Selling off personal belongings, inclusive of her Bösendorfer grand piano, potentially much like the one that Franz Liszt used to enthrall Viennese audiences, Jill Ann Siemens forcefully chased a musical vision…a vision to assemble Canada’s finest vocal talent into one stalwart group.
Siemens, a pianist/composer, having devoted 22 years to the Victoria Conservatory of Music in British Columbia, scouted the true north and gathered first a trio, then a quartet, of tenors to fulfill that aforementioned vision.
Beyond a decade later, following a number of personnel tweaks, revisions and a unilateral betrayal, “The Tenors” have cured and blossomed into one of the world’s premier vocal bodies.
Originally “The Canadian Tenors,” their debut release in 2008 included Victor Micallef, Remigio Pereira, Fraser Walters and Jamie McKnight. As their reputation grew rapidly in Canada, McKnight, having theatrical ambitions, departed.
Siemens, yet again, initiated a search for the vocal piece to fit this specialized collection of tenors. That quest ended upon the recruitment of Clifton Murray in 2009.
In 2012, “The Canadian Tenors” were rebranded as “The Tenors” as they prepared to release “Lead With Your Heart,” their third album. “Lead With Your Heart” went platinum, in Canada, and earned a Juno Award, Canada’s Grammy, in the category of Adult Contemporary Album of the Year. It climbed to number 21 on the Billboard 200 in the United States; a chart designated to track the most popular albums in America.
However, on one warm Summer’s evening in Southernmost California, prior to the start of the 2016 Major League Baseball All-Star Game, the first curveball of the evening was thrown by one of the group’s members.
During their rendering of the Canadian Nation Anthem, without warning, Pereira withdrew a paper sign from his vest pocket reading “All Lives Matter” on its face and “United We Stand” on the reverse side.
“All Lives Matter to the Great” was injected as lyrics in lieu of “The True North Strong and Free.” Fraser Walters, Victor Micallef and Clifton Murray continued the performance donning expressions of confusion, disbelief and uncertainty. Only the Halifax explosion of 1917 shook the nation in the manner in which Remigio Pereira did.
Back in Canada, hearts were not glowing in their home and native land when a significant television audience listened as Pereira made an independent decision to apply his own politically-driven lyrics to their rendition of ‘O Canada.’
What could have been a public-relations incubus was handled expeditiously and sincerely. Fans both north and south of the 49th parallel rallied behind the blameless Murray, Fraser and Micallef and held Remy Pereira wholly responsible. Pereira was subsequently set adrift and “The Tenors” became a trio, once again.
Four albums later, subsequent to five performances for Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, Grey Cup and Major League Baseball All-Star performances…to mention but a sliver of their prestigious experiences…The Tenors have risen to the crest of tenor-mountain.
As the group prepares to perform at the Seminole Casino Hotel in Immokalee on Saturday, May 20, Clifton Murray took a considerable amount of time out of his busy day to chat with the Lee Herald.
Articulate, sensitive and inordinately intellectual, Murray emits an enthusiasm for the music, for life and for the fans that we found to be altogether contagious.
Gary Levine: Let’s begin, if we can, at the beginning and give our readers an idea of where you’re all from. Victor was born and raised, I believe, in Toronto, home to Auston Matthews and the Maple Leafs and the magnificent CN Tower. Fraser is a Vancouver product…home of Rogers Arena, Henrik and Daniel Sedin, Michael Bublé and Bryan Adams. And you, Clifton, hail from Port McNeill…ummm…home of the world’s largest burl. What’s a burl? Tell, us, please, how did you find one another and come to become The Tenors?
Clifton Murray: “It’s a tree tumor! A burl is a benign tree tumor.”
Clifton continued as I unprofessionally giggled while he revealed the definition of “burl.” I suddenly wondered, to myself, if Burl Ives was named after a tree tumor.
“Immokalee is an hour away from Fort Lauderdale,” he continued, “where the Captain of the Florida Panthers resides (Willie Mitchell). He’s a two-time Stanley Cup champion. He’s coming to the show and he is from my hometown of Port McNeill.”
“Wow,” I responded, pretending that this new information utterly altered my perception of Murray’s birthplace.
“So, any hockey fans that want to get a glimpse of a two-time Stanley Cup champion…Willie is a good buddy of mine. We grew up together in Port McNeill. He pursued hockey, I pursued performing arts and now we’re kind of…reconnected.”
“So, how did ‘The Tenors’ come to be?” I inquired.
“Destiny really,” Clifton stated. We both chuckled heartily at that cheesy response.
