A Conversation with Jean-Sébastien Vallée, The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir’s New Conductor

Anya Wassenberg
Ludwig van Toronto

The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir (TMC) recently ended their three-year search for a new conductor and artistic director with the announcement that Jean-Sébastien Vallée would be taking on the important role.

Vallée brings impressive credentials to his new role in Toronto, including degrees from Université Laval, a Masters from University of California, Santa Cruz, and D.M.A. from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He’s recognized internationally as a conductor and scholar, as well as for his work in the education field. He is currently Associate Professor of Music and Director of Choral Studies at the Schulich School of Music, McGill University, and Conductor of the acclaimed Choir of the Church of St. Andrew and St. Paul in Montreal.

We caught up with him to ask a few questions about leading TMC through an important time for all classical music organizations.

You commented in the media release [announcing your new post] on “working with the TMC’s choral artists to write a new chapter in the choir’s history – a chapter where musical excellence is rooted in accessible, inclusive and diverse artistic initiatives.” There is an upcoming commission by Odawa First Nation composer Barbara Croall, and of course plans may be in limbo because of the lockdown, but what other concrete measures do you plan on taking to maintain those principles?

It is indeed my goal to redefine musical excellence in order to expand its traditional understanding to include a strong commitment to accessibility, diversity, equity, and inclusivity. This is to say that I am committed to making choral music an art form that is relevant and meaningful to today’s world. As the new artistic director of the TMC, I have the privilege of being able to build on the fabulous work done by the choir in the past season under the leadership of Associate Conductor Simon Rivard. The virtual concerts presented in 2020–21 aimed to tell a new story and use music as a catalyst for change.

Through meaningful collaborations with artists such as Andrew Balfour, Duke Redbird, Brian Solomon, Suba Sankaran, Trichy Sankaran, Supriya Nayak, Laurence Lemieux and Against the Grain Theatre (Messiah/Complex), the 2020–21 season revealed a renewed approach to music making, an approach where more voices, stories and artforms came together to redefine what choral music ought to be–a relevant depiction of our communities. This approach is key to defining future musical initiatives because it is not only what we sing that is important, it is what and whose story we tell through our performances that really matter.

Although I can’t reveal the details of the 2021–22 season yet, I can say that with a new commission by Odawa First Nation composer Barbara Croall, a collaboration with the Nathaniel Dett Choral for our Sacred Music for a Sacred Space concert, educational activities focused in re-imagining the choral art and a themed concert directly connecting with current issues, the next season of the TMC will make both contemporary works and old “classics” relevant to today’s audiences.

Obviously, diverse and inclusive initiatives have to go beyond the concert hall and also include how we foster these values within other aspects of the organization. This includes outreach, educational activities and practical details such as the audition process, performance attire and the use of non-gendered language in rehearsals, to name a few. There’s much work to be done in the years to come, and I am proud to lead the TMC through this journey. It is important to remember that this new chapter in the TMC’s history will be written by all–the singers, the staff, the collaborators as well as the entire music community.

How important is it to programme the work of younger and contemporary composers in addition to the beloved classics?

Finding balance and interaction between works by living composers, including emerging artists and beloved “classics,” is the foundation of my programming approach. What really interests me is how we can use contemporary compositions to shed a new light on masterpieces from the past.

For example, a new composition can give relevance and place in today’s context a work that was composed 200 years ago. It is important to avoid making concerts “sonic music” and assume that just because a work has gained the status of “masterpiece”, its value and message are inherently and universally understood. Artists have to facilitate the contextualization and understanding of the music of the past.

As Director of Choral Studies at the Schulich School of Music, McGill University, you are in a good position to comment on the attitudes of choral and vocal students today. Do you feel there is a groundswell of support for initiatives that look to diversify the standard repertoire – more so than in previous generations?

I believe that there has always been a desire to make classical music relevant and to find ways to connect it to the “real world.” Indeed, music has never been completely detached from what has been happening in society; however, in recent years and especially in the field of choral music, there’s been an emphasis in using the human voice to express pressing issues pertaining to social justice and human rights, among other important social movements. Therefore, it’s no surprise that recent dramatic events have led musicians, including emerging artists and music students, to call for greater diversity in our field.

This is a very exciting time for artists since works, styles and genres that have been ignored or overlooked for centuries are coming back to the concert stage. In recent months, I’ve personally been fascinated to discover composers such as Vincente Lusitano, José Maurício Nunes Garcia, and Esteban Salas y Castro whose music have been overlooked for centuries.

I believe it is the responsibility of current leaders and educators to break the vicious cycle of systemic discrimination that has led the classical music community to overlook the important contributions of a wide range of composers. We must do better by working with the next generations of artists to rethink and reimagine what the field of classical music ought to look like.

I love to think of the analogy of revoicing — when we revoice a chord, we do so to make sure that every note is heard and that a balance between all elements is achieved. This is exactly what needs to happen in choral music–we need all voices to be heard and to coexist in a harmonious manner. In this regard, the current synergy in the musical milieu is quite exciting and promising.

What has drawn you to work in the area of vocal/choral music in particular? What is it about that sphere of the music realm that continues to fuel your work?

I began my musical career as an instrumentalist, but quickly succumbed to my passion for singing and decided to focus on studying voice and conducting. I think it is my fascination with the relationship between text and music that first drew me to vocal music. Moreover, I quickly realized that the human voice is one of the simplest yet most complex musical instruments.

I always describe a choir as a micro-representation of an ideal society, that is, many individuals with different and unique voices working together diligently to create harmony and the unison of intent. Being both vulnerable and powerful, the human voice, especially in choral music, speaks directly to the soul of the listener, which is why choral singing is so important. Choral singing creates community and is a powerful motor of change that is more relevant now than ever.

It seems like there has been a growing interest in participating in choirs of various kinds in the general public over the last decade or so. What is your hope for the future of choral music in Canada as well as in general?

Singing has always been part of human expression. The rise of amateur choral societies like the TMC in the 19th century was driven by a desire to democratize music and to make it accessible to amateur musicians of all levels.

A recent survey from Choral Canada indicates that 3.5 million Canadians sing in a choir (27% more than the population of Toronto) and that 28% of Canadians older than the age of 18 attended a choral concert in the past year.

The definition of what a choir is, is really broad and diverse, but with more than 28,000 choirs in Canada, I know that the future of this art form is bright! Choirs of all levels have a very important role to play in shaping the communities they are involved in, and that’s why I look forward to collaborating with the singers of the TMC to develop a creative space where all voices are heard, and where our music contributes to shaping the community we need and hope to see.

This interview was published in Ludwig van Toronto on June 7, 2021 here.