Leonard Ratzlaff is a gifted and critically acclaimed musician who has dedicated his life to helping musicians of all ages and abilities develop their own musical skills. He has played a key role in creating the high quality of vocal music that exists in Alberta today, and his efforts have helped to establish the province as a nationally and internationally recognized center of excellence in choral study.
Leonard comes by many of his talents naturally. He was born with a fine voice and given ample opportunities to develop that gift growing up in the rich choral traditions of the Mennonite faith. He was also born into a family of teachers who provided him with a wealth of role models and helped him develop an appreciation for the finer points of what he refers to as the “family business.”
Like many successful teachers, Leonard is an avid student who has maintained a lifelong commitment to learning. In the early 1970s, he earned a Bachelor of Church Music degree with a double major in voice and conducting from Mennonite Brethren College of Arts in Winnipeg, followed by a Bachelor of Arts degree in English and Music from the University of Winnipeg and certification in secondary education from the University of Manitoba. He taught English and Music at Mennonite Brethren Collegiate in Winnipeg and sang under the baton of his mentor, William Baerg, before moving to the University of Iowa where he earned a Master of Arts degree in 1980 and a Doctor of Musical Arts degree in Choral Conducting in 1985.
In 1981, he took a position as Assistant Professor of Choral Music with the University of Alberta. Leonard’s role at the U of A has grown over the years to include a full professorship and duties as Chair of the Music Department. He has also worked to develop Canada’s largest graduate program in Choral Conducting, which attracts students to Alberta from across Canada and around the world.
1981 also marked the beginning of what has grown into a long and highly productive association with two Edmonton-based choirs - the University of Alberta’s Madrigal Singers and the Richard Eaton Singers. Under Leonard’s direction, the Madrigal Singers have won international awards and earned critical acclaim. Those who have worked with Leonard list his greatest strength as his ability to encourage a high level of musical understanding and technical excellence while fostering an environment of kindness, integrity and respect for others. He approaches his conducting duties with a strong commitment to maintaining the highest possible technical and performance standards and then tempers those standards with a profoundly caring and compassionate approach to teaching that allows the choir’s young singers to grow as musicians and find an emotional connection with the music.
That same balance between quality of performance and quality of experience is reflected in his work with the Richard Eaton Singers. While the choir is technically considered an amateur ensemble, Leonard has been successful in creating a program where members can reach a very high performance standard and explore the most demanding works of the choral repertoire. The choir’s efforts have been rewarded with high praise from critics and audiences alike. Leonard sees his work with amateur musicians as one of his life’s missions. While he makes it a priority to ensure that each singer is given ample opportunity to develop his or her technical abilities, his greatest motivation comes from seeing members grow as individuals through their musical experiences.
Leonard’s work has been recognized with a number of honours, including the Commemorative Medal for the Golden Jubilee of her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II in 2002, the University of Alberta Arts Undergraduate Teaching Award in 2001, induction into the City of Edmonton’s Cultural Hall of Fame in 2001, and the Alberta Choral Federation Con Spirito Award in 1999. He also received the Julius Herford Dissertation Prize from the American Choral Directors Association in 1987.
Leonard contributes to the cultural health of Alberta and Canada through volunteer service in a number of capacities. He is a member and past president of the Association of Canadian Choral Conductors and, in 2000, was chosen to conduct the Association’s National Youth Choir of Canada. He has served on boards and committees for the Canada Council and other arts granting organizations and is a member of the International Society for Music Education. He is also a member of the Edmonton Opera Association and has served as a jury member for the Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences Juno Awards. His contributions to the arts also include his considerable work to promote and celebrate the works of Canadian composers.
Leonard continues to perform in Canada and abroad as a baritone soloist. True to his motivations as a teacher and conductor, the moments he relishes as a performer are those when he can look out at the audience and see that he’s made a connection and succeeded in communicating the music’s deeper meaning. When asked to offer a word of advice to young musicians, Leonard encourages them to discover that connection for themselves. He urges them to learn to appreciate just how strongly human emotion and the human experience can be expressed through music.