Peterborough Pop Ensemble returns Sunday with its first in-person performance since the pandemic began

Hour-long performance at Emmanuel United Church is the choral group's first Christmas concert since passing of beloved founder Barbara Monahan

The Peterborough Pop Ensemble is performing in person for the first time since the pandemic began with a Christmas concert on December 19, 2021 at Emmanuel United Church in Peterborough. "Christmas Is" is an hour-long concert featuring the ensemble singing selections of their favourite sacred and secular Christmas music, accompanied by a group of bell ringers called unBELLievable. (Photo courtesy of the Peterborough Pop Ensemble)
The Peterborough Pop Ensemble is performing in person for the first time since the pandemic began with a Christmas concert on December 19, 2021 at Emmanuel United Church in Peterborough. "Christmas Is" is an hour-long concert featuring the ensemble singing selections of their favourite sacred and secular Christmas music, accompanied by a group of bell ringers called unBELLievable. (Photo courtesy of the Peterborough Pop Ensemble)

For Maureen Harris-Lowe, being a member of the Peterborough Pop Ensemble is a treasured addition to her many musical undertakings.

Since the Peterborough Pop Ensemble formed in 2000, Harris-Lowe has been a member. Now she’s taken on the role of co-director since the ensemble’s beloved leader and founder, Barbara Monahan, passed away in October 2019 at the age of 59 after a brief battle with cancer.

“While she was in the hospital in palliative care, she asked Arlene Gray and myself if we would take over,” Harris-Lowe recalls.

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Monahan’s passing was a devastating loss to the ensemble. But they were determined to continue singing and performing together, because that’s what Monahan wanted and they wanted to honour her memory through music and friendship.

In February 2020, the Pop Ensemble had just performed their first concert without Monahan when they were thrown another curveball. When COVID hit, the group did not rehearse together for over a year. During this time, the board of directors disbanded. When they finally reunited to sing together at the end of September 2021, Harris-Lowe says it was like reuniting with family.

They’re now rebuilding and preparing for their first in-person performance since the pandemic began, “Christmas Is”, on Sunday (December 19). Described as “A Celebration of Christmas Music,” the concert takes place at 7 p.m. at Emmanuel United Church in Peterborough.

VIDEO: “Have You Seen” excerpt – Peterborough Pop Ensemble

Have You Seen snippet

Are you excited for our Christmas concert on Sunday, Dec. 19? Here's a little snippet of what you'll hear!

Posted by Peterborough Pop Ensemble on Tuesday, December 14, 2021

Admission is by donation at the door, with all donations over $20 receiving a free Pop Ensemble CD. Proof of vaccination and face masks are required.

The Peterborough Pop Ensemble was, and continues to be, the vision of the late Barbara Monahan. The exceptionally talented retired music teacher shaped the group’s sound and arranged and wrote the majority of their music. She often accompanied the singers on piano and, with her wonderful voice, sang with the group as well.

“She embodied kindness and acceptance,” Harris-Lowe says. “She had the biggest heart. She found ability in everybody. She managed to make everyone she met a little better.”

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The Pop Ensemble is a representation of that legacy. The group’s mission is to inspire and unite through music and community.

The group of singers initially formed in 2000 as The Peterborough Singers Pop Ensemble when Peterborough Singers director, Syd Birrell, asked Monahan to lead a small group to perform a few popular songs for a Valentine’s Day concert. After their performance at that Peterborough Singers concert, it was abundantly clear there was something special about the group.

The singers decided to continue practising and performing together until eventually branching off as their own choir, the Peterborough Pop Ensemble, in 2008.

Barbara Monahan (right) founded the Peterborough Pop Ensemble in 2000 as a one-time ensemble of members of Syd Birrell’s Peterborough Singers. Over the years, the choral group evolved and became the Peterborough Pop Ensemble in 2008.  In this 2005 photo, the group was still known as the Peterborough Singers Pop Ensemble. (Photo courtesy of the Peterborough Pop Ensemble)
Barbara Monahan (right) founded the Peterborough Pop Ensemble in 2000 as a one-time ensemble of members of Syd Birrell’s Peterborough Singers. Over the years, the choral group evolved and became the Peterborough Pop Ensemble in 2008. In this 2005 photo, the group was still known as the Peterborough Singers Pop Ensemble. (Photo courtesy of the Peterborough Pop Ensemble)

Monahan was initially asked to lead the ensemble because of her love and talent for “pop” music. The Pop Ensemble’s musical style is fun and eclectic. Through the years, they’ve sung music in the genres of pop, jazz, Broadway, classical, country, and rock. They’ve performed everything from Spice Girls to Gershwin and often sing a capella.

When Monahan passed, the group decided they needed to keep singing together — despite how difficult it would be to continue without her.

“We got together because we are such a close group and asked, do we still want to do this?” says Harris-Lowe. “But we know it is what Barbara wanted. It’s definitely what her family wants.”

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“We felt we are unique to the community,” she adds. “I can’t imagine not doing this.”

The Pop Ensemble hopes to keep Monahan’s spirit alive by continuing to perform, and the group also formed a scholarship in her name at Kenner Collegiate Vocational Institute, where Monohan taught music for most of her career. Both honouring Monahan and keeping her memory alive, the scholarship is awarded to a graduating student continuing in music.

While members have come and gone, the Pop Ensemble’s current 18 singers include some original members, including Harris-Lowe, who directed the Peterborough Children’s Chorus for 20 years, and Arlene Gray, the founding director of the Kawartha Lakes Singers. Both women are co-directors of the Pop Ensemble.

