The Three Cantors give thanks

29By Davor Milicevic

The Three Cantors returned on Feb. 22 to the place where they had started almost two decades ago. The sold-out performance at Grace Church in Brantford confirmed their amazing repertoire diversity and ability to connect with their audience.

The Three Cantors, three Anglican priests– David Pickett, William Cliff and Peter Wall, along with arranger and accompanist Angus Sinclair – gave their first concert at Grace Church in April 1997. Since then they have appeared on stage on 240 occasions supporting the efforts of the Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund.

The Brantford concert on Feb. 22 was called The Three Cantors Give Thanks which sounded a bit like a farewell show. But with the Three Cantors it is always more than meets the eye – starting with the fact that there are four of them on stage, and the fourth one being very much the player who keeps all that musical diversity together.

They indeed did give they thanks to people who have helped them on their extraordinary journey, starting with the Archdeacon Peter Townshend who initiated that journey and ending with the Archbishop Fred Hiltz, Primate of Canada. It turned out that 600 of their closest friends packed in an Anglican Church that night also felt obliged to give thanks to the Cantors for the gift of music and their ministry in support of PWRDF. Archbishop Fred Hiltz personally expressed his gratitude and announced that the Three Cantors have raised $1.4 million over the years in benefit of PWRDF.

So, was the Brantford performance the last one?

We sat down with the “fourth cantor”, the quiet one, Angus Sinclair, few days after their concert.

What does Angus Sinclair, the organist at St. Paul Cathedral in London, Ontario, have to say about the concert and about 19 years of performing with the Three Cantors?

 HCN: Maestro Sinclair, your thoughts on the performance in Brantford?

Sinclair: The whole thing was a cross-section of 19 years of our work. There were people who’ve been involved with us since the day one, like Peter Townshend, people who were our constant motivation. The speech the Primate gave on Monday night, at the end of the concert, I thought he was talking about somebody else. Of course, we were aware that we’ve been helping the Primate’s Fund. It started as a different way to raise awareness. But for me, it was more like: I showed up, I played, I left. The hardest part was really showing up. It was same as young guys going to war in the old days, it was a job that had to be done. They were not thinking about making a stand for democracy or standing up for the things they believed in, no, their friends joined up so they did too, they fought the war and they either made it or they did not make it. Fortunately, we made it.

HCN: Yet, at the same time it was special?

What happened with the four of us was greater than the sum of the parts. I’ve done stuff with the each of the three guys at different points, especially with Bill [Cliff], because we go back 25 years ago, but only when four of us were together – and I can’t explain it – something special happened. We made some good music, and sometimes it was absolute magic.

HCN: It sounds as if it was magic from the very beginning?

No, we made it work. It took a long time for us to get to that point. Some people would say that it was there at the first concert. If you listen to the first concerts and if you listen to what we did on Monday, there is 19 years of experience there. First concerts were really pretty rough. Although if you ask the other three, they might disagree. I was definitely the perfectionist, nothing was ever good enough for me, especially the piano.

Some concerts were poorly attended some were standing the moment. I never knew from one concert to next what kind of instrument I’d had to deal with, sometimes it was a pleasure and a privilege to play them. We all bring our own form of neurosis to the operation. Peter was the most business like. Just give him a coffee and a cigarette and he is happy. With me, it was my Crohn’s disease. Sometimes I’d literary almost fainted in the middle of a piece of music, I was just running on auto-pilot. Good thing I could work on auto-pilot.

What happened with the four of us was greater than the sum of the parts.

When we started we thought it would be just three concerts and that’s all. Who would give up a whole night just to listen to us do our stuff? But people kept coming, and here we are, 19 years later with almost 250 concerts. People called it a phenomenon, I don’t think it is a phenomenon so much as a really good thing that happened to Canadian church.

HCN: When and how did you personal musical story start?

I grew up on a farm in Perth County, near Mitchell. For me it started when I was seven years old and this woman came to the door with an accordion. So I started playing and it was good for a laugh and I didn’t start taking it seriously until I was 14 or 15. I realized I cannot do anything else, I cannot farm, the Crohn’s was already starting to bother me a lot. I couldn’t’ physically do manual labor, I wasn’t up to it. The disease tempered how much I can do. Music and Church – that was my ministry, that was my gift. I like liturgy, I like really good preaching. And I like music when it’s really honest. But on the other hand I am a working musician and I need to figure out what to play in a restaurant on a weekend evening. Do I enjoy it? Let’s say it’s a part of a balanced diet.

HCN: So when did Church enter your musical path?

As a boy I attended Presbyterian Church in Mitchell. The turning point for me was when I was an organist at Christ the Saviour Church in Waterloo where Peter Townshend is a rector. I was the organist there when I was at the university [Laurier in Waterloo]. That was the beginning of my Anglican path. They were very, very good to me. They taught me, they had two excellent organists at that time and the choirs there were outstanding. There was one night, on Palm Sunday, and I was blown away by the way the choir performed Pergolesi. I went down to my office and sat in my chair and just stared at the wall. And a friend of mine knocks at the door and asks: Are you all right? And I said: I have to turn Anglican. So I cross the Tiber in 1994 and by 1995 I was an organist at the cathedral. The rest is history.

HCN: Is that history over now?

It was billed at one point as the last concert, but no, we have two more to do at least. And we love too much what we do. So it’s not the last concert, no, but it would just be very, very difficult to schedule one from here on. We are open for business but very, very limited.  For Bill as a bishop, to be away for three days from the diocese, that’s hard. It will be very difficult to schedule a concert from now on. It’s just going to be different.

HCN: Final thoughts after the concert in Brantford?

Monday night was the Three Cantors Give Thanks, so this is an opportunity for me to give thanks because they did not give me the microphone. They’ve probably figured out that I would still be talking. I am thankful that I didn’t die of infection, or on an operating table, that I was allowed to serve God in this way, and I will continue to serve God, only in a different way. We have just to see what that other thing is.

Thank you, piano man, you’ve got us feeling alright.