It was a miserable night to trudge downtown. The six or more inches of snow and slush were enough to discourage many from heading out. By mid-afternoon in Oakville when I learned that the GO trains would be cancelled for several hours, my own attendance was put in doubt. But for those of us who did brave the weather to St. Andrew’s Church, The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir and their Interim Conductor and Artistic Director David Fallis made it more than worth our effort with a celebration of Haydn and Handel.
Fallis chose two composers who are right in the wheel-house of his own experience having conducted and performed the music of Renaissance, Baroque and Classical periods for thirty or so years. As he explained at the outset of the concert, he chose two composers who at the height of their popularity composed music for grand occasions. Handel had made a name for himself in London composing operas and had just been granted citizenship in 1727 when he was commissioned to write the music for King George II’s and Queen Caroline’s coronations. The resulting anthems are some of the most joyful music imaginable.
Some seventy years later, Haydn returned to Vienna from his successful trips to London and was asked to compose a mass as part of a dazzling celebration by Prince Nicholaas II of the Esterházy family in honour of his wife Maria Hermenegild. The resultant Missa in tempore belli was one of six masses that Haydn wrote for the successive annual celebrations of her name day. The mass, with full orchestra including a full complement of winds and timpani expressed a triumphant spirit in a time when soldiers were preparing to do battle with Napoleon. One could imagine the confident footsteps going into battle with timpani and brass leading the way in the Agnus Dei.
The choir, with well over a hundred singers filled the church with glorious sounds. Fallis, whose own training began as a boy soprano in St. George’s Youth Choir and the Canadian Children’s Opera Chorus under the late Lloyd Bradshaw, knows how to get the most out of his singers. His lifetime of conducting choirs, opera, and early music ensembles also began when Lloyd Bradshaw appointed him as Assistant Conductor of the Orpheus Choir. Fallis has an infectious sparkle in his personality that makes one want to sing. Add to this trait his impeccable musicianship and deep understanding of the musical style of these composers, and the result was overwhelming. It isn’t often that I get goosebumps from a performance, but there were several instances when the soaring sounds of sopranos produced them for me.
The soloists, soprano Mireille Asselin, mezzo-soprano Christina Stelmacovich, tenor Asitha Tennekoon and bass-baritone Stephen Hegedus were stylistically spot-on and vocally splendid. Most of their singing was in ensemble and they balanced each other beautifully in groups of two, three and four singers. All four have achieved great notoriety with music of the Baroque and Classical periods. It showed.
Fallis added two interesting motets to the mass, Locus Iste by Franz Joseph Haydn’s younger brother Johann Michael Haydn and the sublime Ave Verum Corpus by Mozart. Choosing music that was contemporary to and probably known to Haydn gave the mass an historical context as there would have been music and scripture between parts of the mass in a liturgical performance.
The second half of the concert, Handel’s Coronation Anthems, began with the much-loved Zadok the Priest. It was only in the introduction to this glorious anthem that I wished for a larger string section. As is often the case in choral concerts, budget limits the size of the orchestra. Nevertheless, this anthem is all about the singing. The full power of the choir and orchestra came together in “God save the King!”. The choir’s dexterity was on display in the rip-roaring speed of the “Amen”. Each of the anthems was sung with all the energy and expressiveness that one could hope for. One could imagine them being sung in Westminster Abby.
The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, founded in 1894 and in its one hundred and twenty-fifth year, is likely the longest continuously operating performing arts organization in the country and continues to be the leader of great choral music in Canada. Fallis told me that he is excited that the choir is planning a fabulous Gala celebration of the milestone year in the fall. Next up for the choir will be the much-lovedSacred Music for a Sacred Space on April 17 and Good Friday April 19 at St. Anne's Anglican Church. Hopefully the winter weather will be long past.
Toronto Mendelssohn Choir's Haydn and Handel celebration lifts the spirits on a blustery winter night!
Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, Conductor David Fallis, soloists and orchestra
Photo credit: Brian Summers credit:
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Review by David Richards
Toronto ON February 28th 2019