On a summer evening, a hum of conversation fills the packed hall of the Gardens by Maranatha, a retirement community in Burlington, Ont. As the lights dim slightly, a group of 22 men in black suits and colorful bow ties files in to stand before the expectant audience.
Chatter quiets, and the group begins singing: “Lord, listen to your children praying. Lord, send your Spirit in this place. . . .” They sing a capella, each word crisp and clear, each note in beautiful harmony.
The concert, the fifth in a summer tour of nursing homes and retirement residences, is part of a long history of music for the Ambassadors Christian Male Chorus, now celebrating its 50th year.
Director Harold de Haan founded the choir in the fall of 1969 after he graduated from Calvin College (University) and settled in Hamilton, Ont. He has said that this year will be his last as director, though he hopes to stay on as a member of the chorus.
For 50 years, de Haan has selected music, worked with the choir’s board of directors to plan seasons and tours, and helped the choristers to train and refine their voices into a quality blended sound.
The choir started with a small group of men who met at First Hamilton (Ont.) CRC, where de Haan is a member. Their number has gone up and down over the years, and the choir now has 22 members, many of whom have been part of the group for decades.
It’s a tight-knit group. All of the members are strongly committed to the choir; they meet for practice every Wednesday throughout the year, some traveling in from communities around Hamilton.
Kleis Hensen of Hope CRC in Brantford, Ont., a longtime member, joked that skipping is not an option. Even on a special family occasion, he said, members would be inclined to say, for example, “I’m sorry, but it’s Wednesday — so [even though it’s our anniversary] I have to be at choir practice at eight. We can have an early anniversary dinner.”
The group’s discipline and commitment to excellence have been rewarded through the years. “The choir achieved highest scores when they competed in the Toronto Kiwanis Music Festival, and they received honorable mention in the CBC National Radio Competition in the Adult Equal Voice Choirs competition,” said de Haan. “We also had the thrill of singing in the parliament buildings in Ottawa.”
The group has toured extensively. The Ambassadors participated in Liberation Remembrance Celebrations in the Netherlands in 1985, 1995, and 2005, marking the 40th, 50th, and 60th anniversaries of the country’s liberation from Nazi-Germany occupation on May 5, 1945.
Rev. Arie Van Eek, another longtime member of the choir and a member of Bethel CRC in Waterdown, Ont., said he learned a lot through these travels. “We hardly knew what we were getting into in the Netherlands, until we got there. Every march, concert, regional ceremony. . . . We were part of something historical. It was eye-opening, and it was heartwarming. These were life-enriching experiences.”
Hensen described a ceremony at the war cemetery in Holten, the Netherlands, where many Canadian soldiers are buried. The Ambassadors had sung the Dutch and Canadian national anthems as part of a deeply moving ceremony. Then, as they sang a final number, they could hear a whirring, like a deep bass rhythm.
Two helicopters rose from behind some trees near the cemetery, hovered over the crowd, and dropped countless poppies across the gathering. People attending the service picked up the flowers and placed them on the graves of the buried soldiers. “There was not a dry eye in the group; it was so meaningful,” said Hensen.
The choir has traveled in North America as well, touring western Canada, the east coast, and into the United States, including a trip to Chicago to record a session with the Back to God Hour, a radio program of the Christian Reformed Church at the time.
The Ambassadors stage several concerts each year, always singing from memory — no books in hand — and participate in community activities, performing in nursing and retirement homes, benefit concerts, socials, and church services. The choir will host an evening of celebration on Saturday, Oct. 26, 2019, at Calvin Christian School Hamilton with friends and supporters to mark their 50th year of music ministry.
Pianist Laura Pin has accompanied the group for over 28 years, and Jessica Norg of Calvin CRC in Dundas, Ont. joined as a second accompanist in 2016. Pin admitted that being the only woman in the group took some getting used to, and it has required commitment to be there for practice week after week, but her affection for the choir is clear.
Much of the repertoire, said Hensen, is sacred music from a wide range of composers past and present, but also includes some show tunes, spirituals, and other popular melodies. A goal of the Ambassadors is to bring a message of love, hope, peace, and joy.
The choir is welcoming new members as they enter their 51st season. They practice each Wednesday evening at Kingdom Worship Centre in Hamilton, Ont. With de Haan stepping down from his role, the group is also seeking a new director. Men interested in auditioning to join the choir can inquire by email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or phone (519-755-4865 or 905-389-2104).