Conducting the Masses for God

By 
  • July 24, 2008

{mosimage}TORONTO - With his back to the congregation, waving his arms to keep the choir synchronized, it’s difficult to tell that Matthew Otto is merely 22. More surprising is the fact he is also the director of music, overseeing musicians for all the Masses at the Newman Centre’s St. Thomas Aquinas Church.

“People don’t really think of you as a conductor until you have grey hair,” he said with a laugh.

Otto said this was a perfect place to put his passion into practice while pursuing a Masters of Music in Conducting at the University of Toronto.

“This was a really great balance of music, conducting, leadership and also faith, and having them all come together in liturgy and the church,” he said.

Otto first learned piano and later played saxophone in high school. His music leadership began in Grade 8 when he accompanied a cantor on the piano at his parish in Thunder Bay, Ont. As most of the people he played for were not professionals, he said he found himself guiding them in their performances. He also expanded on his musical skills by helping his high school music teacher to arrange music for the school band.

Since then, Otto has had a whirlwind of other opportunities. In 2007, he conducted his first major choral-orchestral work, leading a performance of Bach’s St. John Passion with the Newman Festival Chorus at the University of Toronto, and later joining that chorus with the Talisker Players Orchestra for Handel’s Messiah.

Otto is a member of the Toyich International Project’s Monster Piano Orchestra and is the accompanist for the Irish Choral Society of Canada, which has allowed him to perform in both Toronto and Ireland.

Although his dream is to conduct an orchestra professionally, combining his talents for Sunday liturgy at the parish on the U. of T campus ranks high on the scale of importance.

“In being in liturgy and sacred music, I hope to enliven and inspire our congregation,” he said. “I like helping to inspire people and as a conductor, you’re often a teacher as well.”

He also admitted, with a laugh, that he likes the control. But for him, it really is a chance to exercise his faith.

“Since a very young age, I had a love for the liturgy, a love for the church,” he said. “When I started getting involved in music in the church, that flame continued to develop — I think I realized that music is a way of trying to express something more, and that something more is God.”

Otto said it’s unfortunate that there still isn’t a lot of money for the arts in Canada — something that would most likely cause him to look for work abroad once he graduates.

“We have a lot of talent in Canada, but we’re losing it because we don’t have enough money to support it,” he said. “It’s the art drain as opposed to the brain drain.”

But promoting the arts in Canada has been a priority for him in the past year. He helped create and organize a concert series at the Newman Centre to highlight the musical talent that exists there.

“I really believe in having students perform, but also having students come in to see and be able to afford it,” he said.

Otto takes pride in the fact that this is the only Catholic concert series in Toronto. He also takes pride in the amount of musical talent found in Toronto’s Catholic circles. Most recently, he co-ordinated and led the music for the Toronto pilgrimage to the Eucharistic Congress in Quebec City. The 50 or so choral volunteers did an impressive job for catechesis, Mass and prayer services, he said.

“It’s re-affirming to see there’s a lot of talent in the archdiocese and we should be proud of that,” he said. “There needs to be more leadership and support to maximize what we have.”

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