What was supposed to be a one-off gig has turned into a decade-long musical pursuit that has benefited the community in many ways.
In 2009, Roy Menagh was thinking ahead to the Orillia Wind Ensemble’s Christmas concert when he decided the band’s show needed singers, too. He couldn’t find a choir in town, so he put an ad in the paper. Thirty-five people showed up for rehearsal.
“My intention at that time was never to go beyond the Christmas concert (with the choir),” Menagh said.
The singers had other intentions, and the Orillia Vocal Ensemble (OVE) was born.
“I decided, ‘OK, I’ll see what happens,’ and the rest is history,” said Menagh.
The OVE turned out to be a worthy endeavour — and a worthy cause.
Known as “the pay-it-forward choir,” the group puts on three performances a year that raise money for local charities. It was set to perform May 23 to benefit the Couchiching Conservancy, but it was cancelled because of the COVID-19 pandemic. That concert would have brought the OVE’s 10-year fundraising total to about $180,000.
“It became a very significant fundraiser for charities,” Menagh said, noting a cheque was presented at the end of each concert. “It filled the hearts of every single singer every time.”
Not just the singers’ hearts, though. Menagh, the choir’s director from Day 1, also got a lot out of it. It’s one of the things he’ll miss most now that he has stepped down from his role.
“The run here in Orillia has been incredible. There is more heart in those singers than I can express,” he said.
Menagh’s passion for music has taken him many places over the years. He directed his first choir at age 19 in Toronto. While in university, he was a member of the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir “and got the bug.”
The past 55 years have seen him involved with music projects everywhere from Toronto and Uxbridge to Northwest Territories and Prince Edward Island.
“Every place in which (wife) Nancy and I have lived, we’ve done community music,” he said.
That commitment has benefited each of those communities, and Orillia is no exception.
In addition to the three annual fundraising concerts, the OVE has performed at retirement homes and taken part in shows, such as Orillia Performs, alongside other groups.
One of Menagh’s proudest experiences came about as a bit of a fluke.
The choir was carolling around town and stopped in to sing at Thor Motors. Company president Bob Brown heard the voices resonating off the windows and walls of his wide-open showroom and was in awe, Menagh recalled.
That led to an annual community Christmas celebration at Thor Motors that raised money for The Sharing Place Food Centre.
Those are memorable moments, but some of Menagh’s fondest come from his work with the singers. The OVE does not require auditions. Any skill level is welcome.
Working with some of the more inexperienced vocalists was “a huge, huge highlight” for Menagh.
One singer, in particular, stands out. It was a man who joined the choir when he was in his mid-70s. He couldn’t sing well, but he had wanted to since he was a young boy watching his choral director father in action.
“He was extremely excited about the opportunity, in his later years, to sing in a choir,” Menagh said.
The man’s dream was to sing the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah. During a rehearsal, Menagh noticed the man wasn’t singing. It wasn’t because he didn’t know the words.
“He was just so moved,” Menagh remembered. “Tears were rolling down his face.”
He is confident the OVE — which now has more than 70 members — will continue to be a success in his absence. Regardless, it will keep paying it forward thanks to the Roger Andrews Memorial Scholarship.
Created in honour of the late Andrews, the OVE’s first president, it awards $500 to a young person pursuing a post-secondary vocal program.
“I’m very aware that the things we have done and the things I wanted to accomplish are finished,” he said. “It’s my hope that the OVE continues to attract amateur singers and experienced singers and continues to contribute to charities.”
Friends recently honoured Menagh and his tenure with a drive-by celebration at his home.
“I was absolutely blown away,” he said, adding he had been to a couple of similar celebrations for others during the pandemic. “I never imagined that people would organize that for me. It was a complete surprise.”
Menagh, 75, is in good health and said he has stepped down as director because “it’s time.”
“In this sort of business, it’s a tremendous amount of work, and you’ve got to know when to hold ’em, when to fold ’em.”