SCRUTINY | Toronto Mendelssohn Choir’s Festival of Carols Offers Unbridled Joy In Fabulous Acoustics

Joseph So
Ludwig Van
December 7, 2022

It’s a well-established scientific fact: music makes us feel good.

Our brain reacts to a favourite song by releasing the hormone dopamine, which has an immediate and positive effect on our mood. At this time of year, among the melodies we hear when we’re out and about doing our daily chores may well be a Christmas carol or two. With Scrooge as an exception, these familiar tunes stimulate the pleasure centres of our brain — fast tempi energize us, while adagio songs relax us and help us cope with the stresses of daily life.

When these carols are sung by a choral group as fine as the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, it’s a decidedly pleasurable experience, one that many Canadians, Christian or otherwise, enjoy. That explains the very large turnout at last evening’s Festival of Carols put on by the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir at the Yorkminster Park Baptist Church in midtown Toronto.

An annual in-person event that sadly had to be cancelled the past two seasons due to the pandemic, it is back once again for two performances, last evening and again tonight. Led by TMC’s Artistic Director Jean-Sébastien Vallée, it was a 100-minute program of old favourites and new works, including a TMC-commissioned world premiere. Yorkminster is a huge church. While it wasn’t totally full, the turnout was sizable.

Though I was there because of a media assignment, I felt it was best to just hang up my critic’s hat and just let the pleasure centre of my brain take over, to enjoy the evening as an audience member. To be honest, how does one “review” an evening of carol singing anyway? Other than to just relax and savour the experience? It is something that appeals to the heart rather than to the head. An evening of carols is decidedly not an intellectual exercise!

The program, arranged in six sections, consisted of relatively few selections of chestnuts, hymns that we’ve known all our lives. Rather, the bulk of the programming was devoted to the much less familiar works by contemporary composers. For tradition-bound music lovers — fear not, as all the pieces are tonal and accessible, some harken back to the stylistic past, and all in one way or another full of melodies that touches the heart.

Of particular interest was the premiere of the TMC-commissioned Heartbeat, by Composer-in-Residence Dr. Shireen Abu-Khader. She explains its genesis in the program: “The starting point for composing this carol stemmed from asking the question, “Why do all beautiful Christmas carols that the world knows not match the soundscape of the actual birth of Christ — Bethlehem?”” To that end, she quotes the musical styles of Byzantine chants and Greek melodies, intertwined with her own creations, all in praise of children and motherhood.

Equally enjoyable was the other piece that received its Canadian premiere, O Nata Lux by Haitian composer Christopher Ducasse. Completely traditional in style and melodically inspired, it was an unalloyed pleasure. The TMC forces, together with the organ playing of Isabelle Demers, sounded ravishing in the fabulous acoustics of the Yorkminster Church. Through it all, TMC Artistic Director Jean-Sebastien Vallée led his forces with unbridled joy and energy.

For those in the audience where an evening of carols is incomplete without some singalong, they got to exercise their vocal cords to the strains of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” “Silent Night,” “O Come All Ye Faithful” and “Joy to the World.” Judging by the many smiling faces I saw leaving the Church at the end of a very fleeting 100 minutes, it’s safe to say they enjoyed themselves. I most certainly did.

The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir’s Festival of Song continues Wednesday, Dec. 7. If you cannot make this evening, the concert is available for listening online until the end of December.


Read the full review on Ludwig Van.