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Concenti singers celebrate 40 years with farewell performance at Duncan United Church

After four divine decades Concenti singers conductor Sheila Johnson decides it is time to retire
Sheila Johnson stands in front of Duncan United Church where the Concenti Singers, which she has conducted for 40 years, will have their final and farewell performance at 2 p.m. on May 7. After four fabulous decades Johnson has decided this will be her swan song. (Photo by Chadd Cawson)

All great things must come to an end. It will be a bittersweet 2 p.m. matinee performance for the Concenti singers at Duncan United Church on May 7 as the women’s choir of 23 members celebrate 40 years and says farewell. The choir that has existed in one form or another for the last four decades will be calling it curtains as it will be the swan song for longtime choir conductor Sheila Johnson.

“I’ve made the difficult decision to retire after 40 years, it’s a nice round number,” said Johnson. “I don’t want to be like that carton of milk in the grocery store that’s past its best before date.”

Doors at Duncan United will open at 1:30 p.m. for the choir’s last hurrah. Donations will be accepted which will go towards helping Cowichan families in need.

“I’m hoping that people will come early because I have a feeling it will be very well attended. We’ve always had good audiences and now the word is out this is it,” said Johnson. “I hope there aren’t too many tears, because I don’t know how I’m going to get through it. ”

Johnson shares that a portion of the proceeds will go to The Salvation Army as it was her late husband Jim’s favourite charity.

The couple spent several years teaching music and directing choirs in Cowichan schools. During a time when the arts was still a modest scene in the Cowichan Valley, Jim came up with the name Concenti, and the couple embarked on an unforgettable choral journey.

“I can’t imagine what life would have been like without it,” said Johnson. “In 1983,we decided it was time to get serious and put something together that was really special, so we handpicked our first choir. We were determined to put together the best choir we could possibly cobble together.”

Concenti has gone through many phases. In the early years voices would resound a cappella during rehearsals with a blend of baritone and tenor in the mix. In 2018 Concenti became an all women’s choir after Johnson struggled to find men that wanted to sing and honour a commitment. Not only did Concenti lose their men in 2018, but COVID created havoc for choirs as well. Johnson shares that the Cowichan Valley Youth Choir that she created in 2002 came to an end when the pandemic began. For Concenti members, rehearsal on Zoom was not a favourable option.

“The pandemic really blew us away,” said Johnson. “Singers couldn’t hear each other in a Zoom rehearsal and the whole point of a choir is to really get a good blend. Most people came back, and we continued to practice with masks up until just a few weeks ago.”

Johnson’s choral journey brought more triumph than tribulation and she said there are countless fond moments to look back on.

“In 2003 we made our only CD to date, which was called Songs from the Soul,” said Johnson. “Jim was originally from St. Louis, Missouri, so it was infused with a lot of spirituals, and gospel music. That was big moment for us.”

More milestones followed when the women of Concenti advanced to nationals in 2015 after winning their class in a provincial music festival. Johnson was awarded the Perpetual Arts Trophy in 2018 — an honour that is given by the City of Duncan to either a community musician or visual artist.

READ MORE: Awards handed out to Duncan’s best

“I was stunned, I didn’t expect it,” said Johnson “I was very humbled, and very thrilled considering there are many excellent musicians in the valley. I was extremely honoured to be given that award.”

As Johnson reflects on past achievements and accolades she has no idea what the future holds, but is hopeful it may involve writing music. With no other members stepping up to fill Johnson’s talented shoes, the longstanding choir is destined to disband. While Johnson shares she would be all for another taking the reins, she insists the name Concenti which was inspired by her late husband, retires with her.

“We always thought of Concenti as our family,” said Johnson. “This is the end of an era for me, I no longer have the youth choir which I absolutely loved, and I’ll no longer have Concenti, which I have loved all this time, so it’s gonna be tough to start with. I’m just waiting for the universe to show me what lies ahead because I really just don’t know.”

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