The lights dimmed at St. Paul’s Basilica bringing a hush over the capacity audience and suddenly heavenly a cappella sounds began wafting down from the balcony in the rear of the church. Since 2007, the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir has made it a tradition to present a concert of music appropriate for Holy Week in one of the most beautiful churches in Toronto on one of the Christian church’s holiest days, Good Friday. As the choir began to sing, I squelched the temptation to look back; looking upward at the colourful ceiling paintings of the life of Paul was as far as I dared turn my head. I was transfixed in the moment. The words of Behold the Tabernacle of God reinforced the feeling that I was in a ‘sacred’ space.
This transcendent work of Healy Willan which opened the program was as beautiful as it was fitting. The lush harmonies combined with the musical lines reminiscent of plainsong. Of the more than 350 compositions that the Canadian dean of church music wrote during his lifetime, there are few with words and music that speak as well to the remarkable setting on Good Friday as the last line, This is the house of God, and this is the gate of heav’n.
The greatest challenge for guest conductor David Fallis came in the work that followed, Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Mass in G Minor. Singing without accompaniment is perhaps the most difficult assignment for any musician. With no keys to press, open strings to refer to, or valves to depress, one can rely only on one’s ear to stay in tune. In a 25-minute work such as the one by Vaughan Williams, some would say it is almost impossible. It is remarkable then, that Fallis was able to coax a purity of sound, soaring musical lines and blended voices while keeping the choir in tune throughout.
David Fallis returned to the podium for the remainder of the program. Fallis of course, is renowned across Canada and beyond for his interpretations of operatic and choral repertoire, especially that of the Baroque and Classical eras. With just a few rehearsals, he had the choir singing in top form. I particularly enjoyed Fallis’ interpretation of Rachmaninoff’s Ave Maria sung in Russian and Eric Whitacre’s Her Sacred Spirit Soars. One didn’t have to be religious to be swept away by the spiritually inspiring music sung by an outstanding choir in the vibrant acoustic of St. Paul’s Basilica. The TMC is most often heard in conjunction with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and so to have an entire program of a cappella music was a unique occasion.
The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir can next be heard with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra in a performance of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide at Roy Thomson Hall on April 26th & 28th 2018.
Associate Conductor Jennifer Min-Young Lee
Review by David Richards
Toronto ON March 31st 2018
Guest Conductor David Fallis
Photo credit: Paul Orenstein
Toronto Mendelssohn Choir
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The graceful singing lines of the Vaughan Williams Mass in G Minor takes one back to early English church music, but the romantic harmonies provide a fresh energy each time I hear it. In preparation for the concert, I listened to an old LP of King’s College Choir made up of men and boys, performing the Mass. I must say, I much preferred last night’s version. It was the Mendelssohn Singers, a select ensemble of about 75 singers from the choir's 125 members which performed the first half of the program. Their rich, warm tone and blended sound made for a memorable performance.
The first half of the program ended with O Salutaris Hostia by Ēriks Ešenvalds. This beautiful setting of the hymn by Thomas Aquinas began with soprano soloists Julia Morson and Lindsay McIntyre flanked first by women’s voices and later by full choir. The soaring melodies with the harmonic undertones created a hypnotic effect.
Following intermission, the full Mendelssohn Choir assembled on the steps of the chancel to perform a collection of motets by Mendelssohn, Łukaszewski, Rachmaninoff, Bruckner, Tavener and Whitacre. Associate Conductor Jennifer Min-Young Lee conducted the first three selections. I was most impressed with the Ave Maria by Paweł Łukaszewski in the way it grew from a prayerful supplication to a desperate cry for help. Lee achieved a wonderful sound, especially in the full-voiced climactic moments.