MoM 100: Sängerfest ‘extraordinary’ for conductor

July 24, 2023
John Longhurst | Special to Canadian Mennonite

Henry Engbrecht leads ‘Memory of Migration’ tour participants in singing on the train between Edmonton and Vancouver. (Photo by John Longhurst)

Henry Engbrecht leads ‘Memory of Migration’ tour participants in singing on the train between Edmonton and Vancouver. (Photo by John Longhurst)

A week had gone by, but Henry Engbrecht still couldn’t get over the sound of the congregational singing at the July 15 Sängerfest in Winnipeg.

“When I heard the audience sing the first hymn, I knew it was something extraordinary,” said Engbrecht, who conducted the adult choir and the congregational singing at the event. 

“I’ve conducted choirs and sing-a-longs in the Centennial Concert Hall many times, but there was nothing like what happened that evening. The sound of the singing was amazing.”

Even before the concert began, Engbrecht, 84, and retired from a career as a teacher, professor and choral conductor, “could sense the anticipation. People there really wanted to sing. There was a feeling of excitement in the building.”

He felt it in the choir of more than 200 people as well.

“There was a lot of energy in the rehearsals,” he said. “I could just feel it. I could just feel they wanted to commemorate the memory of the migration of their ancestors.”

Overall, the Sängerfest—part of the “Memories of Migration” tour—was “quite an experience for me,” he said.

Engbrecht was quick to credit others who helped organize the event, along with the other conductors and choirs.

“Everyone jumped into it to offer what they could do,” he said. The addition of the youth and children’s choirs “made it more complete and exciting.”

For him, the event showed the “power of music to bring people together, building on a common foundation of faith.”

As to whether there will ever be another Sängerfest like it, Engbrecht acknowledged it would be difficult since churches are smaller these days, with some not able to have choirs or choosing not to have them.

But “it doesn’t have to be the last one,” he said—if Mennonite churches encourage youth to be involved in music and support schools that have music programs.

If youth have good and rewarding musical experiences, they can become the leaders of concerts like that in Winnipeg in the future, he believes.

And if such a huge concert is impossible to do again, then coming together to hear smaller ensembles is fine, too, he offered.

“That can also be a good way to go,” he said. “The key thing is to do something together.”

For Engbrecht, that’s the key—doing things together. Concerts aren’t just about music, he said: “They are also a form of community building.”

This is especially true for congregational singing, he noted.

“Listening to your neighbour, finding your part, being unified—that’s all about being a community,” he said, adding it’s also a way “to be inclusive.”

Looking ahead, “I’m hopeful about the singing tradition in Mennonite churches, as long as we invest in young people.”

After reporting on the first leg of the tour (from Quebec City to Kitchener-Waterloo, Ont.), Winnipeg freelance writer John Longhurst is blogging about the third and final leg (from Saskatoon, Sask. to Abbotsford, B.C.).

Read John's previous posts about the tour:
MoM 100: Tommy Douglas and Mennonite mutual aid
MoM 100: Using technology to bring Mennonite history to life
MoM 100: Tour like a pilgrimage for young adult
MoM 100: Jews and Mennonites in the Soviet Union 100 years ago
MoM 100: Author Sarah Klassen shares about her book The Russian Daughter


Henry Engbrecht leads ‘Memory of Migration’ tour participants in singing on the train between Edmonton and Vancouver. (Photo by John Longhurst)

Author Name: 
John Longhurst
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Special to Canadian Mennonite
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