TSO – TMC Mozart Requiem: Best Concert of the Year

The headline is only partly in jest. Yes it was the best concert so far in 2023, as of January 11th. Many are still saying “Happy New Year” and writing the wrong date on cheques (if they even write cheques anymore).

But it was truly brilliant.

The Toronto Symphony and the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir were led tonight by Michael Francis in a program that left me speechless with wonder. The question of whether this marvel was curated by our own TSO wizards (who did such magic in October) or the visiting conductor was settled when I peeked at Francis’ 2023 schedule, which shows he will conduct the same program on July 2nd in Speyer, Germany (if you scroll down far enough). So clearly it’s Francis who deserves the praise.

I should have known from his witty patter at the microphone. And of course that’s to be expected when he’s also Music Director of the Mainly Mozart Festival in California, The Florida Orchestra, and Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz, all at the relatively youthful age of 47.

Michael Francis, image from the Mainly Mozart Festival website

Why am I so stunned?

Before intermission we heard:
-Von Bingen’s O virtus Sapientiae
-Mozart’s Masonic Funeral Music
-Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge
-Allegri’s Miserere

Full disclosure: for years I’ve been conflicted about Roy Thomson Hall, sometimes enjoying its sound, even as I join the gaggles of seniors struggling to get to the washrooms (myself included), not always able to reconcile the modern architecture and classical music.

Tonight it was as though someone (Francis? Or the ghosts of Mozart, Allegri, Beethoven & Van Bingen) sought to consecrate the hall, to bless this space. For the moment I’m in an altered state as I recall the experience, seeing and hearing it in a whole new way. The first half of the concert was like that, not just the music but also the way it was executed.

For the brief von Bingen opener, lights were dimmed. Ten female voices processed in one by one, carrying their music with only enough light for their upper body and their pages. The text is almost secular in its focus on wisdom.

The Masonic Funeral Music is something I have to revisit, trying to discern whether it usually sounds as macabre & morose, or if that was Francis’ doing in his interpretation, pushing the darkest colours. We’re listening to some remarkably dark orchestral timbres supplied by contrabassoon and some brass in this tiny majestic piece.

Then we were plunged into something different again, a modern-sounding reading of Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge in its free¬standing string version (as opposed to its place in the string quartet where it originated). Again I was particularly impressed by the low voices, this time work of the double basses with their edgy lines. Francis takes this piece without apology to the limit, meaning quickly and in the bolder passages without restraint. We experience big contrasts, but then again the program is all contrasts, every piece a change of pace.

And just when I thought I knew what to expect came what was for me the highlight of the evening. The presentation of the Allegri has me thinking of the modern hall in a new way. Nineteen singers were illuminated at the back of the stage in the choir loft, the first voices we heard. Tenor Isaiah Bell was the answering solo voice, coming to us from backstage. The third group, the high voices in the parts of this composition that everyone remembers best, were situated out among us in the audience (I couldn’t see where, but perhaps on the higher balcony). I see in the program (even if I couldn’t see them for myself) that this group consisted of Rebecca Genge, Rebecca Claborn, Simon Honeyman and Neil Aronoff. There we were in Roy Thomson Hall as though encountering proper antiphony, voices exchanged across the big space, but without the excessive reverb you might have in an old church. It was the best of both worlds truly.

If you can’t see this concert in Toronto (Thursday and Saturday at 8 pm) or North York (Sunday at 3 pm) go to Germany if you can (but then you won’t have the TSO, TMC or the soloists… and that’s a pricey option). It’s outrageously good.

That first part was a little over half an hour, to set up the presentation of Mozart’s Requiem after the intermission.

The version we heard is the Robert Levin edition from the 1990s. Again I’m not sure how much of this is really the edition and how much is Francis. The pace was often breath-taking, passages I’ve known previously as leisurely, suddenly taking on intensity I hadn’t expected. Soloists Jane Archibald (sorely missed around here of late), Isaiah again, mezzo-soprano Susan Platts and bass Kevin Deas were all stylish, in tune, and well-balanced against the forces of the TSO and the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir.

I don’t know what share of the excellence comes back to the input of the new Artistic Director of the TMC, Jean-Sébastien Vallée, but they’re sounding better than I’ve ever heard them. They’re precise and accurate, powerful when called upon by Francis, but delicate when necessary.

If your experience is anything like mine after that stunning opening, you’ll come to the Requiem ready to be moved, tenderized and vulnerable. Francis, the soloists, the choir and the orchestra will not disappoint you.

It’s a great start to 2023, that I suspect will be mentioned in my list of the “best of 2023”.

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