Monday, 12 October 2020

Toronto Mendelssohn Choir sings glorious Songs of Thanksgiving

On Saturday night, the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir premiered what is undoubtedly the most intricate virtual concert I've yet seen.

Over a 50-minute span, the Choir presented music ranging from Bach to the present day, and across a geographic span that extended from Canada to Liverpool, and from Leipzig to the south of India.

Even more striking, this performance incorporated both visual art creation and dance alongside music -- and dance in a style that cannot have been familiar to many in the online audience.

The technical complexity of the virtual programme was impressive indeed.  The professional core group of the choir, with pianist Gergely Szokolay, were filmed on the stage of the Trinity-St. Paul's Centre on Bloor Street West in Toronto.  The instrumental ensemble, drawn from the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and Toronto Symphony Youth Orchestra, along with organist Matthew Larkin, were filmed on a separate occasion on the same stage.  In both cases, all required social distancing guidelines were followed.  

Other members of the choir filmed themselves, singing at home, and one number was filmed by the father and daughter team of Trichy and Suba Sankaran together in their home.  The Odissi dancer, Supriya Nayak, was filmed in part in the balcony of Trinity-St. Paul's, with the choristers behind her, and in part on a dark box-of-blacks stage lit only by lights trained on her.

Visual artist Jennylynd James was captured by a time-lapse video camera as she worked on her painting, 

This diverse mass of video streams was mixed and assembled on screen with impressive aplomb.  I can only imagine the dozens -- hundreds -- of hours of work required after recording to assemble the entire programme.

Kannamma -- A Concert of Thanksgiving was planned by guest curator Suba Sankaran.  The concert opened and closed with the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, the greatest of all choral composers in the European classical tradition.  The two excerpts were drawn from his celebratory church cantata Wir danken dir, Gott, wir danken dir, BWV 29.  Both movements were set in D major, with an orchestra requiring trumpets and drums, a never-failing sign of celebration in the music of Bach.  

The programme opened with the chorus, Sei Lob' und Preis' mit Ehren. The concluding work of the concert, the chorus Wir danken dir, Gott, is the slightly different original version of the music later adapted by the composer as the Gratias of the B Minor Mass -- to a text which, appropriately, expresses the same feelings of thanksgiving, but in Latin.  Even under these virtual conditions, and with a small ensemble of instruments, the performances aptly captured the monumental character of these magnificent choruses while sacrificing nothing in contrapuntal clarity.

Bach also appeared in the second number, but this was a Bach that immediately brought the famous Swingle Singers to mind.  The professional core group of the choir launched into an exuberant, jazzy, upbeat take on the famous melody Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring, composed -- not just "arranged" as modestly stated in the programme -- by Suba Sankaran.  Sankaran created her own words to go to this well-loved musical theme, What Does Gratitude Inspire?

This was followed by another, and truly moving, musical adaptation.  In 1831, Gottlob Benedict Bierey  composed a solemnly luminous, deeply felt setting of the Kyrie from the Ordinary of the Mass, set in conjunction to another of classical music's greatest hits, the opening Adagio movement of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata for pianoThe long, sustained phrases and notes of this music drew a response from the choristers that began in reflective mode and rose to a climatic peak of near-anguish before subsiding into silence.  The stylistic resemblance to some of Mozart's later choral music, particularly that master's stand-alone Kyrie in D Minor, was unmistakable -- and not particularly surprising, given the date of composition.

This was followed by the Beatles' Because, arranged by Suba Sankaran, a song whose beginnings took the famous Moonlight Sonata as a point of departure.  It's during this number, sung by the professional core group, that the video image of the singers is overlain periodically by the fascinating time-lapse video of Jennylynd James at work on her painting, which is itself inspired by the song.

The next number on the concert featured a display of messages of thanksgiving from a number of the choristers, set to the song Gracias a la vida, by Violeta Parra.  This simple melody was sung as a vocalise, I believe by Suba Sankaran (not specified in the programme), with guitarist Dylan Bell.

A highlight of this concert for many would be found in the next group of three numbers, all drawing in some degree on the traditions of South Indian Carnatic music.  Purvi Tillana, by T. S. Bhagavatar, brought together Trichy Sankaran on the double-ended hand drum called mrdangam, and Suba Sankaran contributing a hand rhythm while singing the Sanskrit text, rooted in Indian musical syllabics.  This piece had a fast triple-beat basis, and within that framework the drummer and singer brought forth the most intriguing complexities of rhythmic sophistication.

