The Fall Retreats on Thetis Island
In 1980/81, Connie and I and baby Alexis were on sabbatical in Boston. Connie taught at KMTI (Kodaly Musical Training Institute) and I did library research at Harvard. At the end of that wonderful year, we were offered jobs at the new KMTI site in Hartford, Connecticut beginning in the fall – Connie as teacher and me as administrator. The temptation was overwhelming, but in the final analysis we decided that we both had more of what we really wanted to do in life in Victoria, and since all of the quality choruses in Hartford had established conductors, home we went. Our “consolation” prize was to build a real house on our Thetis Island property next to the A-frame cabin, which we’d had since 1974. Little did we know that this “compound” would become the location of Chamber Singers’ retreats, beginning in the fall of 1982 and continu- ing through to the present day alumni summer retreats. These retreats were held on a weekend during the first few weeks of classes and typically had a schedule like this:
10:45 – rehearsals at the Community Centre. Being the beginning of the sea- son, these rehearsals would focus on learning repertoire (rather than polishing).
2 pm – “Get to know each other” exercises including “the name game” in which the singers sat in a circle, one said “my name is (e.g.) Fred”, the next said “my name is (e.g.) Sally and this (pointing to the first singer) is Fred”, and so on around the circle until the last poor soul, who had to remember all 30 or more names. This was also the moment when Connie & I set out the schedule and “rules” for the weekend. This always finished with the ritual reciting of the “toilet rules” (since we’re on a limited well). “If it’s yellow, let it mellow, if it’s brown, flush it down”. We included a curfew of 11 pm in the house for those who wished to get some sleep; the rest were permitted to go the cabin and do whatever young people do late at night, as long as they couldn’t be heard by the neighbours. This was also a time when some of the “night owls” chose to explore other parts of the island with extended walks or nocturnal beach visits to see “the phosphorescence”.
Mid-afternoon – transfer to Morehaven for yard games includ- ing badminton, ping-pong, archery and beach activities (depending on the weather). My boat was ready and waiting for those brave enough to wa- ter ski, and we usually had a couple of rowboats and a canoe. In later years we had the “Great Chamber Singers Regatta” in which the singers formed teams of 4-6 and paddle-raced the rowboat in a timed competition with other teams.
5 pm – Mandatory volleyball & snacks back at the Community Centre, to al- low a few volunteers to have some quiet time organizing the food, often while I took a much-needed nap!
7 pm – Dinner, which usually consisted of my creole gumbo and Thetis- harvested clam chowder with assorted salads and garlic bread, with ice cream sundaes for dessert.
After dinner – there were “get to know each other games” organized by volunteers, followed by popcorn. One of the favourite games over the years was “Psychiatrist”, during which hapless new members had to guess what was “wrong” with everyone.
10 pm or so – there was a period of time during which we had a ritual showing of Monty Python’s “The Meaning of Life”. In the early 90s, this was a pretty shocking movie to some of our “young and tenders”, but by the new millennium such subject matter became so commonplace, and interest was so low, that we finally abandoned this tradition.
After 11 – I’m not sure what went on in the cabin sometimes until 3 or 4 in the morning, but whatever it was, it was good fun (judging by the muffled laughter), it was safe from inappropriate intimacy (due to the numbers) and it was contained (for those who were drinking). An unfortunate side effect of the “cabin hours” was that there were always some young people who loved to brag of their prowess in drinking and carousing. Consequently the Chamber Singers retreat became increasingly “branded” around the School of Music as a “big drunk”. Of course this was a force of attraction for some, but not a great reputation for an otherwise serious ensemble, and most of all it was unfair. The reality was that these weekends bonded the singers in a way most beneficial to forming an ensemble, a few singers might overindulge, but they were looked after by the others, and most were reasonable about alcohol use. I suspect that the whole experience was somewhat more wholesome than the average student house party of the time. The reputation took its toll though. In my last years, I had 2 singers tell me that their parents would not let them attend the retreat because of it (both were sopranos – why is it always the sopranos…?). This hurt deeply at the time, but I know the retreats were worth the amazing results such camaraderie achieved over the years. The retreats were mandatory for membership in the singers, but on the rare occasion that a singer simply couldn’t attend, I found invariably that such singers were at a disadvantage during the year, both musically and socially. Chamber Singers’ “lore” developed well over the years, to the extent that I rarely had to set out rules and expec- tations, as they were passed on by my the older singers to the newer ones, particularly among those who participated in the retreat.
