Review of The Pilgrim’s Way

Ken Stephen
Large Stage Live!
October 3, 2022

The versatility of the renowned Toronto Mendelssohn Choir was on display in a new format at the season-opening concert on Saturday night.
This first performance featured 23 voices of the Toronto Mendelssohn Singers, the professional core group of the larger symphonic choir.
For this concert, the Singers moved to Jeanne Lamon Hall in the Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre, a much friendlier acoustic environment for this smaller group of artists.
The major work on this concert was Path of Miracles, by Joby Talbot. This hour-long work absolutely defies classification. It’s neither oratorio nor cantata, neither narrative nor meditative. Perhaps it could best be called a “musical experience.” which invites the hearer into a level of participation in the actual pilgrimage along the Camino de Santiago in Catalonia and Galicia.
Talbot’s music is already familiar to followers of the National Ballet of Canada from his full-length scores for the story ballets Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and The Winter’s Tale. Here, Talbot’s wide-ranging and eclectic musical language takes us into a different realm altogether, with the pared-down sounds of unaccompanied voices (and sparing use of chimes and bells) creating fascinating and complex textures in place of the sparkling orchestration of the ballet scores. Certain features, like melodic and rhythmic ostinati, missing or added beats,upbeat jazzy rhythms, and diverse tempi are used here as well, but to startlingly different effect.
Talbot’s score casually tosses all kinds of technical challenges at the singers and the conductor. The Toronto Mendelssohn Singers under music director Jean-Sébastien Vallée triumphantly welded this sprawling array of elements into a gripping, unifying whole. And make no mistake, this remarkable work did indeed bring the entire audience along on the journey, right from the staged opening in which the basses and tenors grouped in a circle around the director, until they were joined by the sopranos and altos singing at the rear of the hall. That was only one of a number of simple but evocative staging effects integrated into the performance of Path of Miracles.
The sheer drawing power of the piece became abundantly clear at the conclusion when the final bars repeated ad infinitum while the singers and conductor slowly recessed down the central aisle and out the back of the hall, their voices fading slowly away into the distance while the audience sat in rapt silence, straining to hear the voices as they reached the vanishing point.
The three works which opened the programme were by no means also-rans. Diedre Robinson’s arrangement of the spiritual Steal Away, which could better be called a recomposition, presented aptly beautiful tone and phrasing, marred only by one or two individual voices which came searing through on high notes.
The Choir’s Composer-in-Residence, Shireen Abu-Khader, provided the heart-achingly sorrowful and gripping I Forgive. It’s a setting of a last letter written by Egyptian activist Sarah Hejazi before PTSD arising from torture drove her to take her own life in 2020. Mezzo-soprano soloist Raneem Barakat memorably captured the anguish of Hejazi in phrases which often seemed to float in the near neighbourhood of the choral harmonies, rather than landing distinctly within any one chord.
Then came Elgar’s Lux aeterna, although that title is misleading. John Cameron set the words of the Latin antiphon from the requiem mass to the music of the Nimrod variation from Elgar’s famous Enigma Variations. Elgar himself did set the music with a poetic text in his late work, The Music Makers, although he did not use this Latin text.
As for the piece itself, it seemed rather out of place among its companions. Although the thematic relationship was unmistakable, the music itself struck me as rather too conventional and backward-looking in such adventurous company.
The near-capacity audience responded with rapturous applause and cheers at the end of the programme with that gently fading conclusion of Talbot’s Path of Miracles. This remarkable musical and personal journey of this entire concert will, I think, resonate long in the minds of artists and audience alike.
Read the full review on Large Stage Live!