“Jill Ann Siemens…she was a woman on the west coast of Canada. She had a vision of bringing a group together, called ‘The Canadian Tenors,’ as we were called back in the day. She sort of had the idea and she brought the boys together. And then I was the final piece. They found me on YouTube. But, since then, we’ve taken over the company, for the last eight years now. It has just been under our control for the past eight years, so we thank her for her inspirational vision, but we’ve been running the show ever since. It’s great to have that creative control and to choose the music…choose the repertoire. We’ve got a great label, agents, managers and all that. But, we always make sure that when it comes to the music…to the creativity…that the buck stops with the artists. And we wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Gary Levine: I couldn’t begin to list all of the incredible professional moments that ‘The Tenors’ have experienced which include the Opening Ceremonies of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, the Diamond Jubilee Show before Queen Elizabeth II at Windsor Castle, the 63rd Primetime Emmy Award show and a list of artists, with whom you have appeared, that is remarkable. But, if you had to select one or two of these incredible experiences that made you appreciate your level of success, which would they be?
Clifton Murray: “Well, the career one which kind of projected us into the limelight was performing with Celine Dion on the Oprah Winfrey Show. That was sort of a moment that put us into the spotlight and projected us forward. Millions of people saw that and it really changed the game for us. But, in terms of accolades and the ‘pinch-me’ moment, you mentioned performing for Her Majesty, the Queen. We performed for her five times now. You know, sometimes, her people will sort of find some artist that’s safe…and they’ll hire them and they’ll come and sing at an event. And she’ll be on the other side of the room and you won’t even catch a glimpse of her. And she may or may not be paying attention. And that sort of maybe happened the first time we performed for her when she came to Canada. But, when we went to Windsor Castle to perform for the Diamond Jubilee and we sang David Foster’s ‘Because We Believe’ and Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah,’ televised around the world, choreographed to horses dancing, it was really an unforgettable moment.”
“The cherry on top was that after we performed, there was a luncheon ceremony that was going on at the Cricket Club at the Windsor Castle, the next day. Her Majesty was being honored with an award. There were only about 40 people there…dignitaries…representatives of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Her Majesty’s butler contacted us and asked if we would come to the private tea and be in attendance as ambassadors for Canada…and, also, to sing a song to commemorate the moment. We were not expecting this. It was quite an unbelievable moment for us. We were beside ourselves. There were literally 40 people in this tiny private, private cricket club. We get up in the morning and we were all excited. We were going to sing ‘Hallelujah’ which was one of her favorite songs, by Leonard Cohen, God rest his soul…and ‘O Canada.’ But, just as we were getting in the car to drive to Windsor Castle, the butler called and said ‘Since you’re singing for Her Majesty, do you mind singing ‘God Save the Queen?'”
“Absolutely! No problem!”
Clifton continued after a brief pause.
“We hung up the phone and we realized we don’t know ‘God Save the Queen’ and we have an hour. So, in the car ride, on the way to Windsor Castle, we figured out a four-part harmony and we rehearsed it over and over and over again. I have to tell you…that driver never felt so patriotic in all of his life.”
We laughed and laughed at the notion of this captive driver listening to sixty minutes of the royal anthem of the United Kingdom.
“Thankfully, we remembered the words, we remembered the harmonies and it was an acapella moment and then Her Majesty came over, after the performance, and we spoke for a good ten minutes. And she talked about her love for dogs and her love for Canada. We congratulated her on her grandson’s wedding that they just had. It was kind of like talking to your grandma! She just was really well-spoken but was able to just sort of engage and relax. I couldn’t take my eyes off of her diamonds…which were insane! And she stated that she loved the variety in our repertoire. That is really the essence of what we do in our show. We have three very unique styles of tenors. We have a pop tenor…we have a musical theater tenor and we have a classical tenor. Victor studied the art of opera since he was a child. He lived and he performed in Florence at the Florence Opera House. He’s a master…a true master of the craft. He performed with Bocelli over there. He was in the Canadian Opera Company and to have a voice like that in the group is an absolute blessing! Fraser Walters was part of the Grammy Award-winning acapella group…a 12-part acapella group called ‘Chanticleer.’ And he was in musical theater…like ‘Lord of the Rings’ and others growing up. I’m the pop tenor. I come from pop and the gospel background. And so all of these different styles of music that inspire our love of music and have, sort of, carved out our style of voice, allows us to sing all of these kinds of different songs that people love. So, we’ll sing songs like Roy Orbison’s ‘Crying,’ Bob Dylan’s ‘Forever Young,’ Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah,’ so that’s the pop-folk-rock music. Then, we can sing songs from ‘Les Miserables’…you know, beautiful ‘Bring Him Home.’ Fraser probably does the best version I’ve ever heard in my life. I am biased, but I challenge anyone to find a better version. It’s tears every time I hear him sing it. It blows my mind. Victor singing these songs from the classical repertoire. The guy should be at the Met. It’s unbelievable! He does the solo ‘O Sole Mio’ and, in our show, there’s no pomp and circumstance for us. We have a ton of fun! We get out the wine in the middle of the show. We try to create this sort of piazza-in-Naples experience. For a little section of the show, we do a little songwriting section where we play some songs that we have written. Then we do these big, bombastic, classics like David Foster and Bocelli classics. We end the show with this massive medley…the singalong I was telling you about when we performed in Connecticut in front of 6,000 people last May. We had everyone on their feet…waving back and forth…singing ‘My, My, My Delilah’ and ‘Sweet Caroline’ and we finish with a beautiful ‘Time to Say Goodbye’ (‘Con te partirò’) which Bocelli made famous.”