Next came Suba Sankaran's original composition, Kannamma, set to a text that is an English translation and adaptation of the love poem, Kannamma, by Tamil poet Bharathiar.  In this work, Sankaran combines the compositional techniques of the classical ragas with jazz influences, setting her English text to striking effect.  This fascinating piece displayed the versatility of the singers in spades, especially in the abrupt jazzy syncopations.

The real impact of Kannamma came from the incorporation of the fluid, graceful, incredibly detailed and expressive dancing of Supriya Nayak.  Her work was fascinating not least because of the way that every angle of a finger, turn of a wrist, bend of an elbow, or tilt of the head was plainly infused with very specific meaning -- while, at the same time, her whole performance flowed smoothly and limpidly from start to finish.  The videographer, Ed Hanley, has incorporated some masterly multi-camera effects so that the dancer's fluid movements are shown from multiple angles simultaneously.

Dylan Bell's Dona nobis pacem brought even more intriguing fruit of world music fusion, as classical Indian musical practice combined with Renaissance polyphony spiced up with jazz harmonies, all brought to life by the unaccompanied choir.

That piece proved to be the perfect bridge to return us to Bach and the majestic chorus, Wir danken dir, Gott.  Not the least of the reflective resonances is the way that this timeless music, when adapted to its later home in the B Minor Mass, set not only the Gratias agimus tibi but also, at the very conclusion of that monumental work, the same text used by Bell -- Dona nobis pacem.

Whether in the larger virtual group, or with the smaller onstage professional core group, the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir excelled in a broad range of musical styles and traditions throughout the programme.  Not the least exciting for me was the rock-solid coordination of the Bierey Kyrie, where the gentle rubato of pianist Szokolay made it abundantly clear that the at-home singers were working with the pianist's and conductor's video recordings, since they could not possibly be resorting to a click track to stay in synchronisation. 

The small ensemble of orchestral players were also first-rate, as one expects, in the opening and closing Bach selections.

The truly adventurous nature of this virtual concert becomes abundantly clear when you realize that no less than four of the selections were utterly dependant on the visuals to make their full effect.  These included the flowing time lapse of Jennylynd James at work on her painting in Because, the greeting cards of thanksgiving shown during Gracias a la vida, the eye-catching drum and hand percussion of Purvi tillana, and most of all the striking Odissi dancing of Supriya Nayak in Kannamma.  Even if an effort were to be made to incorporate such elements into a hall or church concert, they would remain much more distant to the audience and have far less impact.

Plainly, the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir is going "all in" to create concerts designed for online virtual presentation, rather than simply trying to film and present traditional concerts on line.  I give them full marks for having the courage to leap into these unknown waters of technical wizardry and the fusion of hybrid art forms into a single presentation.

On the technical side, it's too bad that many watchers, including myself, experienced frequent problems with the live stream seizing up during the opening three numbers.  The comment section of the livestream page quickly filled up with complaints, and I must have refreshed the page about 25 to 30 times before the reception finally settled down.  I suppose this is a side effect of the live stream taking place at the traditional concert-going hour, when internet systems everywhere are being taxed by people streaming TV shows, videos, movies, and more.

But there was an unfortunate consequence.  At the beginning, there were some 250 viewers watching the event.  By the time I was finally able to stop refreshing the page, and checked the number again, it was down to 54 and remained in that area for the remainder of the programme.  If any of the other 200-odd disappointed viewers are reading this, I can assure you that I had no trouble at all streaming the entire programme the following night, from start to finish.

Even allowing for that very annoying technical hitch, Kannamma: A Concert of Thanksgiving was both a fascinating evening of multi-discplinary arts in fusion with splendid choral music, and a striking artistic venture showing great imagination and breadth of vision.

At the conclusion of the performance, conductor Simon Rivard announced a Remembrance Day concert for November 11, with this programme to be curated by noted Cree composer Andrew Balfour.  This certainly sounds like another engrossing artistic journey in the making.

If you missed the live stream performance of Kannamma, or would like to watch it again, you can continue to access it at the following link:

Kannamma -- A Concert of Thanksgiving

The programme, with notes and sung texts for the performance, can be found here:

Kannamma -- Programme 



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