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Toronto Symphony and Toronto Mendelssohn Choir join forces for a memorable Requiem​

Despite these images, as the concert began, I couldn’t get out of my mind how meaningful it was to be listening to the Mozart Requiem in the aftermath of the Flight 752 tragedy. The opening lines: “Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine” (Grant them eternal rest, O Lord) summarized my emotions of the moment. The opening theme from the warm-toned basset horns followed by thundering brass and timpani chords prepared for the male voices and then full choir singing out the dreaded words.

Interim Artistic Director Sir Andrew Davis led the choir and orchestra in a dramatic and power infused performance. There was intensity about his conducting that seemed to energize members of both the choir and orchestra. Conducting without a baton, he seemed to be communicating with his face and whole body as much with his arms and hands. One of the choir members related how efficient he was in rehearsal. One could see from the audience that he was looking for a performance that had vitality from beginning to end. I was on the edge of my seat with every note. The clarity of the choir in their melismatic running passages in the “Kyrie” was a tribute to the TMC’s Interim Conductor and Artistic Director David Fallis. The “Dies irae” came like an explosion at a tempo that tested the mettle of the strings who were more than up to the task. The most moving moments of the work for me came in the "Lacrimosa", a gorgeously lyrical movement that ends with a cry of desperation in the line, “Dona eis requiem aeternam”. 

When I look at the TSO calendar of concerts at the start of the season, the first to be penciled into our calendar are invariably those that include the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir. There is something extraordinary about the choral orchestral sounds that touches my soul like nothing else can. The stunning power and beauty of our fine orchestra takes me to another space when it is enveloped by the over-arching sopranos or pierced by the strength of the male voices.

Last night’s concert had an extra degree of ‘specialness’ (if that’s a word). Mozart’s Requiem in D minor K.626has been consistently close to my heart since I first fell in love with choral music in my first year of university. As I anticipated the concert there were several images running through my mind. I imagined I was in the room with Mozart and his friends on the day he died singing the Requiem at his bedside. In another image, Mozart’s widow Constanze was preparing a memorial service for him a year later with the Requiem at the centre of it. Still another image was that of Chopin’s funeral with several thousand in attendance and the famous Pauline Viardot singing the mezzo-soprano solo part. 

Conductor Andrew Davis, soprano Jenavieve Moore, mezzo-soprano Jillian Bonner,  tenor Charles Sy, bass Trevor Eliot Bowes, the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra; Photo credit: Jag Gundu

Mozart sings his Requiem: Painting by Thomas W. Shields;
Credit: Fine art America

Conductor Andrew Davis, soprano Jenavieve Moore, mezzo-soprano Jillian Bonner,  tenor Charles Sy, bass Trevor Eliot Bowes, the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra; Photo credit: Jag Gundu

Review by David Richards
Toronto ON January 16th 2019

The four soloists came from the incomparable soprano/conductor Barbara Hannigan’s international mentoring initiative, Equilibrium Young Artists. Hannigan has been finding and mentoring young singers and conductors who are in the beginning stages of what will hopefully become major international careers. The four Canadian soloists were auditioned last year by Hannigan and Davis and spent time preparing for tonight’s concert with Hannigan and others in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia.

Soprano Jenavieve Moore, mezzo-soprano Jillian Bonner, tenor Charles Sy and bass Trevor Eliot Bowes all have impressive resumés and each can look forward to substantial careers on the opera and oratorio stages. In the Requiem, they must sing as an ensemble much of the time and they came through with a real sense of togetherness. The “Recordare, Jesu pie…” contained some of the most poignantly beautiful moments of the work. Each of the soloists sang with authority and conviction. The temptation to over-sing was avoided in favour of lyrical phrases. They each took their turn in impressing with their tonal beauty and dexterity in the section beginning with the “Tuba mirum” bass solo.

I can’t say enough about the orchestral playing of the strings in this work. The orchestration itself was a big factor in the generally sombre tone of the music with no flutes, clarinets and horns. Basset horn players Eric Abramovitz and Miles Jacques along with Associate Principal trombone Vanessa Fralick deserve special mention for their solo roles.

It is always a challenge for a music director to find a second work to program with the Requiem. It is not long enough for a concert to itself, but it tends to overshadow anything else performed before it. Last night’s solution was a contrasting symphonic work, Mozart’s Symphony No. 39 in Eflat Major, K. 543. The graceful, melodious work with a folk dance and spirited conclusion perhaps was added to demonstrate the  full-of-life side of the composer without the trappings of death. The serious opening Adagio with its big chords including the diminished seventh, soon gave way to a lively theme in ¾ time. The second movement was as gracefully sweet as one could imagine. Following the folk-dance of the third movement, most of the drama was saved for the finale which Davis and the orchestra gave a robust performance. This work was to me the least familiar of Mozart’s final three symphonies, but last night’s performance persuaded me to give it more attention.

This concert will be repeated tonight, January 16th at 8pm, Friday, January 17th at 7:30pm and Saturday January 18th at 8pm. Next week, Bernard Labadie will lead the TSO in an all-Mozart program. Jean-Efflam Bavouzet will be the piano soloist on Wednesday, January 22nd at 8pm, Thursday January 23rd at 8pm and Sunday January 26th 2020 at the George Weston Recital Hall, Meridian Arts Centre.