Music reviews of the finest concerts in Toronto and beyond!
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The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra in
Andrew Balfour’s Mamachimowin; Photo credit: John Hryniuk

The concert concluded with a performance of Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem. It was not, however, the version for huge orchestra, but an earlier version for smaller forces. Fallis can be counted on to discover jewels in obscure places, so finding this version of the Requiem was masterful. It was a work programmed in the first year of the choir and in yesterday’s program it used most of the same instruments that had been used in the Stravinsky and Balfour compositions. There were no violins except for one solo, performed by TSO Associate Concertmaster Zeyu Victor Li. The work gave ample opportunity for the choir to display its glorious sound, but without the vitriolic anger of the Judgment and Day of Reckoning found in other Requiems, it was more of a farewell to a life well-lived. Perhaps it was meant to be a good-bye to the first 125 years of the choir. Baritone Samuel Chan, heard recently as Marcello in COC’s La Bohème, and soprano Teresa Mahon, one of the choir’s professional singers, each gave soulful performances without any overpowering displays. Organist Matthew Larkin made the most of an electronic Rogers organ, but it made one feel that Koerner Hall needs a state-of-the-art pipe organ in the lofts above the stage.

The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir has evolved from its earliest days. It is no longer the 240-voice amateur choral society made up primarily of church choir singers. With a professional core and a complement of just over 100 singers, it is a nimble ensemble capable of a vast range of repertoire. In his two years as Interim Artistic Director, David Fallis has continued the choir’s excellent traditions while instilling his own attention to detail in every performance. As the Choir moves into a confident future with new artistic leadership, it looks to be an inclusive organization representative of the diverse population that is Toronto as demonstrated in this concert.

Later this season, each of three international guest-conductors vying for the position of Artistic Director will lead the choir in three separate concerts. The first of these will be on Saturday February 22nd at 3pm at Yorkminster Park Baptist Church when John William Trotter of Chicago will perform a program entitled Romantics and the New Romantics.

The Choir can next be heard in a Toronto Symphony Orchestra concert at Roy Thomson Hall, November 7-9 in a performance of Massenet’s opera Thaïs.

Singing through Centuries celebrates 125 years of the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir!

Composer Andrew Balfour and Interim Artistic Director of the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, David Fallis following the performance of Mamachimowin; Photo credit: John Hryniuk​

The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir turned its fall concert into a gala celebration yesterday. With the help of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and sublime, diverse music of exaltation, it celebrated the 125th anniversary of its founding in 1894. An extensive social media campaign no doubt boosted ticket sales resulting in a full house at the Royal Conservatory’s Koerner Hall

Invited guests included The Honourable Elizabeth Dowdeswell, Lieutenant Governor of Ontario; Jessie Iseler, widow of the late Elmer Iseler, TMC’s 6th conductor for 33 years; and Michael Fricker, the grandson of the choir’s second conductor, Herbert Fricker.

Interim Artistic Director David Fallis curated a magnificent program entitled Singing through the Centuries, a homage to the longevity of the Choir’s musical excellence. At his creative best, Fallis found works that not only showcased the music of three centuries, but also found music that uplifted the human spirit, including a newly commissioned piece by Cree-descended composer Andrew Balfour.

Although most people may think of Felix Mendelssohn as an instrumental composer, his celebrity among English choral societies during the nineteenth century made him an obvious choice to be honoured in the naming of the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir. Indeed, the choir in 1894 under Augustus Vogt was begun in the spirit of British choral traditions. It soon became the champion of choral music in Toronto and has remained in that place of high esteem throughout its existence.

The concert opened with two Lutheran motets by Mendelssohn. As one might expect from Fallis, they were rarely performed gems. The a cappella beginning honoured the choir’s founder’s love of unaccompanied singing. Richte mich, Gott and Denne er hat seinen Engeln befohlen über dir were written for the Berlin Cathedral Choir in 1844 just a few years before Mendelssohn’s death. The antiphonal effect of the men’s and women’s voices in the first of the motets made the luscious harmonies ever so special when they came together for the words ‘Sende dein Licht”(Send for your light). Mendelssohn’s rich eight-part harmonies rose to climactic fervor giving thanks to God for strength and faithfulness.

Igor Stravinsky’s masterpiece Symphony of Psalms represented the 20th century. On a personal note, it was fifty years ago, that I was asked to fill in at the University of Toronto for Choral Director Lloyd Bradshaw to prepare the choir for a performance of this work with the Uof T Symphony. The music has had a special place in my heart ever since. Stravinsky’s rhythmic energy in Laudate Dominum juxtaposed with the sublime Alleluia never fail to give me musical goosebumps. The choir and orchestra were both magnificent in yesterday’s performance. Stravinsky wanted to express the verses of the Psalm without the “lyrico-sentimental feelings” of other composers. Nevertheless, there is a kind of lyric beauty in the awe-inspiring music punctuated with virtuosic orchestral playing by an orchestra made up mostly of brass and winds and devoid of violins and violas.

The concert went from one extraordinary moment to another. Following intermission, the choir and string orchestra (violas, cellos and double basses) premièred Andrew Balfour’s Mama chimowin, a setting of Psalm 67 in the Cree language. The work explores the difficult relationship between indigenous spirituality and Christian culture. Beginning with whispers that gradually grew into mutterings, the cellos took over with a haunting theme followed by violas over a repeated bass figure. The minor tonality with rich dissonances in the choir was interspersed with the chattering, adding to the tension. It was as if there was deep suspicion and uncertainty in the new religion. Balfour is a name to remember among Canadian composers. His commissions have included works for the Toronto and Winnipeg Symphony Orchestras and a newly commissioned Indigenous opera. He has been commissioned by Tafelmusik for this season. Hopefully Mama chimowin will be heard again soon. 

​​Review by David Richards
oronto ON October 21st 2019