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Music Conductor Noel Edison launches new choir after sexual misconduct allegations

Noel Edison at his home in Elora, Ontario on Sept. 12, 2018.

Chris Donovan/The Globe and Mail

The former artistic director of the Elora Festival and Singers – which fired him last year – and the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir – from which he resigned shortly afterward – is starting a new choir. Noel Edison’s departure from the two Southern Ontario organizations followed an investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct. Now, he is launching a new professional choral ensemble, the Edison Singers.

“It’s very exciting to be at a ground level and build up,” Mr. Edison told The Globe and Mail Monday in an interview. “I’ve not done this for 40 years and there’s something rather very refreshing about starting something that’s [got] no baggage, no agendas.”

But a group of people opposed to Mr. Edison is rallying against the development, hoping the new choir never sees the light of day.

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“I’m not surprised, but I’m dismayed,” says Charles Davidson, a former chorister with the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir (TMC) and the Elora Festival Singers (now the Elora Singers).

The Edison Singers is being funded by a group of choral-music lovers and Edison supporters; more than 15 have come together and pledged enough funds for $112,000 for each of the next three years.

“It was very heartening and, gosh, it was very humbling,” says Mr. Edison, 60, from his home in Elora, Ont. He says that he did not want the choir to be named after him, but was outnumbered.

“I think the excitement lies in the fact there’s a great swath of people who want me back on the podium.”

In February, 2018, Mr. Edison was placed on leave from both organizations and an investigation was launched into allegations of sexual misconduct. In April, Mr. Edison was fired from Elora, an organization he co-founded. A few days later, TMC announced that Mr. Edison had resigned after more than 20 years with the organization. (The Elora Singers formed the professional core of the TMC.)

As The Globe reported last year, the allegations that led to Mr. Edison’s departure related to incidents during a TMC conductors’ symposium that occurred in Toronto in January, 2018. But former choristers told The Globe they had brought other complaints to management years earlier.

Mr. Edison says he “unreservedly” apologized to the two students who complained last year, and says there was no legal action. He says the timing of the complaints and the investigation – as the #MeToo movement was gathering steam – was a factor in his ouster.

“If that silly situation had happened at this time, today, it would have been dealt with far more differently than it [was] last year. The times were just far too heated,” he says. “The temperature of that was at its boiling point,” he says.

He says he has since been inundated with support. Now some of those supporters have come together to fuel – and fund – his comeback.

“When all of this mess happened, I have to say my experience, my personal experience and professional experience with him made me heartsick, just made me heartsick,” says Sue Newman, one of eight board members of the Edison Singers. Ms. Newman, a former TMC chorister and board chair, also formerly served on the Elora board.

“As I said to Noel, out of the ashes rises the phoenix and that’s basically what’s happening now,” she says from her home in Orillia, Ont.

The executive director of the Edison Singers is Esther Farrell, long-time manager of the Elora Singers, whose contract was not renewed by Elora following the scandal last year. Ms. Farrell is also on the Edison Singers board.

Mr. Edison says his projected budget is $150,000 a year, and he hopes to raise the rest through corporate sponsorship and government funding, in addition to ticket sales. The organization incorporated last week and is applying for charitable status.

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Mr. Edison envisions a three-concert, three-city season, and also plans to make two recordings. He says Naxos, the classical-music label, is on board. He says the response to his new venture has been overwhelmingly positive, although he knows there will be detractors. He says his group is trying to stay positive.

“It’s exciting to come to a new ensemble with a fresh look and a fresh vision and a fresh energy, with a clean slate.”

An audition call went out on Tuesday. “Have you heard the exciting news?” begins the e-mail from choir co-ordinator Heather Fleming, announcing auditions in Toronto and Guelph, Ont., and remarking that working with Mr. Edison can be an incredible experience. “Few conductors have his musical prowess, interpretive conviction, captivating energy and uncanny ability to connect and communicate with their singers. It is every talented young singer’s dream to be a part of something so enthralling.”

But opposition from his detractors has been swift. They have formed a group called the Greater Toronto Artists Coalition and have a campaign under way to stop the venture from getting off the ground.

“The artistic community is going to stand up against it,” says Mr. Davidson, a vocal critic of Mr. Edison who is one of the members of a closed Facebook group which has formed in response to the new choir.

“How can they actually promise a safe work environment?”

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Mr. Davidson has sent a “call to action” to ACTRA Toronto and Choirs Ontario, urging them to oppose the Edison Singers, and plans to involve other organizations.

“We need to support artists and NOT ALLOW ABUSE in our community – in Toronto, Ontario and beyond,” the letter states, calling the endeavour the brazen and audacious actions of an entitled group.

The letter promises collective action, including picketing and crashing concerts.

“I ask you to be a leader in the arts community and stand up with us to make sure this does not happen.”

But Mr. Edison, who is also on the Edison Singers board, says a zero-tolerance policy that covers issues such as harassment is being put in place. And he says his days of hosting grand receptions are over.

“We’ve got to be so squeaky-clean going forward,” he said, adding that he was involved in drafting the policy. “We’re there to work and sing and do our work and go home.”

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Previously: What happened at the Mendelssohn Choir

Previously: Noel Edison resigns from Toronto Mendelssohn Choir after probe into sexual-misconduct allegations

Previously: Grammy-nominated conductor Noel Edison facing sexual-misconduct allegations

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