Gary Levine: While you’re mentioning Andrea Bocelli and the performance of some of his material, can you both define and provide a clearer explanation of Operatic Pop? And would you say that your audience is drawn from the popular music genre more so than a classical crossover tenor like Boccelli?
Clifton Murray: “I think it’s a nice cross between people that love Bocelli, Josh Groban, Michael Bublé, but who are also big fans of that singer-songwriter era…who love to reminisce about Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen and Roy Orbison…and people who love Broadway. We sing songs from that era, too. And it’s about finding great songs. This show, right off the bat, we tell people this is an intimate evening with ‘The Tenors.’ And, the intimate part of it is bringing you inside our lives and telling our experiences, through the songs, and the stories behind why those songs mean so much to us. You learn about our families. How the songs have influenced our lives. You get to know us a little bit more. It’s really for our core fans, also. They go a little deeper with us. We have a good 150 fans that are literally coming to every single show on this tour. And they want to know more about the artist as well as hear the music. And we understand that. So, we’re trying to open ourselves up a little bit more and create a connection. You want people walking away changed. We want people to be deeply moved by the music, by the stories and that’s why we carefully craft the show to take them on an emotional experience…pick those songs that connect them with times in their lives that are unforgettable. So, it really is a journey…an emotional journey. You’re going to laugh, you’re going to cry. You’re going to feel deeply. For me, this is the best show that we’ve ever done. I’m so proud of what we’ve put together. The boys are killin’ it! We have this amazing band. And, now, we have a violinist that we’ve brought on board. And she comes up and the movement that she creates on stage, with her virtuosic violin playing really elevates the show to another level. The band does this incredible high-energy solo. You know, I’ll be honest, I’m really proud of the show and the response has been great. I just can’t wait for people in Florida to experience it.”
Gary Levine: Please forgive me, but I’d be remiss and negligent if I didn’t address Remigio’s decision, at the 2016 All-Star Game in San Diego, to alter the words to “O Canada.” I’m confident that you’re tired of thinking about it, let alone discussing it. I’ve replayed the video numerous times and see the bewildered expressions on your faces. I watched the CBC interview the day following the incident and felt so badly for Fraser and Victor. But it seemed, and please correct me if I am mistaken, as if your fans rallied around the remaining members and that when the smoke cleared, there was a greater appreciation for you guys. Would it be fair to say that, in an inexplicable way, ‘The Tenors’ are in a better place now than prior to the incident?
Clifton Murray: “It’s a good way of putting the question and I’m a firm believer that things happen for a reason. And it’s not what happens that defines your character but how you deal with it. There have been things…little things…I can tell you that this was not out of the blue, in a sense, where there was that rift slowly creating. And, I personally, didn’t expect it to be so publicized. But, once it did, all of the other issues that were building sort of forced us to make a difficult decision. But, since that decision has been made, and since the fans rallied around us so strongly, I feel really good about where we are right now. There’s a deeper commitment, I think. Because, when you go through something so catastrophic…when you see ten years of your work flash before your eyes…you get a deeper appreciation for what we do. You get more grateful…more thankful. We have this committed core that stayed with us. It was an opportunity to reevaluate and reappreciate what we have and, also, to not rest on our laurels. You know, we had done four albums at that point. We could have just sort of recycled it and maybe done a ‘best of’ or something. This forced us to start fresh…to think fresh…to think bigger…to come back stronger…to put everything that we had into this next release and into the next tour. It was a ‘pick-me-up’ in a way. And, having said that, Remy’s got a good heart. He does. A little misguided with decisions that he made, but some people got to look the devil in the face to know their name. You know what I mean? You’ve got to go down your own path and find your own answers, sometimes. I truly wish, for him, to land on his feet. That he finds the answers that he’s looking for…he finds his truth. And then, he can start to build from that. Because we’re all human. We all make mistakes. He had a good heart and intention behind it, but obviously, it was the wrong way to go about it. He’s a talented, talented cat! Master on the guitar…beautiful voice. Fans support him, too. We support him, so whenever he comes back, we’re certainly not against him in moving forward in music. We do wish him well. With three, it’s working great. We’re very happy with where we are and the energy has just been amazing. And the camaraderie and the trust is even stronger. And, like you said, and it’s paramount…when you’re a group, there can’t be a wavering of trust. It affects the energy on stage. It affects, you know, the banter, it affects the choices, it affects how often you want to get together and rehearse…all these things. So…we’re in a great place. We truly wish him well, but we’re happy with how things have gone so far.”
