On June 3 2009, the three trailblazing directors of the Marionettes Chorale over its 45 year history shared the spotlight among the awardees for outstanding contribution to culture at the Queen’s Hall 50th Anniversary Awards Gala.
The choir’s two founding directors, Jocelyn Pierre and June Williams-Thorne, shared smiles and hugs with Gretta Taylor, who took the helm in 1974 and has led the group ever since. It was a fitting moment as the choir celebrated with Queen’s Hall, the place that has been the venue for virtually all of the Marionettes’ season productions.
Gretta Taylor (Artistic Director and Conductor), Susan Dore (Assistant Musical Director), and Joanne Mendes (Secretary and Production Manager), whom the choir inveigled to take the reigns after Williams-Thorne left in 1968 and then Pierre in 1974, also celebrate 35 years in the choir’s leadership this year. Mendes is in fact a founder member, while Dore and Taylor (then David and Francis) joined soon after the choir’s formation. With the unstinting support of longtime sponsors bpTT, the three now direct the choir with the support of a multi-generational organising committee.
For Taylor, 1974 marked both an unlikely and inevitable ascendance to the forefront. In fact, she remembers that it was her sister Monica Francis Branchini (who passed away suddenly and tragically a year ago in Italy) who was accepted to the St. Joseph’s Convent choir when they were children, while Taylor was not. “I never had a big voice. I was always happy being a backline singer. Really, the directorship was thrust on me. I did not seek it.”
However, it was growing up with her father and aunts that no doubt sealed her fate. She remembers the mantra of her father, Dr. Aldwin Francis (Chaconia Medal Gold): to whom much is given, much is expected. “My father was a Christian in the truest sense of the word. He gave of himself tirelessly. As a doctor, he was never in it for money. He was committed to helping and healing before all else.”
Taylor is said to look, walk, talk and be almost as blunt with her words as her father. And while not a doctor, she heals and empowers in different ways. That is not where the similarity ends, however. “It was a household that celebrated music of all kinds,” Taylor remembers. “From classics to calypso, there was always a radio or phonograph on playing music. I loved the Brandenburg concertos – and at the same time, Lord Melody was my hero!” In fact, those close to her still call on her to give her unique rendition of Lord Melo’s classic, “Mama, Look a Boo Boo”, still not missing a beat decades later.
Commitment to giving is something which has defined Taylor’s life. She has spent her entire musical and professional career in the public service, despite having been pegged by her music instructors at the University of Toronto as a professional concert pianist. Taylor excelled for years in the piano classes at the Trinidad & Tobago Music Festival, winning the Norah Grant Trophy and Trinidad Guardian Cup on several occasions (some with longtime friend and colleague, Susan Dore). “People began to ask Susan and myself why we didn’t stop entering so someone else could win,” she recalls with a bemused chuckle. It was something that made sense on a certain level to Taylor, though. She believed that after reaching your own goals, it was time to make space for others to achieve theirs. So just as she and Dore retired from the piano competition, so she retired the Marionettes from local Music Festival competition in 1980 – unbeaten. She then turned her sights to fruitful international competitive tours of Great Britain, bringing home four international prizes in the early 1980s.
A University of Toronto graduate – with a postgraduate degree in Languages and a Diploma in Education, Taylor joined the Marionettes in 1965 after returning from her studies. She taught languages (French, General Paper, Music and Spanish) from forms one to six at St. Joseph’s Convent in Port of Spain for 28 years prior to her retirement in 1994. There she also directed the school’s senior, intermediate and junior choirs for 13 years, during which time the senior choir and its members consistently won top prizes in at the Music Festival for solo, ensemble and choral singing, including the prestigious Prime Minister Trophy for the Most Outstanding Junior Choir of the festival. She also led the choir to the Youth Choral & Dance Festival in Vienna, where they competed with the St. Mary’s College choir in a mixed group. In 2005, she was inducted into the school’s Hall of Excellence.
Beyond her work with St. Joseph’s Convent and the Marionettes, Taylor has also judged the National Calypso Monarch Finals (both junior and senior), the early rounds of the T&T Music Festival, and the popular Teen Talent and Twelve & Under competitions on numerous occasions. She has also coached the Sacred Heart Girls and Maria Regina choirs after her retirement.
Since assuming the leadership of the Marionettes in 1974, Taylor has produced and directed at least two full-scale musical productions a year, each running for up to six nights, as well as countless other concert appearances, fundraisers and five award-winning overseas tours to Great Britain, Costa Rica, and the United States. In 1990, Taylor was awarded the Humming Bird Medal (Gold) for her outstanding services to music and culture in Trinidad and Tobago.
Taylor has developed and extended the Marionettes’ range and repertoire substantially in her 35 years as musical director. Under her leadership, it has tackled with great success major choral works like Orff’s “Carmina Burana” never before performed in the Caribbean, often in a contemporary idiom unfamiliar to Caribbean audiences, and despite the absence of a conventional orchestra. In the choir’s 45th anniversary mid-year conce
rt next month, the choir will once again perform excerpts from “Carmina Burana”, but this time with an international orchestra with steel pan, strings, percussion, brass and woodwinds, something she has longed to do for years.
Taylor’s rigorous choral training and high professional standards have made the Marionettes one of the most respected performing groups in the Caribbean, and have gained them kudos overseas from respected international figures like Andrew Carter. “We are extremely proud of our calypso and steelband traditions, and regularly adapt them for the choir,” she says. “We also want to show both local and international audiences the vast range of tale
nts and traditions that we have in the Caribbean. We want to move audiences with Western choral music as well as with our own traditional music, and do both equally well in the same programme.”
In 1995, the Marionettes Youth Chorale was formed after countless calls from parents and Taylor’s former students for a creative outlet for young people. She has since led them not only to share the stage with their adult counterparts, but to host and perform with international touring choirs and to produce their own full-length concerts. Many former Youth Chorale members are now singing in the adult choir, while other current Youth Chorale singers perform with both choirs. They include winners of National Scholarships (both open and additional), Rhodes Scholarships, and Commonwealth Scholarships, proving what Taylor always insists: that academic excellence is aided, not hindered, by involvement in the arts.
This shy and self-professed “nerd” has grown into a national icon, and an exacting vocal, choral and languages teacher who draws the very best from her students and choristers. She continues to remind all those who come to her, particularly those with exceptional talent, exactly what her father told her: to whom much is given, much is expected. She also reminds the choir that it is not just about music or theatre: it is about giving, to each other, and to both the local and international communities. Taylor has never taken a day’s pay for her exacting role as Artistic Director, as she sees so clearly the benefit that an artistic and creative outlet has for choir members of every age, and particularly for the youth.
Ever the student and striving for perfection, Taylor has completed musical and conducting courses at the Hereford Summer School of Music in London (1986) and the Talbot Lampson School for Choral Conductors & Accompanists in London (1986 & 1987), where she won the Richard Wood Award. She remains one of the only choral directors who not only conducts and shapes the music, but teaches the music from scratch and accompanies the choir during the learning stages. She also is a member of the North American Choral Directors’ Association, and regularly attends their biennial conventions where she constantly looks for new ways of improving the choirs’ performance and repertoire across a number of genres.
“Our top priority is to do good music of every kind, and to do it as well as we possibly can, because we believe in it, and because good music can speak to us all in a profound way if we take the trouble to listen. It has the power to teach, and to heal.”