Review by David Richards
Good Friday at St. Paul’s Catholic Church was the perfect day and place for a concert by the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir. The choir made wonderful use of the church’s magnificent acoustics, not to mention the elaborately decorated sanctuary. The concert of sacred music in such beautiful surroundings, on this special day, made the spirits soar. If Good Friday was meant to send a message of peace, hope and love to mankind, then the Mendelssohn Choir was an inspirational messenger.
William Byrd’s, Mass in Four Voices, comprised the first half of a program of sacred music. Photo courtesy of Brian Summers
The Elora Festival Singers along with the Mendelssohn Singers, a small group from within the Mendelssohn Choir, sang from the balcony at the rear of the sanctuary. The effect was transcendent. Conductor Noel Edison created a warm tone and a sense of tranquil beauty throughout. From the opening “Kyrie” to the “Dona Nobis Pacem” at the end of the Mass, the singing was beyond magnificent.
Written in 16th century England, a time and place where many Roman Catholics were persecuted for their faith, Byrd’s Mass delivered a message of peace. Religious tolerance was at the centre of the prayer. The final words, “Give us Peace”, were not just words for Good Friday in the 16th century, but words for today’s world torn apart by religious strife and terrorism. It seemed as if the work was written for the events of this past week in Belgium.
The second half of the programme was a dramatic contrast to the first. The full choir of 135 singers, at the steps to the chancel, sang with full dynamic range in a distinctly 21st century take on sacred music. It was a masterful and courageous stroke of programming by Edison. The audience responded with rapt attention and enthusiasm.
A single solo instrument accompanied most of the motets. First, it was jazz saxophonist John Johnson, who astonished us with a hauntingly reflective improvisation over the lone 16th century work Parce mihi, Domine by Cristobel de Morales which opened the second-half of the concert. Johnson continued his accompaniment in a newly commissioned work by Canadian composer Leonard Enns. His remarkably sensitive and hopeful setting of the psalm I Will Lift Up Mine Eyes is one that will be performed often by capable choirs in years to come.
Later in the concert, cellist John Marshman joined with the choir to perform God So Loved the World, a commissioned work by Timothy Corlis. Contemporary dissonances heightened the drama of the last moments of Christ on the cross. “Fear and Trembling” was literally felt by those present as the church filled with the full force of the choir. The pianissimos of “Hear, O God, my prayer” that followed were all the more poignant.
Associate conductor, Jennifer Min-Young Lee, conducted Reflexionem, one of two works by British composer Patrick Hawes, soliciting the warmth of sound that this choir is known for.
The concert concluded with Eric Whitacre’s Her Sacred Spirit Soars. The climactic cry to the muse Oriana was an exhortation to revitalize our spirits with music in face of the troubles of our world. Edison appropriately saved the largest moment, ”Long live Oriana!” to end the concert triumphantly. The cry was heard.
May the choir’s tradition of Good Friday sacred concerts continue! The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir will next perform on April 27th at Koerner Hall in a performance of Haydn’s Creation.