church were bedecked with evergreen boughs and bright red bows. A large Christmas tree covered in white lights stood at the front, as white candles lit the floor below the podium. I was greeted by a lovely usher wearing the yellow T-shirt of the Refugee Sponsorship Program (STARS), a long scarf in seasonal colours and a Christmas bow in her hair. A brass quintet and a pianist on the grand piano played Christmas music as we waited for the program to begin. At the conclusion, we all went to the Great Hall for a Gingerbread and Cider Reception.
The Dickens story was divided into five staves, stave being another word for chapter, and also for staff in musical scores. The internet dictionary indicates that Dickens used the term “because each individual stave is a stand-alone story with its own distinctive mood. When taken together, all five staves combine to form a harmonious whole… as if the book is a Christmas carol, and each chapter is part of the song.”
Ben Heppner, who retired from professional opera five years ago and still hosts “Saturday Afternoon at the Opera” and “Backstage with Ben Heppner” on CBC Radio, began the readings. He was followed by Patricia Garnett-Smith, a British actress who came to Canada in l954 and has appeared in numerous theatre productions, films and commercials. Then came Kwagiulth and Stó:lo First Nations mezzo-soprano, Marion Newman, who has sung numerous roles including the lead in the world premiere of the First Nations opera “Giiwedin.” Canadian soprano Neema Bickersteth, who was raised in Alberta by parents from Sierra Leone, continued the story. She specializes in contemporary opera and musical theatre, is a Dora Mavor Moore award winner, and is slated to play the title character in Scott Joplin’s reinterpretation of “Treemonisha,” one of the world’s first Black operas. Rick Phillips concluded the readings. He is the producer of SOUND ADVICE, a guide to classical music and recordings heard weekly on CBC Radio One and Radio Two, author of “The Essential Classical Recordings—101 CDs,” and a well-known lecturer, consultant, and musical tour guide. Needless to say, the readings were stellar. Between each stave, the audience joined in singing Christmas carols accompanied by the glorious organ.
The event was a fundraiser for the St. Andrews Refugee Sponsorship program which has brought two Syrian Kurdish families to Canada: Gulistan and Abdulrazzak Abdo and their four children from Aleppo, Syria in 2016 and, in 2019, their relatives Abdulrahman, Amina and Roushin who were then living as refugees in Turkey. The extended family now live on different floors of the same apartment building, and are busy integrating into Canadian life. They have signed up for ESL and other courses, the children are in school and daycare, the older ones have gone to summer camp. The family gives back by helping with the coffee hour after church and volunteering in the Out of the Cold program. The success of this sponsorship has encouraged STARS to raise funds to sponsor another family. Learning the details of what these families and STARS have experienced encouraged me to think again about what I can do to help in the effort. The need remains as desperate as ever.
For me, the Christmas season is well underway.