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Arnold Voth still chuckles when recalling his first audition for Dr. Alexandra “Sandra” Munn in 1969.
“I was doing the usual scales, singing an excerpt of something for her,” says the retired physician and longtime member of the Richard Eaton Singers. “I could see from the look on her face that she was not wildly enthused, and finally she said, ‘Well, you have a very ordinary voice, but you read music and I need someone like that in my choir.’”
The anecdote may seem off-putting on paper, but it’s actually quite instructive in describing Munn, a respected educator, conductor and pianist who died Sept. 30 at the age of 89. Not only was she very blunt in her appraisal, Munn had also figured something out about Voth that he himself hadn’t. Trained as a tenor by a vocal coach who Voth is certain had dreams of uncovering a new Enrico Caruso, Munn detected that he was actually a baritone, a role he served for decades with the Singers before transitioning to bass in later years.
A startlingly gifted pianist with perfect pitch, Munn found herself conducting the Eaton Singers for six years after the company’s founder passed suddenly in 1967. Munn was also not afraid to voice her opinions. In Dr. Voth’s case, this meant artistically, but for others that might mean a few caustic comments on deportment.
“She had a personality that could easily put people into line,” notes colleague and current Richard Eaton Singers artistic director Leonard Ratzlaff. “Her students were both admiring of her but also somewhat afraid of her sometimes. She didn’t hold back if she felt that she had to say something about their behavior, or how they showed themselves on stage.”
Born in Calgary in 1934, Munn moved to Edmonton to study at the University of Alberta with Gladys Egbert and Phyllis Ford from 1946 to 1953. Her talent was immediately apparent, and scholarships were given so that she could study with Irwin Freundlich from 1953 to 1956 at the Juilliard School in New York. Eventually, she ended up back in Edmonton at the behest of Richard Eaton, where she taught piano at the university.
That doesn’t mean Munn was a cliché of the stodgy, ill-tempered academic, however. She was quite social, gathering friends and students around for a good time when the work was done.
“She was quite famous in a way for little drop-in parties at her house,” says Ratzlaff. “‘Come over for some hot chocolate,’ she would say, but it was really not just hot chocolate. I was involved with a few of those when I first came here, and those memories still stay with me.”
“There’s no question that she was a very extroverted person,” says Voth, recalling the Eaton Singers’ tour that took them to the U.K. in 1970. “She was always with the choir whenever we spread ourselves out at the pub in England. Certainly when we were up half the night, or what was left of the night after our spectacular win, she was there celebrating with us.”
Munn’s multiple talents were in high demand around town. She accepted a position as choral conductor at Da Camera Singers from 1968 to 1973, and worked with the Edmonton Opera Chorus for a period of time. She regularly performed on CBC and CTV, worked as a festival adjudicator, and collaborated with vocalists like Bernard Diamant, Huguette Tourangeau, and Donald Bell. She was recognized as a Builder at the Edmonton Cultural Hall of Fame in 2001, and received the Alberta Music Education Foundation Recognition Award in 2012, as well as the Queen’s Golden Jubilee Medal. Munn taught generations of musicians, many of whom went on to distinction in the field. Her artistic progeny includes Michael Massey, conductor of the Edmonton Youth Orchestra and jazz musician/composer Jan Randall.
Munn retired from the university in 1992, but then went on to join the staff at Alberta College Conservatory of Music where she worked with yet another generation of young musicians. She finally retired from teaching at institutions in 2018, but not before pulling together one final concert, a collaborative Bach Project at All Saints’ Cathedral. It was the perfect capstone to a remarkable career, but it wasn’t like she faded away after; Munn was still in contact with friends, and still
“Sandra often called me over the years, and not always to do with a particular concert or anything,” Ratzlaff says. “She just wanted to chat. The last I’d heard from her was about a year ago when she found out that I’d had some health issues. I’ll miss that. She was fiery and she had a laugh that I’ll never forget. That chortle was loud and raucous. Her skill as a pianist was tremendous, and to be able to go to Juilliard from the province of Alberta in the 1950s says a lot about her talent. There was also an obvious deep caring for her students, and that really came across with her. She’ll be missed.”
A service for Alexandra Munn will take place on Saturday, Oct. 21 from 2 to 4 p.m. at All Saints’ Cathedral, 10035 103 St.
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