Cape Breton Tenor, Peter Gillis, has very specific memories of what Christmas was like when he was a boy growing in Whitney Pier.
“Christmas was music,” Gillis remembers. “Practiced alone or in groups well ahead of time for the school Christmas concert, practiced for the live broadcast of Christmas Carols on CJCB television, and finally for Midnight Mass in choir robes with The Men and Boys Choir at Holy Redeemer. Music sung loudly around the piano – sometimes to my mother’s frayed nerves, and sometimes – with my father on the fiddle – played to the old and ill in nursing homes or hospitals.”
Peter Gillis, the Cape Breton Tenor, is back home and will be performing his Christmas concert at the Savoy Theatre on Tuesday, December 6, at 7:30 pm under the title Hallelujah.
Gillis has performed throughout Canada, the United States and abroad, including debuts at Carnegie Hall with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, the Kennedy Center with the Washington Opera, and regular engagements at Italy’s Festival dei due Mondi.
Canadian performances, both Celtic and classical, have included a national tour of Canada with Rita MacNeil, concerts with Symphony Nova Scotia, the Celtic Colours International Festival, and with Opera Nova Scotia, singing the lead role in Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress. He has also collaborated with many fellow Cape Bretoners including the Barra MacNeils and comedienne Bette MacDonald.
“Back in Cape Breton several months ago I found myself departing from both classical and music theatre genres, recording a session emgineered by Mike Shepherd at Lakewind Sound that resulted in a new release – Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’,” Gillis says. “It’s been getting a lot of radio play in the area, and has already been included by Fred Lavery on the latest Lakewind L’Arche fundraiser CD compilation along with tracks by the likes of Gordie Sampson and Natalie MacMaster – pretty nice company to be included in. And I’ve been asked to perform it as part of the Christmas Daddies telethon on December 4th.”
“So not surprisingly, ‘Hallelujah’ will serve as the title piece for my Savoy holiday show, when I once again collaborate with the talented Stephen Muise, fiddler Shawn Macdonald and pianist Peter MacDonald – all classically trained and very versatile,” Gillis explains. “My back-up vocals are the trio of family and friends I’ve been with since the very start of the Cape Breton Tenor project: Theresa MacQueen, Henrietta MacNeil and Delores Henick.”
For Gillis, this past year has seen a variety of performing and teaching projects, including the title role in Benjamin Britten’s oratorio St. Nicolas at New Jersey’s Kasser Theater, performing Bach cantatas with the New Jersey Oratorio Society, and solo classical art song recitals.
“Just as gratifying has been some wonderful successes on the part of my students this year,” Gillis says. “A young baritone landing a big Equity role in The King and I opposite Lou Diamond Phillips, and a tenor starring in the current revival of Hair on Broadway.”
Gillis was also invited to adjudicate some high school choirs from the metro New York region, as well as a state competition for young opera singers still in high school.
Gillis observes that the Christmas repertoire is so eclectic, Hallelujah will offer everything from the aria-like “O Holy Night”, to lighter fare like Johnny Mathis’ “When A Child Is Born”, to sing-along confections and the more sacred standards.
“So it’s exhilarating to go from opera house to kitchen party, and everywhere in between,” he says. The common thread through all this Christmas repretoire, Gillis explains, is that it is music that’s been claimed by the people, either a long time ago, or more recently. “Words and melodies embraced and absorbed into the mix because they reflect what folks feel, or hope for, or idealize in memory about the season.”
In the end, Gillis says, “Coming home to perform at Christmas, I bring all of these memories and reflections with me and, as fulfilling as it is to sing classical rep for an urban audience, singing Christmas music for the folks at home is about as good as it gets.”