Thursday, 4 November 2021

Toronto Mendelssohn Choir 2021-2022 # 1: With a Song In Our Hearts

With the coming of November, the first performing arts season in nearly two years is getting under way.
Arts organizations are finally planning live audience performances, and audiences are buying tickets and preparing to return to a whole world of beauty, excitement, and involvement that had seemed lost to us.
As luck would have it, my first live experience of the season happens to be with the dean of performing arts organizations in Toronto: the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir.  Founded in 1894, the Choir is still going strong and, if anything, is stronger now than ever.
In recent years, the only events with this Choir which I've attended have been when the Choir appeared as guest artists with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.  It seems fitting, therefore, that this first return to the live stage after the pandemic should have featured a chamber ensemble drawn from the Orchestra as the guest artists of the Mendelssohn Choir.
It was a night of considerable excitement for another reason: the first public appearance of the Choir under its newly-appointed Artistic Director, Jean-Sébastien Vallée. 
For due levels of caution, the performers were spread out more widely than usual around the front and side sections of Yorkminster Park Baptist Church, and the audience was restricted in size to allow for adequate spacing of audience members.  All performers and audience were required to be fully vaccinated and masked.

Also with caution in mind, the concert was available as a pay-to-view live stream, for those who did not yet feel comfortable attending in person.
Even with these necessary accommodations to remind us of the ordeal we've all been going through, the sound of live voices and instruments lifted up in glorious song was enchanting, and spoke deeply to places in our hearts that had been feeling the lack -- more, perhaps, than we cared to admit.
Enchanting was also the right term to describe Nathaniel Dett's brief oratorio, The Chariot Jubilee (composed in 1919).  Dett was born into an African Canadian family in Niagara Falls, but spent most of his life living in the United States, conducting and teaching music at several traditionally Black colleges there.  It seems reasonable to suppose that The Chariot Jubilee was written for performance in such a setting.

In this concert, the work was performed by choir and soprano soloist in a recent chamber orchestra arrangement by Jason Max Ferdinand.  This work definitely merits rehearing, and it would be good to hear the oratorio with full orchestra and tenor soloist, as the composer conceived it.

The keynote to Dett's style in this, and many of his works, is the fusion of the European idioms of the Romantic era with the melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic character of spirituals and other folk music of the African American diaspora.
This performance of The Chariot Jubilee began with a radiant, deeply-felt, unaccompanied performance of the spiritual Swing Low, Sweet Chariot by soprano Jonelle Sills.  Upon her final note, the orchestra stole in quietly with an evocative instrumental prelude.  After several minutes the choir, and soloist joined in again.  Much of the music was written in a lyrical idiom which fitted the tone of the spiritual, and of the text written and compiled by Dett himself.  Contrast came from two faster episodes, one somewhat dramatic, and the other definitely dance-like in character. The spiritual was then developed in an extended passage with interesting modulations, and the work ended with a quick, exhilarating final coda crowned by Sills' soaring voice rising above the choir.

Music Director Jean-Sébastien Vallée held the performance firmly together throughout Dett's oratorio, no mean achievement in an episodic score which keeps changing its character and tempo, sometimes very frequently.  The choir gave the music a splendid reading, radiant in the quiet passages and energetic in the faster music -- particularly in that dance episode. 
The main offering of the concert, Ein Deutsches Requiem, Op. 45 by Johannes Brahms, is too well known to require detailed commentary from me.  The chamber orchestra arrangement used here was created in 2010 by Joachim Linckelmann, and was previously unknown to me.   
Reducing the original full Romantic orchestra used by the composer to a small ensemble of 19 involves inevitable losses as well as gains.  The extra clarity and audibility of the woodwind parts was a true bonus, as these often get swamped by the strings in a full-orchestra performance.  On the downside, the lack of trombones was the biggest single loss.   Yes, I know all the hoary musician's jokes about trombones, but it's good to remember that Brahms always employed these instruments with considerable discretion, and only at key moments in each score.  Here, I most missed them in the menacing crescendo of Denn alles Fleisch and at the splendid Denn es wird die Posaune schallen -- where Brahms, incidentally, followed Luther's German Bible to the letter in employing the trombones (Posaunen) rather than the Last Trumpet(s) normally used by other composers.

Overall, the use of such a small body of players with such a large choir might seem like a miscalculated risk, but in fact the balance was well-nigh perfect because the choir had to wear masks throughout the performance.  Here again, we had gains and losses.  The masks softened the volume and edges of the choral tone just enough to keep the singers from overwhelming the small chamber ensemble.  The drawback, of course, was that the text was hard to hear (even for me and others like me who have sung the Brahms), and the Choir's usual splendid and precise diction was, alas, missing in action -- through no fault of their own, I hasten to add.

Music Director Jean-Sébastien Vallée led what could largely be considered a "central" performance of this masterpiece, avoiding either fast or slow extremes of tempo.  The gear shifts within movements were all handled with care and precision, and (in the sixth movement) without drawing undue attention to the fact that the shifts are occurring. The more lyrical fourth and fifth movements were especially notable for a fluidity and ease of motion which is by no means the rule.

The one weak link was also the one moment of extremity, when he adopted a hell-for-leather tempo in the resounding fugue of the third movement, Die gerechten Seelen.  Given the wide physical spacing of the performers, a slight reduction of speed here would have led to far firmer results without the occasional looseness of ensemble.  But that was a minor issue in an overall fine performance.

Baritone Brett Polegato gave a noteworthy performance of the solos, projecting a clear understanding of the texts and their implications which is ignored by many singers.  The concept that he was singing the music like German lieder springs to mind.  This was particularly true of the long and complex text for the soloist in the third movement.   This is the first time I can ever remember, in a live concert of this work, wishing that the baritone had a bigger part.

Soprano Jonelle Sills seemed less comfortable in Brahms than in Dett.  Admittedly, the composer tosses the singer a nasty problem by making her sit still for 45 minutes or so, then enter quietly and far too high for comfort in her range -- when her voice has had ample time to get cold.  Sills, on the whole, did her finest work in the bigger passages, remaining always audible alongside the choir.

Throughout the entire 75-minute span of the work, the Mendelssohn Choir remained thoroughly on point and produced lovely tone in all dynamic ranges from the quiet of the opening through to the glorious final cadence of the magnificent sixth movement.  Their fluid phrasing of the melodic lines in the fourth movement was an especial delight.

The program title for the concert, "Coming to Carry Me Home," draws an obvious link with Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.  The connection with Brahms might seem less obvious, at a quick glance, but it is there nonetheless -- above all in the pivotal fourth movement, Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen ("How lovely are thy dwellings").  The texts in both works point us towards a place of comfort and healing, a place that all of us are truly in need of finding in these times.  

Not only, then, a timely plea for comfort -- this concert also provided a radiantly beautiful introduction back into the world of musical performance for all of us.  I'm sure that the performers, no less than the audience, went out into the night with a song in all our hearts.

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