Maureen Harris-Lowe and Arlene Gray are musical co-directors of the Peterborough Pop Ensemble. Shortly before her passing, founder and musical director Barbara Monahan asked the pair to take over as the new leaders of the choral group.  (Photos courtesy of the Peterborough Pop Ensemble)
Maureen Harris-Lowe and Arlene Gray are musical co-directors of the Peterborough Pop Ensemble. Shortly before her passing, founder and musical director Barbara Monahan asked the pair to take over as the new leaders of the choral group. (Photos courtesy of the Peterborough Pop Ensemble)

The Pop Ensemble has another exciting addition in talent with their new piano accompanist, Justin Hiscox. The esteemed multi-instrumentalist and composer, well known locally for his work with 4th Line Theatre in Millbrook, is also singing with the group.

While the group is rebuilding after their board of directors disbanded during the pandemic, they are grateful for Monahan’s son Justin, who has remained treasurer through everything.

Along with dealing with organizational challenges, members of the Pop Ensemble are also still adjusting to Monahan’s absence.

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“There are certain songs that just remind us so much of Barb,” says Harris-Lowe. “We probably will sing them again, but it’s tough. It’s going to be emotional.”

The December 19th concert will feature the Pop Ensemble singing their favourite selections of sacred and secular Christmas music, accompanied by a group of bell ringers called unBELLievable.

“It’s an hour of uplifting music to get people in the Christmas spirit,” says Harris-Lowe.

The Peterborough Pop Ensemble's "Christmas Is" concert takes place at 7 p.m. on December 19, 2021 at Emmanuel United Church in Peterborough. Admission is by donation, with donations over $20 receiving a free Pop Ensemble CD. (Graphic courtesy of the Peterborough Pop Ensemble)
The Peterborough Pop Ensemble’s “Christmas Is” concert takes place at 7 p.m. on December 19, 2021 at Emmanuel United Church in Peterborough. Admission is by donation, with donations over $20 receiving a free Pop Ensemble CD. (Graphic courtesy of the Peterborough Pop Ensemble)

Due to the pandemic, the group is being very cautious with its first foray back to in-person performance.

The show will be shorter than usual for a Pop Ensemble concert. Face masks are mandatory throughout the entire concert, including for the singers themselves. Volunteers will be checking for proof of vaccination receipts at the door and taking down information for contact tracing. Audience members will be physically distanced when seated, with only one family per pew. The performers will also take rapid antigen tests before the show.

Admission is by donation at the door. Anyone who donates over $20 will receive their choice of one of four Peterborough Pop Ensemble CDs: a Christmas CD, “A Sentimental Journey” (wartime songs), “Singing Again” (a selection of fun music), or “Pop Ensemble Live!”

Barbara Monahan pictured at the Rogers Centre in Toronto in September 2009, when the Peterborough Pop Ensemble performed the national anthem at a Toronto Blues Jay game. Monahan founded and led the group until she passed away in October 2019 at the age of 59 after a brief battle with cancer. (Photo courtesy of the Peterborough Pop Ensemble)
Barbara Monahan pictured at the Rogers Centre in Toronto in September 2009, when the Peterborough Pop Ensemble performed the national anthem at a Toronto Blues Jay game. Monahan founded and led the group until she passed away in October 2019 at the age of 59 after a brief battle with cancer. (Photo courtesy of the Peterborough Pop Ensemble)

“The Pop Ensemble Live CD is special because we did that one when Barb was sick,” says Harris-Lowe. “She spent her entire last summer putting the CD together. We had the release party for that in September of 2019. Barbara was unable to attend because she was in palliative care at the time.”

“This will be our first Christmas concert without her,” Harris-Lowe adds. “It’s going to be emotional because she was the group. We don’t want to forget her. We want to keep her memory alive. We hope to honour her and make her proud of what we’re doing.”

Pandemic willing, “Christmas Is!” will be the first of many concerts the Pop Ensemble plans to perform. Since they missed their 20th anniversary during the pandemic, they have booked Market Hall for a belated 20th anniversary show in April.

“Then we plan to take that music and travel with it,” says Harris-Lowe.

The late Barbara Monahan (centre) and members of The Peterborough Pop Ensemble pose in their costumes before one of their ABBA-themed performances before the pandemic. The group plans to bring back some ABBA music at their belated 20th anniversary concert scheduled to take place at Market Hall Performing Arts Centre in downtown Peterborough in April 2022. (Photo courtesy of the Peterborough Pop Ensemble)
The late Barbara Monahan (centre) and members of The Peterborough Pop Ensemble pose in their costumes before one of their ABBA-themed performances before the pandemic. The group plans to bring back some ABBA music at their belated 20th anniversary concert scheduled to take place at Market Hall Performing Arts Centre in downtown Peterborough in April 2022. (Photo courtesy of the Peterborough Pop Ensemble)

Despite not being able to rehearse during the pandemic and the disbanding of their board of directors, the Pop Ensemble has endured — a legacy of Monahan’s passion and leadership.

“Barb was the glue, but she was able to form such a great community that we went away and are willing to do this and stick together,” says Harris-Lowe. “There’s so much work to do, but the actual performance is so fulfilling. It’s really worth the work.”

As a semi-professional choir available for hire, the Pop Ensemble regularly performed at public events prior to the pandemic, including singing the Canadian and American national anthems at special events and sports games. They hope to start performing at events again soon, as well as giving back to the community by supporting local charities.

For more information about the Peterborough Pop Ensemble, visit www.popensemble.com.