Sunday: 8 am – Reveille. In the early years, I attempted a one hour rehearsal after breakfast, but I abandoned that after a few unrewarding attempts.
9 am – Breakfast, multi-handed cleanup and 10:30 ferry for return to UVic.
I did notice that as the years went by, my own participation waned as advancing age had me increasingly exhausted and wishing that 11 pm would come sooner than it did. I will always be thankful to our neighbours Bill and Hazel Ross, who allowed us to use their cabin, as on these weekends Connie and I were thus able to get some sleep. I have many memories of these weekends, but my favourite 3 are:
1982 – In this first retreat, the games included “Choo Choo”, which had all 25 singers in a long “conga” type line jumping around the house. I deeply feared the loss of joists at the time, but 30 years later, they are all present and accounted for. This was also the year of the movie “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”. Accordingly I put a sign on the front porch with the word “WELCOME” dribbled in bright red paint. In the morning, I burst into the cabin and house laughing maniacally, with chainsaw revving noisily.
1994 – these were the Chamber Singers’ “Christian” years, identified as such by the noticeable groups of singers who congregated in different parts of a tour bus, led by Byron, Kinza, Jeff, Caitlin, Murray and others discussing the existence of God and various other religion-oriented subjects. At the fall retreat of ‘94, this same group organized the “get to know each other” games, which included “Take Your Clothes Off” (my name). The singers were organized into 2 teams and two sets of poles were set up in the yard. The goal of the game was for each team to stretch out items “on their person” between the poles. The team achieving the longest string of items won. With the placement of wallets, belts, shoes, socks, coats, hoodies, & shoelaces, the teams were pretty even, but then the real competition started. With complete gender equality, the outer garments came off one by one: shirts, blouses, pants, skirts – ev- erything but underwear (and it was obvious that the singers who organized the game had carefully chosen high fashion lingerie for the occasion). The defining moment of this particular evening was the late arrival of 2 singers who were notable as rather reserved and somewhat judgmental personages, to the deck above the yard, where they viewed a panorama of what appeared to be a total orgy. Interestingly, there was very little liquor present at this retreat (disappointing for me, since I usually made a small fortune on returnables).
2000 – This was the year that our Transylvanian (Romanian of Hungarian ancestry) “mature student” Mihály Péter joined the Chamber Singers. At 11 pm the “revellers” assembled dutifully in the cabin, and sometime during the evening Mihály told the full story of his life, which included: jobs as organist in the Ditrau & Brasov cathedrals; his flight from the Romanian Ceausescu regime to find a new life for his family; his time in Toronto which included a near-death car accident with memory loss and a year of recovery at which time he lost contact with his family; plus his move to Victoria in the mid ‘90s and his subsequent decision to continue his studies at the School of Music.
His story had a potentially happy ending when he told us that he had located his family (wife, daughter and son) and was planning to fly home to visit them at Christmas time. Needless to say this was a more tearful than revelling evening for those present.
Related note: After graduation, Mihály went home to Oradea, and he subse- quently studied for 2 years at the Vatican School of Church Music in Rome. He organized two concert tours for us in Romania: one for Prima Youth Choir in 2004 and another for the Chamber Singers in 2007. He remarried in 2003 to Emese, a wonderful fellow musician. Life in Romania was very hard, but the commission we paid him for each tour was the equivalent of nearly a year’s salary. I last heard from Mihály in 2009, at which time he described their house that they couldn’t afford to heat and employment that paid next to noth- ing. Funds offered from generous singers helped out for a time, but as hard as I’ve tried, I was not able to re-connect with him until November of 2012. The result of a Google search for his name in Oradea yielded an obituary list that included his name; nothing about him, the date or cause of his death.
The Thetis Island retreats were a major component of forging the superb Chamber Singers ensembles, and I believe that no one who experienced one of them will ever forget the wonderful times we had – certainly I never will. Although Morehaven is a somewhat lonely place nowadays, both the memories and the peace and quiet make it all worthwhile.
Many country inns in Europe brag of the great people who “slept here”. Oh yeah? Well, at last count, an estimated 1500 “great” Chamber Singers and Prima Choir mem- bers stayed overnight and were fed dinner and breakfast at Morehaven between 1982 and 2009!