After performing together for 19 years, the Three Cantors-Archdeacon David Pickett, Dean Peter Wall, Bishop-elect William Cliff and maestro Angus Sinclair-will return to the church that hosted their first performance to sing a final concert before Cliff is consecrated seventh bishop of the diocese of Brandon.
But Cliff, Wall and Pickett all insist that it will not so much be farewell as goodbye for now.
“We’re not calling it the last concert…but it certainly marks the end of the way the Three Cantors has been functioning thus far,” Wall said.
“With me being in Brandon, it would mean flights every time we wanted to sing,” said Cliff, “[But] when my schedule and the other boys’ schedules can coalesce, we’ll find time to sing again.”
Over the past two decades, the Three Cantors have become something of a phenomenon in the Anglican Church of Canada. It all began when the three priests caught the ear of Archdeacon Peter Townshend while singing together at a diocese of Huron clergy retreat in 1996. Townshend asked Cliff, Pickett and Wall if they would be interested in singing a benefit concert at Grace Anglican Church, Brantford, Ont., to raise money for The Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund (PWRDF), the relief and development arm of the Anglican Church of Canada.
“We said, ‘Well, who would come?’ ” recalled Cliff. “And he said, ‘Well you leave that to me.’ ”
The first concert sold more than 700 tickets, and interest in the group grew from there.
Now, in 2016, the priests have over 230 concerts under their belts, and have sung for three primates-Archbishops Michael Peers, Andrew Hutchison and Fred Hiltz-as well as Governor General Adrienne Clarkson. They have performed on the CBC, with Orchestra London, and done shows in churches across the country. The four albums they have produced have sold thousands of copies, and they have raised over $1.3 million for PWRDF alone.
As Wall put it, “We’ve had a good run.”
So how did a vocal trio of busy parish priests become so popular? Part of it might be the sheer variety of material the group performs, covering religious material, church music, pop music and Broadway standards as well as humourous songs.
“It was certainly eclectic-we were doing everything and the kitchen sink,” said Cliff. But he thinks there is something deeper going on as well.
“We don’t sing in public very much anymore. I grew up when we still sang ‘God Save the Queen’ and ‘O Canada’ in theatres…and there were still pianos in pubs,” he said. “Church is one of the last places we sing together, and I think one of the things we’ve always done in the concerts is we’ve always included congregation singing.”
But the fact that the cantors are singing for a good cause has been another reason for people’s enthusiasm, Pickett suggested.
“We have sung for everything-Children’s Breakfast Programs, for food banks, for Habitat for Humanity,” he said. “Every concert [asks for] a minimum donation to the PWRDF, but what a sponsor does beyond that…you sort of catch a spirit of the things that matter to people.”
Over the years, there have been some memorable concerts-the time the group was invited to perform in Bermuda during a very hot June, for example-as well as some difficult ones. Cliff spoke of a challenging show they did the night after Sept. 11, 2001.
“We genuinely had a debate amongst ourselves about should we sing-because a lot of what we do is pretty light, and pretty light-hearted, and we were very concerned that it might be disrespectful. Sept. 12, 2011, in St. George’s, Guelph [Ont.]…You could feel people’s pain still over 9/11-it was only a day old. But we went ahead and sang anyway, and that was a beautiful, beautiful night.”
But it has also allowed them to have experiences they would not have otherwise had, Cliff said, recalling a tour of the Avalon Peninsula during a trip to the diocese of Eastern Newfoundland and Labrador.
“We were hanging out windows, taking pictures of caribou, and visiting little outports and seeing the ocean, and it was just an absolutely spectacular visit. I never would have done that, or gotten a chance to do that-not with four friends and a bunch of people who are all connected through church.”
There have also been a few brushes with celebrities over the years. Wall remembers sharing the stage with author Madeleine L’Engle during a diocese of Huron event, and running into Ernie Coombs, of Mr. Dressup fame, at the CBC building in Toronto before going on stage for a show.
Canon Gregory Smith, chair of the Huron Hunger Fund (as the PWRDF committee in the diocese of Huron is known), warmly expressed his gratitude for the fundraising the Three Cantors have done.
“They’ve been incredibly generous with their time and energy,” he said. “They have made it possible for the diocese of Huron to be an example in the country of raising funds for the PWRDF. It’s going to be a challenge for us to keep up those levels without them.”
While the group will inevitably be slowing down following Cliff’s installation in Brandon in March, they are going out on a high note: the February 22 concert will see the launch of their fifth album, which will include versions of some of their most popular material-Wall’s take on “Old Man River,” for example, and Cliff’s cover of “New Words.”
Still, there is some sadness at this sense of an end.
“There’s a certain kind of bittersweetness,” Wall said. “We’ve been doing this for so long…we’ve gotten pretty used to doing 10 or 12 things a year, and seeing each other and being in churches all over the place and meeting all sorts of wonderful people.”
An earlier version of this story wrongly stated that the Three Cantors met Fred Rogers of Mister Rogers’ Neighbourhood instead of Ernie Coombs of Mr. Dressup.