Chor Leoni sings Gordon Downie, Iron and Wine and more in PopCapella

Backed by Juno-nominated bassist Jodi Proznick’s quartet, Chor Leoni tries its pop chops out.

Chor Leoni PopCapella

When: March 1 to 3, 8 p.m. March 2, matinee, 2 p.m.

Where: Vancouver Playhouse

Tickets and info: From $10 at

Pop music dominates the charts and grabs the public’s ear more than any other musical genre. So why is it that the idea of choral arrangements of pop classics evokes memories of atonal community sing alongs of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah rather than something beautiful?

Erick Lichte, artistic director of Vancouver’s acclaimed Chor Leoni, wants to see that impression dashed forever more against the lush harmonies the choir’s new pop and jazz-oriented presentation; PopCapella.

Noting that “pop music has been part of the choir’s DNA since the very beginning,” Lichte has a reputation for pushing the boundaries of what constitutes choral music. With names such as Iron and Wine, Sting and the late Gordon Downie in the mix, PopCapella certainly isn’t your usual trip down Mozart’s memory lane.

Choir Leone hangs out at the beach. COOPER / PNG

“Pop music is so much about the individual artist’s voice that it probably shouldn’t be the most classically beautifully trained voice ever, because you need it to communicate to you on this very distinct one-to-one singular sound,” said Lichte. “What’s different to me, is we take that which would be sung by one singer and then take something like the melody part and have 20 singers doing it alone. It takes the unique singular voice and it’s quirkiness and gives it this broader, more universal aspect when you have massed voices performing it.”

But if those massed voices are working from arrangements by arrangers that didn’t come at the material with the full potential of the choir’s instruments taken into account, you wind up with a load of great singers singing Let It Be in four part harmonies. Lichte carefully sourced his selections, pulling from “the best arrangements from the past 20 years of the choir” for the first half and new arrangements for the rest.

“We’ve worked with people who know us and choirs and have really stepped into the ethos of finding that common road of where choral and pop music can coexist,” he said. “There is a beautiful arrangement by one of our singers — Greg Martin — of David Bowie’s Absolute Beginners which, of course, has odd phrase lengths, interesting chord changes and so on. What the arrangement does is passes those melodies around, deconstructs them and arrives at something that is very polyphonic and even a bit like an opera aria.”

The goal is not to do it better than Bowie. Lichte says the best covers are the ones that take the music someplace else and do it differently enough that people can react to the song in a different way. Obviously, this means moving far beyond mere verbatim covers. There will be straight-ahead renditions too.

“Happy Together is pretty much like the original, what else are you going to do with something that good?” he said. “I approached a non-pop arranger, Nicholas Ryan Kelly, to do three arrangements for us and his version of Sting’s Field of Gold is amazing with a bodhran in it and almost a Celtic like feel. He’s done it so organically and made the song much more of a story than either Sting or Eva Cassidy — another favourite singer of that song — did it.”

Alongside the power of the accumulated voices of Chor Leoni is the Juno Award-winner Jodi Proznick leading her quartet as the backing band. Nominated in the Vocal Jazz Album of the Year category at this year’s Juno Awards for the album Sun Songs, two of the album’s tunes (Listen, Let Go) are featured in the PopCapella program as well as a band instrumental.

“It was pretty exciting to know that we were going to be able to celebrate these songs that are getting the recognition they are at the moment, even in ways that Jodi hasn’t explored yet,” said Lichte. “Chor Leoni enjoys a wonderful audience and anytime we bring someone else into our artistic world — be it choreographer, storyteller or so on — it’s really about what we can bring to them that they can give back to us. Jodi never had the idea of what her music sounds like sung by 60 men.”

He’s quick to note that anyone one who wants a choir to do that in a performance or recording session is more than welcome to contact him at the Chor Leoni website. As PopCapella demonstrates, this group is open to anything that comes its way.

All told the show includes 22 songs ranging from Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now to Peter Gabriel’s In Your Eyes and Gord Downie’s Ahead By A Century.

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