SCRUTINY | Toronto Mendelssohn Choir Opens Season With A Scintillating Carmina Burana

Toronto Mendelssohn Choir Opens Season With A Scintillating Carmina Burana

Ludwig Van
Joseph So
October 30, 2023

Carl Orff: Carmina Burana; Johannes Brahms: Schicksalslied; Tracy Wong: Patah Tumbuh (Broken – Renewed). Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, Toronto Children’s Chorus, Members of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Jean-Sébastien Vallée conducting. October 27, 2023 at Roy Thomson Hall, Toronto.

For music lovers of a certain age — yours truly included — Carmina Burana (1936) holds a special place. Growing up in the 60s, Carl Orff’s most famous work was virtually a staple in concert halls. It coincided with the height of the hippie movement, so what better piece of music to reflect the times than a secular cantata all about wild hedonism and free love?

The Latin text used by Orff comes from some 13th century manuscripts discovered in a Benedictine monastery near Munich. The text is raunchy, all about drinking, fornication and general debauchery — those medieval monks sure knew how to whoop it up, especially the defrocked ones!

You don’t have to be a hippie to appreciate this work. Its unique sounds and mesmerizing rhythms are unlike any work I have experienced, drawing the listener into its world like no other. Its popularity has withstood the test of time, albeit less frequently programmed now than years past. When it’s as well done as this TMC season opener, it’s a terrific evening at the concert hall.

I never miss a revival if I can help it, especially with the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir. I recall a TSO performance about ten years ago led by Peter Oundjian, featuring the American high tenor Nicholas Phan as the roasted swan. There was another one with Aline Kutan, Daniel Taylor and Phillip Addis. Then there was the revival just before the pandemic, led by Donald Runnicles. The Scottish Maestro is an old hand when it comes to Carmina Burana: his recording with the Atlanta Symphony on the Telarc label 20 years ago is quite wonderful.

Given the Runnicles performance was my last, another CB feast is overdue. I attended the second of two performances on Friday at Roy Thomson Hall. This time around, it’s a TMC rather than TSO presentation, with Jean-Sebastien Vallée leading members of the TSO, three soloists, and the Toronto Children’s Choir. Given that Carmina Burana is only 60 minutes, it’s paired with two short works to make a full evening.

It opened with a TMC commission, Patah Tumbuh (Broken — Renewed) by composer-in-residence Tracy Wong. Scored for mixed voice choir, treble choir and percussion, Wong composed it to complement Carmina Burana. She talks about it in a videotaped interview, “I envision the whole piece to be fiery, exciting, rhythmic, surprising, much in line with how I feel Carmina Burana is.” I can honestly say she succeeded in spades, in a remarkable melding of words, vocal displays, body and arm movements. It was a splendid start to the proceedings.

This was followed by the much more sombre and reflective Schicksalslied, or Song of Destiny. Coined as Brahms’s “Little Requiem,” it’s in three short movements lasting about 15 minutes, rather overshadowed by his German Requiem. Based on Hölderlin’s depressing poem about the inevitable fate of humanity, Brahms interestingly creates an alternative ending of hope, much like his German Requiem. Like other Brahms’s choral pieces, Schicksalslied requires an absolute, sublime blending of choral sounds, and TMC’s performance tonight gave me goose pimples.

After a brief intermission, we got the centrepiece of the evening. From the downbeat of “O Fortuna” onward, it was a true sonic journey par excellence. Maestro Vallée led a beautiful rendering of a fabulous piece, with a felicitous balance of subtlety, nuance, and thrilling climaxes. The TMC was in its glory, emitting the most effulgent sounds, sounds that alternately excite and soothe the ears. The Choir was beautifully supported by the marvellous members of the TSO. Well, it was essentially the whole orchestra in a moonlighting gig.

Of the three soloists, Geoffrey Sirett tackled the lion’s share with his warm, sturdy tone, plus terrific falsetto, a rare requirement for a baritone. Soprano Lesley Emma Bouza has the purity of tone and the top — up to a high D, I believe — to do her solos justice. The third was countertenor Ryan MacDonald. Orff is not kind to the tenor, limiting his moment in the sun to a cruelly exposed “Cignus ustus cantat,” in which a swan laments his fate as a roast on the dinner table. In the wrong hands, one could almost feel the pain of the roasted swan coming out of the soloist.

Thankfully, the tenor soloists I have heard have always been up to the task, including tonight. I’ve heard it sung by a countertenor, or by a high tenor, like the phenomenal South African Sunnyboy Dladla, who sang it stunningly, and in full voice, without any hint of strain. Given a choice, I would have to say I prefer the timbre of a tenor.

The performance ended as it began, with a thrilling recap of the opening “O Fortuna.” The appreciative audience — a well attended though less than full house — gave the artists well deserved ovations. There you have it, another Carmina Feast, done. Time to count down to the next one.


Read the full review on the Ludwig Van.