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Sanctuary amidst hundreds of candles

A Halifax trio gets loose with local audiences looking for a break from the holiday rush.


Apparently in Anglican circles the phrase “take me up to the choir loft” has a meaning other than its literal one.

So says Halifax bass clarinetist Jeff Reilly, who, though he doesn’t identify himself as a Christian, has a habit of hanging around in churches.

Reilly plays with cellist Christoph Both and pipe organist Peter Togni in Sanctuary, a contemporary contemplative improv trio that’s been around since 1998 (both joined in 2000).The trio plays about 30 concerts a year, mostly in churches like Spring Garden and Barrington’s St. Mary’s Basilica and in farther-flung locales like Riga, Latvia; Moscow, Russia; and, in May, Shanghai, China. (Typical Halifax: The trio plays to “the more contemplative, really creative, artsy” crowd here---“we love those people, love them,” says Reilly. In the rest of the world, Sanctuary is more mainstream and, um, kind of a big deal).

By far, Sanctuary’s most well-attended Halifax gig is its annual Christmas performance, the Concert of 100 Candles.

“We get way more people to these concerts than we get to all our other concerts of the year combined,” Reilly says.

Last year’s Concert of 100 Candles (a poetic misnomer---more on that later) sold out 500 seats two nights in a row.

Audience-wise, Reilly says, “it’s the only concert where we hit the mainstream. All we’re doing in this concert is making it just a liiiiiiittle bit more accessible. And you call it Christmas and everybody flocks in! Go figure. People want to do something special for Christmas and this is special. It is.”

This year’s concerts---December 9 and 10---mark the second year the trio will perform for Christmas at the Cathedral Church of All Saints on Tower Road. They logged four years of Christmases before that at St. Mary’s Basilica, where Peter Togni was music director.

The move was all about atmosphere. And Reilly’s wife.

“She likes this one better,” says Reilly, sitting on a wooden bench in front of All Saints’ pipe-organ console’s four stacked keyboards and cockpit-reminiscent pulls. (Turns out, by the way, All Saints doesn’t have a choir loft. There is a pipe loft but getting up there would be, in the warning words of cathedral organist and choirmaster John Hudson, “suicide.”)

“Saint Mary’s Basilica is very good for the deep contemplative stuff we do and the more exploratory stuff that we do...but the space itself, for an uplifting Christmas event where you want to light some candles and have a sense of light? It’s a little gloomy. And I find that is just more suited to a Christmas concert.”

And yes, it is a Christmas concert. It’s got the candles (though there are more like 400 or 500---Reilly and co. fill metal pie plates with dollar store tea lights and spread them around the church). It’s got a choir (the 12, hand-picked voices of the Peter Togni Singers). And it’s got a scattering of at-tempo standards like “Silent Night.” But that’s where the limit of familiarity falls and Sanctuary’s renowned contemplative manipulations take hold. “It’s like: is that ‘Greensleeves?’ I guess it is. But he’s only played four notes and it’s five minutes later.”

The music is supposed to make you wonder. And to force you to slow down. That’s the character it communicates. “When you are so frantic and so materialistic and so desperately trying to get the right thing for your kids. It’s like you’re in a fast train,” Reilly says. “And literally the whole thing just grinds to a halt.”

One thing you can’t do at this Sanctuary concert is lie down. All Saints got rid of its pews after Hurricane Juan and the church now has chairs. Comfy, sure. But no good for stretching out.

“Well, they could . I wouldn’t object to someone coming in and lying on the floor. Bring your own pillow,” Reilly says.

During concerts, Reilly tends to walk with his clarinet as he plays. And he says he mostly keeps his eyes closed. But he has caught glimpses of people sleeping.

Does it bother him? No, he says. Not at all. I wondered, though, if he’s ever heard them snoring.

“I’ve never heard people snoring! Have you?”

Oh yes.

“Have you!? That’s funny. Oh,” Reilly says, “if I came to a concert like this and I was doing my daily life and then I came and it was comfortable? I would fall asleep too.

“But you know,” he says, “we wake them up.”

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