Review of Sacred Music for a Sacred Space 2022

Ken Stephen
Large Stage Live!
April 21, 2022

The Good Friday concert, Sacred Music For a Sacred Space, given by the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir and the Nathaniel Dett Chorale, presented an unusual and even dramatic instance of how a long-planned live concert or performance can be overtaken by the march of current events.
This concert was planned last year, around the intention to present the complete All-Night Vigil, Op. 37 by Sergei Rachmaninoff, as the centrepiece and major offering. But now, in recent weeks, we are faced with the invasion of Russia by Ukraine.
Demands to alter the programme so as not to present “Russian music,” if any such demands had been presented, have fortunately been ignored. And the issue has been addressed in the programme notes by pointing out firmly that the art, music, and creativity of the Russian people, especially in the past, are certainly not invalidated by the actions of the current regime. I agree.
More to the point, we as humans have learned absolutely nothing from the events of the last century if we again allow knee-jerk hate to govern our reaction to these events with demands to purge everything “Russian” out of our sight and hearing.
And with that, let’s get on to the significance of the actual programme, which is in danger of being overshadowed by this issue. The thread which ties this entire concert together is the conception of music which, because of its religious connotations, represents a source of strength and comfort to which people can turn in times of trouble and thankfulness alike.
Not least of the significance here was the inspired decision to present the concert in collaboration with the Nathaniel Dett Chorale, a Toronto-based choir which specializes in performing music from African traditions, particularly the music of the African diaspora communities in North America. Under the leadership of their Music Director, D. Brainerd Blyden-Taylor, the combined choirs opened the programme with a group of five pieces rising from the tradition of the spirituals, the intensely moving music evolved in oral tradition in the slave communities of North America during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. As Blyden-Taylor explained in his spoken introduction, slavery in the traditional sense may have ended but spirituals continue to be sung because the needs which inspired them have not been cleared away from our societies today.
Next we came to the major offering: the All-Night Vigil…..  The entire work was sung in this performance in the original Church Slavonic text, an ancient liturgical language of both the Orthodox and Catholic Churches.
Throughout the entire work, Simon Rivard led the choral forces in exploring all the power and inward intensity of the music. The very opening, Priidite poklonimsia exploded in an ecstatic outburst of sound, while the second movement, Blagoslovi, dushe moya brought the most gentle of murmurs from the choir, underlying the serene voice of mezzo-soprano soloist Rebecca Claborn. This in turn was followed by the beauty of the repeated cries of Alliluiya in the third movement — each time clearly enunciated as written, as a five-syllable word.
And so it went throughout the entire cycle, moments of peace and inward reflection alternating with explosions of joy, expressions of awe and serenity contrasted with divine power and glory.
Read the full review.