Review by David Richards
Toronto ON February 24th 2020
Toronto Mendelssohn Choir and conductor John William Trotter
Photo credit: TMC
They lined up outside Yorkminster Park Baptist Church and down the street waiting for the doors to open for a mid-winter gift to the city by the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir. On a bright, sunny and almost warm Saturday afternoon, choral music lovers came in droves and filled the mammoth church to hear the choir in a free concert.
The concert, billed as Romantics and New Romantics was not the usual fare of well-known popular tunes meant to please an undiscerning audience. Indeed, it was an hour and a half packed with choral gems from the 19th to 21st centuries. Not that for choral lovers there wasn’t a mix of new and familiar, this was a concert meant to touch the heartstrings of both the uninitiated and the seasoned concert goers. It did just that.
This was the first of a three-concert series in which guest conductors are being introduced to Toronto audiences this spring. John William Trotter, a Canadian living in Chicago, has developed a large following as Principal Music Director and Artistic Director Designate of A Cappella, a Chicago based professional vocal ensemble. He is known for innovative approaches to presentation and Saturday’s concert was evidence. He demonstrated in this concert not only his ability to elicit fine musical expression from the choir, but also his ease in communicating with the audience.
Guest conductor, John William Trotter; Photo credit: TMC
The concert opened with Samuel Barber’s own arrangement of his Adagio for Strings, perhaps the best known string orchestra work of the twentieth century. As a choral work, using the Agnus Dei from the Catholic Mass, it is a stunningly reflective piece of music. In the hands of Trotter and the TMC, it’s radiant beauty was on full display as it began in a shroud of mystery and built with long sweeping melismas to its exhilarating climax before settling once again. I think it was a breath taking high B flat that the sopranos reached in that climactic moment.
The choir’s patron and namesake composer, Felix Mendelssohn, just had to be a part of this concert. His German a cappella motet, Richte mich, Gott had some gorgeous moments of rich harmony. I was particularly moved by the soaring phrase in the line, “Sende dein Licht und deine Wahrheit” (Send forth your light and your truth). Next came Hear My Prayer in a highlight of the concert, soprano Lesley Emma Bouza’s solo. Bouza is one of the professionals in the choir and displayed a warm, lyrical voice that sang easily over the choir.
From here, the concert veered from sacred to secular with the professional core of twenty singers taking over for the Liebeslieder Waltzes, Op. 52, 1-6 by Johannes Brahms in a semi-choreographed performance as the men and women seemed to be singing their love songs to each other. The collaborative pianists, Georgely Szokolay and Daniel Jiang provided sensitive support. The Mendelssohn Singers, a select group of about fifty, joined the professional core for Brahms’ O Schöne Nacht. The full choir was on display again for Hugo Wolf’s Auf Ein Altes Bild and Der Gärtner.
The concert had no intermission, but the choir had a chance to sit down while the Hungarian born pianist Gergely Szokolay, collaborative pianist of TMC, performed Freundliche Vision and Ständchen, two art songs by Richard Strauss effectively arranged for piano by Walter Gieseking. They were both performed with sensitivity. I could almost hear the singer coming out of the piano.
The program, while remaining romantic turned to the ‘new’ romantics for the final section of the concert with music by Morten Lauridsen and Ēriks Ešenvalds. It was also a time when Trotter engaged the whole audience by cleverly demonstrating Kodaly hand signs with the choir and then getting the audience to join in singing the notes that he was signing, all while the choir spread out down the two outer aisles. All this led into Ešenvalds’ O Salutaris Hostia, a gorgeously antiphonal motet with two solo sopranos (Teresa Mahon and Kate Wright) positioned in the transcept balconies. It was a brilliant use of the space, and as much as I am not generally a fan of spreading the choir out in this fashion, I have to admit that it was magical.
The concert concluded with a modern day choral favourite by Morten Lauridsen, Sure on this Shining Night. It’s linkage of the James Agee poetry to the simple, tuneful lines was more than wonderful. It was heartwrenchingly beautiful.
The next concert of the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, Sacred Music for a Sacred Space, will take place at St. Anne’s Anglican Church on Wednesday, April 8th and Friday April 10th, 2020. at 7:30pm. The guest conductor will be Gregory Batsleer, Chorus Director of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Royal Scottish National Orchestra, and Director of the Huddersfield Choral Society.
Toronto Mendelssohn Choir in performance at Yorkminster Park Church
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