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Review by David Richards
Toronto ON June 5th 2017
Gregory Batsleer, the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, and the Huddersfield Choral Society
It wasn’t just the Industrial Revolution in nineteenth century Britain that changed the fabric of society; there was also a musical renaissance happening in England. Public concerts there featured celebrated musicians and composers from across Europe. Throughout the Victorian era, choral societies sprang up in every town, village and city spawning new composers and an unprecedented period of great choral singing that continues today in many British communities. In northern England, the Huddersfield Choral Society was formed in 1836. Choral fever spread to Canada and resulted in the formation of the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir in 1894.
Both highly acclaimed choirs continue to this day and came together this past week for performances of Belshazzar’s Feast by William Walton with the Toronto Symphony (see review here), and for a combined performance at Yorkminster Park Baptist Church yesterday afternoon.
Yesterday’s concert was a momentous celebration of the great music that grew out of the nineteenth century British choral tradition. It included the music of the famed British composers Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Parry, Holst, Stainer, Sullivan and Tavener as well as Canadians Healey Willan and Elizabeth Ekholm, each heavily influenced by the musical traditions of England.
The concert began with organist Michael Bloss performing the long introduction to Handel’s Coronation Anthem Zadok the Priest. The first sound of the two hundred voice combined choir shook me so intensely that the majesty of the music overwhelmed me at a visceral level. It was a sound that produced goosebumps throughout the entirety of my body. I saw a woman in front of me literally jump in her seat. What glorious music making! TMC conductor Noel Edison held nothing back. He allowed the choirs to give it their all and the result was simply rapturous.
Each of the choirs performed separately and together throughout the eighty-minute concert. The Huddersfield Choral Society brought seventy of their one-hundred and fifty singers on this overseas trip. Their brilliant young conductor, Gregory Batsleer programmed works that showcased their British roots with wonderful blend, balance, phrasing and expressive singing. Ave Verum by Edward Elgar and O How Amiable by Ralph Vaughan Williams displayed beautiful crescendos and powerful climaxes. The suspended soprano pianissimo ‘D’ at the end of the Ave Verum was breathtakingly beautiful. Perhaps the finest sounds came in the moving anthem by John Stainer, God So Loved the World. As familiar as any church anthem in the literature, it was breathtakingly stunning. The eight-part anthem by Gustav Holst, Psalm 148 was stirring as the hymn tune “Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones” built to a climactic conclusion.
The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, for its part, put a Canadian slant on the concert with the premiѐre of Elizabeth Ekholm’s prize winning version of Prayer of St. Francis and Healey Willan’s seldom heard work In the Heavenly Kingdom. One could hear the British influence in both works. The TMC was able to showcase the Mendelssohn Singers, its smaller select group of 70 singers, in William Harris’ antiphonal work Faire is the Heaven. There was a chamber-like transparency here that I found to be extremely moving. Most impressive to me was the tender expressive singing in Laudate Dominum from Mozart's Vespers K. 339 by soprano soloist Lesley Bouza and the choir.
Each of the choirs gave magical performances, but for me the combined works were the most profoundly uplifting. Felix Mendelssohn’s two selections from Elijah and John Parry’s coronation anthem I was Glad when they said unto me, both conducted by Batsleer, raised the level of joyous expression, the latter providing a glorious finale to the program.
The concert was dedicated to the victims of the latest terrorist attacks in London. The encore by the Huddersfield Choir expressed the sense of loss in Arthur Sullivan’s part song The Long Day Closes. The aching harmonies therein reflected its words of grief. The music gave rise to hope in the face of such tragedy.
A webcast of the concert can be heard on-line here.
Toronto Mendelssohn Choir and Huddersfield Choral Society combine to create choral ecstasy!