La Scena Musicale
March 29, 2023
With Easter just around the corner, we are at the height of the oratorio season. Toronto Mendelssohn Choir’s offering this year was Bach’s great B Minor Mass. It was a large and enthusiastic audience gathered last evening at Koerner Hall, where they were treated to a superlative performance from the 100+ voices and baroque orchestra, under the assured and knowing baton of its Maestro, Jean-Sébastien Vallée.
Composed over a period of 25 years, Bach (1685-1750), a Lutheran, finished the Catholic Mass a year before his death. With twenty-seven movements divided into four sections, nine of which require solo voices, its performance time is a substantial two hours plus an intermission. Last evening, all ten soloists were drawn from the Toronto Mendelssohn Singers, the professional arm of the TMC.
The terrific acoustics of Koerner Hall is ideal for choral music. At a capacity of 1,135, it’s small enough for a feeling of intimacy, yet large enough to make such grand concerts financially feasible. And when it’s given by the TMC, it’s invariably a performance to savour and enjoy. If I may allow myself a personal note – at age 14, the B Minor was my first in-person oratorio experience, if I don’t count the various snippets of Messiah I attended since childhood. So the B Minor Mass always brings back fond memories.
Last evening was no exception. With the opening Kyrie, I was immediately drawn in, easy to do given the excellence of the voices, and their overall tone quality and especially in their ability to blend perfectly. Maestro Valée’s tempi were well judged and on the brisk side, which is ideal. The TMC forces offered perfect melismatic singing, with great precision. The sound in forte passages were thrilling enough to strike fear of God in our hearts – okay, I’m half joking!
Highlights? There were many, and I am bound to leave some out. I loved the “Sanctus,” a section that Bach composed much earlier, in 1724. The TMC forces delivered it full force, in a sound that’s what make a choir great. The same can be said for “Gloria in excelsis” and “Cum Sancto Spiritu.” Kudos to the excellent sounds coming from the orchestra of 25, particularly the woodwinds and the brass on this occasion.
All the soloists were up to the task and delivered their pieces honourably. To be sure, choral singing is not opera, a genre that I am more familiar with. In oratorios, a prominent vibrato is verboten, therefore distinctive, or shall we say idiosyncratic voices are actually at a disadvantage. The soloists last evening may not have made the biggest sound, but they made the right sound.
I particularly liked the soft-grained, silvery tone of countertenor Simon Honeyman. His plaintive, gentle vocalism in “Agnus Dei” near the end was very beautiful. I also liked the surprisingly robust tenor of Nicholas Nicolaidis in “Domine Deus,” and the lovely, full lyric sound of soprano Lesley Bouza in “Et in unum Dominum.”
Last but definitely not least, kudos to the excellent Baroque Orchestra for their idiomatic playing. I look forward to their next oratorio, the formidable and operatic Verdi Requiem next season, which will be a complete change of pace from the B Minor Mass. If you missed last evening’s concert, you’ll get a taste of it in this video clip recorded six years ago of “Dona Nobis Pacem” from the B Minor Mass sung by the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir.
Read the full review on La Scena Musicale.