We were all invested with a sense of community. As I sat making notes afterwards, Joseph Johnson’s solo cello kept playing away, as though he didn’t want to go home.
I think it’s fair to say that so far Jeff Melanson is making good on his promise to make the Toronto Symphony “the most innovative, inclusive orchestra in the world.”
The buzz around the program this week to conclude the Mozart @260 Festival (a semi-staged Mozart Requiem causing sold out houses all week) was unmistakeable. Conducted by Bernard Labadie, directed by Joel Ivany, sung by the joint forces of the Amadeus Choir & Elmer Iseler Singers led by Lydia Adams, and soloists Lydia Teuscher, Allyson McHardy, Frédéric Antoun and Philippe Sly, this was a Requiem unlike any other.
Let me repeat, we were all invested. How? I assume it was Ivany’s idea, a clever little ritual before the performance began.
We were given blank cards as we came in.
Melanson asked us in his pre-concert introduction to write the name or names of someone whose passing we would choose to celebrate or mourn. A new ritual & convention of mourning was invented on the spot.
It didn’t mean anything right away.
And then to begin the concert the TSO Chamber Soloists played a kind of overture, the slow movement from the K581 Clarinet Quintet. As Joaquin Valdepenas, Jonathan Crow, Mark Skazinetsky, Teng Li and Joseph Johnson played an ultra-soft reading of the movement (that is, with a quieter dynamic range than usual, surely in keeping with the occasion & its purpose), we watched a slow processional up the aisles of Roy Thomson Hall, as the chorus members and the orchestral players walked in slowly, depositing their own cards on two well-lit slabs, and took their places. For me this created a sense that we were all invested, that we each had this symbolic connection to the event, to our predecessors, to our collective memory. Those cards were powerfully evocative, reminding me of the cards posted after the twin towers came down, as survivors sought the missing.
Each of us used the card in our own way, but this abstract template furnished a place where we all met.
My own photo that I show here against the view of the stage has two names on it, corresponding to loved ones I remember. I am sure some people wrote a lot more. But it was a private thing that i’m sharing here even as it was at the same time, communal: not unlike mourning itself.
Ivany took on a daunting task, to direct a beloved work in a conservative town. He’d already done well with Messiah via Against the Grain, and clearly has caught the attention of the great and powerful, both at the COC (who have him directing Carmen later this season) as well as the TSO. Ivany has shown his penchant for daringly original re-writes of well-known works that don’t flout their newness, not guilty of any of the sins attributed to Regietheater (aka “director’s theatre”) because he normally leaves the plot or subject matter essentially intact but framed in a new way.
The card motif became a part of the staging as the loose piles of cards are eventually organized and given something like a place of honour on the stage with the soloists. A mimed ritual honouring our collective memory is enacted, while the Requiem is sung. It’s highly abstract, likely containing subtexts, but it does no harm to the original, allowing each of us to celebrate and mourn, or at least drink in the Mozart in our own way. Notice that we not only saw innovation but inclusiveness too.
Instead of stiff bodies and enforced cold distance, we had moments of contact between performers onstage, gestures of comfort and condolence, and a sense of catharsis by the end.
The TSO played wonderfully, inspired by the occasion and Labadie, who often took them at a historically informed clip, their playing clean and elegant. Adams’ choirs made the most exquisite readings I’ve ever heard (live or on record), their Latin words enunciated more clearly to my ear than that of most of the soloists.
What more could one ask for? I’m glad I got to see it, and do hope the TSO will repeat this or offer a similar experiment sometime soon.