âMusic has a healing power. He has the ability to take people out on their own for a few hours. – Elton John
During the darkest days of the COVID pandemic, every Wednesday I received a gift of hope from local actress / director Natalie Dorsett when, via Facebook Messenger, she sent me a simple but heartfelt music recording featuring some of my favorite voices from the Peterborough musical theater community.
As I navigated a life suddenly filled with isolation and uncertainty, the weekly recordings produced strong emotions as I longed to see these performers again and wondered when, if ever, live theater would return.
Advertisement – story continues below
Curated and produced by Brian MacDonald, this recording series starring Natalie Dorsett, Gillian Doiron and Erik Feldcamp – along with guests Warren Sweeting, Keely Wilkson and Christie Freeman – was created during the COVID pandemic for online ministry from St. James United Church.
But, featuring songs from the Beatles, ABBA, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Bette Midler, Robbie Williams and other contemporary artists, the recordings have found their way beyond church services and social media.
Filled with warmth and love, these recordings offered the residents of Peterborough a sense of hope, while also being an emotional outlet for performers who found their theatrical activities blocked by the theaters’ closures.
VIDEO: âBoth Sides Nowâ by Joni Mitchell performed by members of the St. James Church Choir
Both choirmaster and head of the health and safety board of St. James’s Church, Brian MacDonald was preparing to play Rooster Hannigan in the Peterborough Theater Guild production. Annie before the pandemic hits.
âIt started before closing time,â recalls Brian of producing the recordings. âThe Minister of St. James and I were talking about how we need to move forward before the government imposes restrictions. It was a little difficult for the congregation to understand that things were stopping. So we decided that we were going to do things differently and I was going to find a way to do it.
âThe first thing I did was buy a microphone from Amazon. At that point, things stopped. We were told we were limited to five people. We have a six foot piano in the church, so we knew what six feet looked like. So it was a question of how to record safely and how people could feel safe in the environment we were in. It floated between Natalie, Gillian, and me for a while, but Erik walked in and we were able to have more guests.
âWe would take a song and learn it that night,â says Brian. âIt has become very collaborative. We chose songs that had themes of love, welcome and inclusion. We also wanted to find things that we also liked to sing.
AUDIO: ABBA’s “I Have A Dream” performed by members of the St. James Church Choir
He had the choice of an entire choir, but Brian narrowed the group down to five performers who, incidentally, are all well-known and beloved musical theater artists.
âThe people Brian selected were not as risky as most of the other choir members,â explains Erik Feldcamp. âThey were happy to say ‘It’s a crazy world right now and let’s take a step back.’ He knew we would be less immunocompromised and how well we work together.
Although the group recorded weekly hymns and spirituals, each session would also include a contemporary song from the pop or theatrical canon, which has since traveled beyond church services and into the community of Peterborough.
âBrian has always been more modern, so he’s always been able to find more modern music that may not be in the church library per se,â says Warren Sweeting. âWith every song there is the message that we are all in the same boat. I think the message is conveyed by the music and it is moving. It brings everyone together. “
AUDIO: MercyMe’s “Even If” performed by members of the St. James Church Choir
With recording sessions every Wednesday, the weekly opportunity for performers to sing became more than a job – it was also an emotional outlet.
âIt was the only thing a week I could expect,â Natalie Dorsett told me. âThere was nothing else. I worked at home, I was at home all the time with my daughter and my husband, and all I did was be able to sing once a week. I was so bored. All I had was groceries and singing.
Advertisement – story continues below
âWhen we decided to do it, I chose these people to be mine (in my social circle),â says Natalie. âWhen we weren’t sure what was going on and couldn’t see people, I knew they were good and safe. They knew I was good and safe and that they were my people. They are the only people I have seen.
âWhat happens to music is it’s a bridge,â says Brian. âEverything sounds different when recording, but it’s a point where we think it worked, where there would be a lot of laughs because there would be a lot of mistakes. There would be things we would do that would put us in stitches, or be a release of emotion. “
âThen we would go home and listen to it with joy, or with tears of joy, and know that we got together and did something that we hope people will enjoy. “
AUDIO: “No Day” by Rent performed by members of the St. James Church Choir
With Ontario currently in Stage 3 and the province cautiously opening up wider, the darker days of the pandemic are seemingly behind us, but the group continues to meet and record together.
As St. James Church gets a makeover, the band has moved to Brian’s house where new recordings will continue to be posted on the St. James website for the remainder of the summer. However, once the church reopens in the fall, it is hoped that new measures will allow a possible return to live performances.
âWe decided that just because we can open St. James’s Church doesn’t necessarily mean we should,â says Brian. âWe’re getting ready to open on September 13, so we’re still recording the music. We prepared some music that we recorded in advance to spend the summer. But the plan is that once the renovations are complete, we can go from recording to performing live as a full choir.
In the meantime, the voices of our local musical theater community will continue to come into our homes through the St. James Choir. For weekly recordings, visit the St. James Church website at www.stjamesunitedchurch.ca/online-worship.