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Toronto Mendelssohn Choir soars in a heavenly a cappella performance of sacred music!

St. Paul's Bisilica

Review by David Richards
Toronto ON April 15 2017

The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir

Last night, the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir continued its 21st century tradition of Holy Week performances in Toronto’s St. Paul’s Basilica. On perhaps the holiest of days in the Christian calendar, the church was crowded, not with parishioners, but with concertgoers seeking music as a gateway to spirituality. 

For many in today's society, Holy Week has lost all relevance. Bombs continue to be dropped; terrorists continue to threaten world peace; news of violence at home and abroad fills the airwaves. And in a personal sense, we carry on in our all too unconscious affluent lifestyles, needlessly raping the planet and destroying it for future generations as millions go hungry. It was good to be in a space where the purest of human sounds could envelop one with love and offer respite from all that is wrong in the world.

One didn’t have to be Christian or of any religious faith to appreciate the significance of the music sung as beautifully as it was in last night's concert. Artistic Director and Conductor Noel Edison put together a sacred a cappella program of great choral music from each of five centuries, the 17th through to the 21st. The words and music of Gregorio Allegri’s Miserere Mei, Deus  are as relevant today as they were in Rome five hundred years ago. “Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew your right spirit within me.” In The Reproaches by John Derek Sanders, there is an expression of the pain of the victims of religious intolerance, bigotry, terrorism and war. “I opened the sea before you, but you opened my side with a spear.”

The pared down version of the choir, The Mendelssohn Singers, sang the first half of the program from the balcony above and behind the nave. The positioning gave a wonderfully mystic effect to the music, allowing the audience to focus on the sounds that reverberated off the arched columns and the vaulted ceiling of the ornately decorated church. The music of Allegri, Pärt and Sanders all made use of plainsong and choral responses to give life to the texts. The recurring solo treble descants in Allegri's Miserere Mei, Deus were particularly beautiful, the high “C” ringing throughout the church. This was a cappella singing at its finest.

Following intermission, the full complement of the TMC took their place at the steps of the chancel. It never ceases to be impressive to watch the 120 choristers file into their places. The choir began with an 18th century setting of the Crucifixus by Antonio Lotti. The sustained eight-part polyphony poignantly expressed the pain and suffering of the crucifiction. Associate Conductor Jennifer Min-Young Lee led the choir in moving interpretations of both the Lotti and in the understated arrangement of the Lux Aeterna with music from Elgar’s Enigma Variations (Nimrod) by John Cameron.

Edison took the podium for the remainder of the program that included moving performances of works by Felix Mendelssohn, Pawel Lukaszewski, Sarah Quartel and Healey Willan. It was in Willan’s An Apostrophe to the Heavenly Hosts that the choir was at its finest. It has been ninety-five years since the first performance of this masterpiece and it is as fresh today as when it was first composed.  The work has been a mainstay of the TMC's repertoire for decades. A spirit of wonder and anticipation was evident from the opening bars which quietly call out to the angelic hosts of the heavens. Expressive shades of hope and joy broke through with a passion that built to a climactic and glorious Alleluia

The concert that began as a meditative look back at the suffering and pain in our world and personal lives and which continued with a succession of sacred motets, ended with Healy Willan’s wonderful celebratory Alleluia. The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir and its conductors are to be lauded for this gift of beautifully sung a cappella music that lifted spirits heavenward.

In a very special weekend of choral singing, Toronto Mendelssohn Choir will join the Huddersfield Choir of GreatBritain June 2-4. On June 2nd and 3rd, the two choirs will join the Toronto Symphony Orchestra in a performance of William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast with Sir Andrew Davis conducting. On Sunday June 4th  at Yorkminster Park Baptist Church, the two choirs will combine for what they are calling Choral Splendour, a program of choral classics with organist Michael Bloss.