Sängerfest in Winnipeg celebrates migration

Sangerfest at the sold out Winnipeg Centennial Concert Hall on July 15. (Photo by John Longhurst)

“Tonight, we give thanks for those who made the journey.”

That’s what master of ceremonies Eric Friesen said at the start of the July 15 sängerfest in Winnipeg about those Mennonites who came to Canada from the Soviet Union—including his own ancestors.

“And how better to express that thanks than to celebrate with singing?” he then asked the over 2,300 people in the filled-to-capacity Centennial Concert Hall.

Friesen went on to note the tradition of the sängerfest goes back to the late 19th century in Ukraine. It was, he said, “an expression of faith, a social gathering and a way to bring the community together.”

Sängerfests were held in churches, barns, machine sheds and other places, he said, adding “Tonight we declare this place to be the house of the Lord.”

The event, part of the Memories of Migration: Russlaender 100 cross-country tour, featured an adult choir of 229 singers directed by Henry Engbrecht, a youth choir directed by Kristel Peters and a children’s choir directed by Millie Hildebrand.

Songs ranged from traditional hymns, in German and English, to special compositions by pianist Mike Janzen and composer Leonard Enns. A number of times, the audience—or would that be a congregation?—was invited to join in.

One highlight of the evening was when Engbrecht was honoured for his contributions to Mennonite choral singing in Canada. Said Eric Friesen: “Thank-you for keeping the flame of choral singing alive.”

That evening’s sängerfest, he added, “would not have happened without Henry’s passionate leadership.”

Writing about the event on her blog(link is external), author Dora Dueck said the sängerfest was “a most wonderful way” to commemorate the migration of Mennonites to Canada 100 years ago. It also reflected the hard decision people had to make about whether to stay in the Soviet Union or leave.

The songs “of lament and faith and hope” reached back “to connect both the stayers and the leavers, that sustained those who suffered through the challenges of their decisions,” she said.

The songs also connected her to “my heritage and into my own childhood and youth, that brought me to tears.”

One song that especially moved her was Bach’s “Befiehl du deine Wege” (Entrust Thy Ways), where the choir begin each line together and then sang it individually, slowly or quickly, and then at Engbrecht’s signal ended in harmony on the final note.

“It was the strangest and most astonishing cacophony of sound and then resolution, a perfect demonstration of the hundreds of individual stories we each set against the backdrop of historical events but drawing together as community then, as we hear one another, in harmony,” said Dueck.

In addition to the Winnipeg sängerfest, other musical events as part of the tour included the premiere of The Place of Memory in Waterloo, Ont. on July 10, the performance of Victor Davies’ Mennonite Piano Concerto in Saskatoon at the Quance Theatre on July 18, and another sängerfest in Abbotsford on July 24.

John Longhurst is a Winnipeg freelance writer who is blogging about the Memories of Migration tour.