Friday, 9 April 2021

Sacred Music For a Sacred Space -- and Beyond

The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir has for many years now commemorated Good Friday with a concert entitled "Sacred Music For a Sacred Space," traditionally given at St. Anne's Anglican Church in Toronto.

While continuing to offer at least a partial version of such a programme in virtual form in this age of pandemic, the Choir once again demonstrated great imagination in launching out into a hybrid arts event which was plainly designed, from the ground up, for online presentation.

Indeed, the programme as we saw it on Good Friday evening simply could not be presented in the same way in a live venue.

In brief, the instrumentalists were recorded under all pandemic regulations then in effect in St. Anne's, the choir members each recorded themselves individually at home, and the whole programme was then assembled in a virtuoso feat of editing.

After a very brief spoken introduction, and a land acknowledgement, the programme opened with Schubert's sad yet mellow Stabat Mater in G Minor, D.175 (not to be confused with the longer F minor setting which he composed the following year).  The Latin sequence meditates on the Virgin Mary, as she stood at the foot of Christ's cross on Calvary.  Schubert set the first four verses in a smooth stream of music, varying his thematic material with no break in the flow.  

The fifty choristers who participated in this recording gave the music with clarity and beauty of tone while capturing the ritual feeling of the work, which was most likely written for liturgical use.  Pianist Gergely Szokolay provided a subtle, finely shaded account of the accompaniment, originally written for small string orchestra with trombones -- and, frankly, I didn't miss the orchestra at all (the young Schubert's orchestration was often blandly conventional to a fault).

This music was accompanied by images of paintings from different centuries, images which in some cases overtly depicted the scene at Golgotha and in others invited us to think of suffering in a more human, contemporary context -- a very thoughtful visual counterpoint.

The major offering was Bach's early cantata, Christ lag in Todesbanden, BWV4.  It's a unique work in many ways, relating to form, musical style, word painting and more -- but most of all because this early cantata, with its seven choral or vocal movements  in succession, is written entirely in E minor.  

Instrumentalists and singers alike, under Simon Rivard's thoughtful direction, skilfully avoided any sense of sameness resulting from the use of the single key.  The Mendelssohn Choir's singers have become masters of the art of online recording, singing alone in their homes with more than a passing thought to the need for their performance to blend into a choral whole when the editing takes place.  The net result of their work is a performance as polished as you could ask in a live concert.

The truly remarkable aspect of the cantata was the incorporation of dance, choreographed and performed by Laurence Lemieux.  Abetted by Simon Rossiter's striking lighting design and Jeremy Mimnagh's superb videography, Lemieux created stunning images in motion of grief, loss, struggle, and acceptance, flowing smoothly in tandem with the music.

It was the kind of dance performance that, for me, demanded to be viewed several times.  On each viewing, I found that I was being drawn more and more to ponder the impact of Lemieux's powerful, evocative movements.  Reflection on the meanings and feelings which it aroused began with the startling choice of hard-soled, heeled shoes rather than traditional dance slippers.  As the piece progressed, those shoes became more and more an image of obstacles, of hindrances, of the thousand and one "buts" that we use to stop us from coming to grips with the tragedies of the world around us.

Laurence Lemieux's choreographic creation was most of all in my mind when I said that this concert could never have happened in a live performance venue.  We needed the close-up impact of a personal video screen to bring ourselves as close to her as possible, to be able to read her facial expressions and fully discern the complexities of her movements.  

The final number of the concert was the fourth movement of Ein Deutsches Requiem, Op. 45 by Johannes Brahms, sung in English translation as How Lovely Is Thy Dwelling Place.  The singers here caught the essential flowing nature of this music, the long arching phrases, the way that crescendo and diminuendo seem to grow organically out of the very nature of the piece.  Imposed "interpretation" would be disastrous in this music.  Gergely Szokolay on piano gave an uncommonly restrained accompaniment, gentle and pastoral in character, and entirely appropriate.

The visual accompaniment to this piece was a series of video clips and still photographs taken during a walk in the woods in autumn, with the fall colours all around.  It was an appropriate reminder that the true "sacred spaces" of the world are by no means confined to those built by human hands.

I was forcibly reminded of the memorable words of Catalan architect Antonio Gaudi:  "The forest is my cathedral."  It's a feeling I've often shared.

This beautiful and thought-provoking Good Friday concert remains available for free viewing on the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir's website.  Here's the link:

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