Gary Levine: Going back to the earliest days…sitting next to that large burl…did you ever consider pursuing a different genre of music…outside of operatic pop?
Clifton Murray: “To be frank with you, I never expected to be in a group called ‘The Tenors.’ When you grow up being a singer-songwriter-pop artist, you’re not thinking classical tenor group. So, my aspirations were to be like a John Mayer or something of that nature…where it’s pop music…but that was sort of the road that I had initially envisioned for myself. Maybe some folk rock elements to it, as well. But, the funny thing is that I was singing in musical theater in high school. I was singing in a gospel choir. I had all of these other inspirations in my life that…and Josh Groban, when he came out, I was like loving that stuff. When I was on Canadian Idol, I actually auditioned with Josh Groban’s ‘You Raise Me Up.’ I loved singing those big, long lines. There was something about it that I really enjoyed. When I got a call from ‘The Canadian Tenors,’ I had never heard of the group. And I went and ‘youtubed’ them. I heard their voices and that turned me on to that music instantly. I was so blown away at the beauty and the purity of the voices…and the harmonies. And I wanted to be part of that so badly. I dropped everything I was doing. I was actually an actor at the time. I had been filming television and movies for about seven years. It was paying the bills. That was my career. I moved to Toronto. I auditioned. I learned the ropes, got to know them. They wanted to make sure there was no more turnover. There had been a revolving door for about two years for the fourth member…it wasn’t working out. So, I had to prove myself to them and they had to show me, too, that they were committed. But I was a fan when I heard them. I was a fan, first and foremost. Just the beauty and the innocence and the work that had gone in…the years of mastery that it took to sound so beautiful…I was so moved by that.”
Clifton paused momentarily, then continued.
“At first, I was like, ‘Do they want me to bend my sound? Am I supposed to sort of pretend to be more of a classical singer?’ And, at first, I was sort of going that way. They’re like ‘no, no, no, no! We want that natural pop sound to compliment the classical voice…and the more musical-theater-pop voice. It’s a combination of those voices that’s going to create that mosaic of sound that is ‘The Tenors.’ And, so, they gave me that confidence to be myself.”
Clifton paused, seemingly wanting to share something of importance. One only needs to listen briefly to detect his passion, his appreciation and the comfort that being a ‘Tenor’ provides for him.
“You are the company that you keep. You know what I’m saying? And so over these ten years, we’ve influenced each other. Vic has been influenced by my pop sound. And Victor, Fraser and Remig influenced my sound to where I blend into that crossover classical sound, more naturally. You know, 10,000 hours to master something, right? And we’ve been together for ten years now…learning this music…singing classical pop-rock-folk…so, we’ve had the opportunity to meld our voices and create these tight harmonies and find the right quality in our tone to compliment the specific song that we’re doing. And we do all our own arrangements…we do our own vocal arrangements, orchestral arrangements, as well. But it gives us the opportunity to choose what voice is perfect for that moment, and how to blend each voice into the next…so seamlessly. We really take our time to craft these songs and we have these three sounds to create something very unique and special.
Gary Levine: I have one final question, if you don’t mind, and it’s the most important one of all: do any of ‘The Tenors’ play ice hockey and, if so, can we get you guys out to play in one of our beer-league games at Germain Arena when you’re down here in Southwest Florida?
Clifton laughed. Momentarily, I feared that I had encountered the only three Canucks unable to ice skate.
Clifton Murray: “Vic would jump on that like a hot potato. It’s funny because Frase and I played hockey growing up. Vic was too poor to play hockey when he was a kid. But now that he’s grown up, he’s got a kid and his kid plays hockey and he plays in a league with friends, and what not, when he’s in Toronto. And he actually played in the Juno Cup…which is our Grammys…so, all of the celebrities and artists that play hockey play against former NHL players and it’s a big game.”
“You mean the Bieber?” I asked.
“Exactly,” Clifton replied. “So if you go on to our Instagram account, scroll through, you’ll see pictures of Victor playing in the Juno Cup.”
“The Tenors” will be performing this Saturday at 8:00 p.m. at the Seminole Casino Hotel in Immokalee. Fans of popular music…of classical works or opera…fans of Broadway tunes must take advantage of this rare opportunity to hear the conglomerate of vocal magnificence that is “The Tenors.”
For ticket and performance information, please click here.
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