In 1955, Abner Martin, a recent graduate of Rockway Mennonite High School and student of music, established a choir simply for the joy of singing choral music. Many of the first choristers were his personal friends and Rockway graduates. Rehearsals were conducted Saturday nights in order to allow the greatest number of interested singers to attend. His expectations for the choir were excellence and professionalism, and only after the music was well rehearsed were public performances scheduled. Because most Mennonite churches did not have formal choirs, Menno Singers offered area Mennonites a chance to study and perform good choral music and to sing some excellent liturgical music.
Although the choir drew mainly from the Mennonite community it has always been open to all who are comfortable with Christian and Anabaptist values and with the predominantly sacred music repertoire of motets, chorales, anthems and spirituals. In the early years the music reflected the Mennonite emphasis on a cappella music. For Menno Singers, music was the medium to convey their message of faith, worship and praise.
In 1962, the choir presented their first public concert of a larger work with paid musicians when Bach’s B Minor Mass for choir, orchestra and soloists was performed at Waterloo Collegiate. Eleven years later it was the choir’s performance of the same work that sparked Abner’s interest in organizing a large choral event. The idea for a Mennonite mass choir was an extension of Menno Singers’ purpose to “study and perform good choral music.” Menno Singers, as the sponsoring body, would give the larger Mennonite community an exciting and rare opportunity to sing choral works with orchestra and professional soloists. This new choral organization needed its own identity and publicity, so Mennonite Mass Choir was born. Again this was not meant to be exclusive to Mennonites, and it was estimated at the time of the mass choirs 10th anniversary that 26 percent of the participants were non-Mennonites. Many great choral works have been performed since that first performance of Handel’s Messiah in 1974, but it has always been Messiah that has brought the most support from choristers, with as many as 450 participants. This choral favourite has now been performed a total of seven times.
Abner Martin directed both choirs until he retired in 1979 after twenty years of involvement with the choir. Each of the succeeding directors built on the previous strengths of the choir and added his own special musical stamp. The choir has had several directors who worked with the choristers for significant periods of time. Abner Martin 1955-1969; 1973-1979 Jan Overduin (1972 Mass Choir) 1969-1973:1979-1984, William Janzen (1976 Mass Choir) 1984-1995, Robert Shuh (interim Director) 1995-1997, Peter Nikiforuk 1998-2017, and Brandon Leis 2017-present. In addition, a variety of guest conductors and interim directors have given Menno Singers a chance to grow in musicality and repertoire.
There have been several other interim directors who shared their time, talent and energy to ensure the continued existence of Menno Singers. Also, the support of the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony Orchestra has been invaluable; these professional instrumentalists have accompanied both Menno Singers and Mennonite Mass Choir and have courteously responded to the artistic interpretations of each director. Both choirs have also been included in the orchestra’s regular concert series.
The choir currently has a membership of 50 singers, drawing from both inside and outside the Mennonite community. Joint projects with other organizations have found Menno Singers collaborating with The Grand Philharmonic Choir, The Guelph Chamber Choir, Toronto’s Pax Christi Chorale and Note Bene Period Orchestra. Such generous cooperation continues to make the greater region an area of musical excellence.
Sacred music continues to be the main choice of repertoire, but the choir has expanded its repertoire to include secular works such as jazz, gospel and folk tunes, from all periods: from Gregorian chant through premieres of new compositions. Although the strength of the choir continues to be a cappella music, as evidenced by the choir’s critically acclaimed recording of Rachmaninoff’s Vespers, works accompanied by keyboards and orchestral instruments are performed frequently.
In addition to sponsoring Mennonite Mass Choir, Menno Singers has welcomed Inter-Mennonite Children’s Choir and Menno Youth Singers into its organization, ensuring that young choristers receive good training and stimulating performance experiences.
Menno Singers, now under the guidance of Brandon Leis, continues its tradition of performing choral music for the joy of singing.