Today the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir celebrated their 125th anniversary with a gala concert at Koerner Hall, joined for the occasion by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (who haven’t yet had their centennial, and who only came into existence in 1922).
Led by the TMC’s Interim Conductor & Artistic Advisor David Fallis (whose title could also be “saviour” although he’d probably blush at the suggestion), the program he assembled, titled “Singing through Centuries”, is a fascinating nod to the occasion being celebrated.
- Acknowledging the ensemble’s name, we heard a pair of Psalm settings from Felix Mendelssohn, a composer highly esteemed at the time the choir began
- From 1894, the very year of the choir’s founding, we heard one of the earlier versions of Fauré’s Requiem (that is, not the very first version from 1890 but also not the larger-scale versions that came later), to conclude the concert
- From the 20th Century we heard Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms, at the end of the first half of the concert
- From the 21st Century we heard a TMC Commission by Andrew Balfour, his Mamachimowin following the intermission in its world premiere.
Since Fallis’s arrival with TMC the choir has a better sound. I’ve been listening to incarnations of TMC since my childhood, sometimes singing Messiah, sometimes working on symphonic repertoire with the TSO. They were impeccable today, rising to the occasion.
In a venue such as Koerner Hall there’s no place to hide. Where the more ambiguous acoustic of Roy Thomson Hall functions like Vaseline on the lens of a camera, hiding wrinkles or flaws, one hears every detail at Koerner: and TMC sound pretty wonderful for 125. It’s an ensemble with a lot of youth and great potential for the future.
Fallis brings not just his musicianship but also that nerdy bonus, his genuine scholarship to everything he does. You’ll be able to hear him in a couple of weeks leading Opera Atelier’s Don Giovanni, where many of the same tendencies can be heard. His tempi tend to be brisk in keeping with his quest for authenticity. His approach to dynamics is very sensitive to voices & soloists, tending to be softer than what you expect, encouraging you to listen, rather than big overblown climaxes. It means that the few climactic moments are that much more meaningful. It means that the voices are conserved rather than spent.
I don’t know if this is the first time Fallis has led the TSO, but they sounded great, while also playing for the most part with a gentle & restrained sound. I hope the TSO will consider him for possible guest appearances, not just because he’s a Canadian but also because of his exemplary musicianship.
For me the pieces that followed the intermission were the highlights.
Andrew Balfour wrote the following program note about his new work:
“Mamachimowin (The act of singing praises) is a choral work that explores the difficult relationship between Indigenous spirituality and the impact of the Christian culture on First Nations people. Translating Psalm 67 into Cree, I wanted to add a musical perspective that added a dimension of fragmentation into the structure of the work. Also I wanted to utilize the instrumentation of violas, cellos and double basses to give the idea of the strings representing a foundation of the ground, or Mother Earth. I wanted to present the idea of musical tension and musical phrases along with the choir whispering some of the text to add an element of uncertainty. Many thanks to David Fallis and the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir for commissioning this work, and I am so honoured to be part of this concert that celebrates the choral legacy of Canada’s oldest choir. Chi Migwiich!”
The text that we heard whispered from time to time reminded me of the silent witnesses in Peter Hinton’s reading of Somers’ Louis Riel at the Canadian Opera Company, as though the whispers are the voices of those who were here before on Turtle Island, and whose souls continue to be here, a spiritual presence even though they are very gentle and non-threatening. The strings intoned a very sombre pattern music, regularly returning to the minor-third interval. The choir gave us something more celebratory & decorative over the top. As a whole it reflects what we see in this country, where there are dark & troubling subtexts that can be heard, if only we listen.
We closed with a stunning reading of the 1894 version of Fauré’s Requiem. This included the choice to use the pronunciation of Latin as the French would have done it at the time. It’s not what you expect.
- Instead of “luceat” sounding like “Loo-chay-at”, today we heard “Loo-say-at”.
- Instead of “sempiternam” with English phonetics we heard French phonetics
And there’s more of course, but you get the idea. I remember a professor of mine dismissing a recording I had that was done this way: because it didn’t sound right to him. But it was magical & new even while taking us back; this is what Fallis’ scholarship brings to the table.
Samuel Chan gave a lovely gentle account of the “Libera me”, while Teresa Mahon’s clear flawless soprano illuminated the “Pie Jesu”.
I could also mention that after awhile I took off my glasses because there were so many tears messing up my face.
TMC will be back:
- October 27th with Orchestra Toronto for Beethoven’s 9th
- November 7th & 9th with the Toronto Symphony at Roy Thomson Hall for Massenet’s Thais in concert
- December 3rd & 4th for “Festival of Carols” with the Toronto Symphony Youth Orchestra
- December 17 -22 for Messiah with the TSO at Roy Thomson Hall