Singing through Centuries celebrates 125 years of the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir!

Dave Richards, Toronto Concert Reviews 

The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir turned its fall concert into a gala celebration yesterday. With the help of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and sublime, diverse music of exaltation, it celebrated the 125th anniversary of its founding in 1894. An extensive social media campaign no doubt boosted ticket sales resulting in a full house at the Royal Conservatory’s Koerner Hall

Invited guests included The Honourable Elizabeth Dowdeswell, Lieutenant Governor of Ontario; Jessie Iseler, widow of the late Elmer Iseler, TMC’s 6th conductor for 33 years; and Michael Fricker, the grandson of the choir’s second conductor, Herbert Fricker.

Interim Artistic Director David Fallis curated a magnificent program entitled Singing through the Centuries, a homage to the longevity of the Choir’s musical excellence. At his creative best, Fallis found works that not only showcased the music of three centuries, but also found music that uplifted the human spirit, including a newly commissioned piece by Cree-descended composer Andrew Balfour.

Although most people may think of Felix Mendelssohn as an instrumental composer, his celebrity among English choral societies during the nineteenth century made him an obvious choice to be honoured in the naming of the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir. Indeed, the choir in 1894 under Augustus Vogt was begun in the spirit of British choral traditions. It soon became the champion of choral music in Toronto and has remained in that place of high esteem throughout its existence.

The concert went from one extraordinary moment to another. Following intermission, the choir and string orchestra (violas, cellos and double basses) premièred Andrew Balfour’s Mama chimowin, a setting of Psalm 67 in the Cree language. The work explores the difficult relationship between indigenous spirituality and Christian culture. Beginning with whispers that gradually grew into mutterings, the cellos took over with a haunting theme followed by violas over a repeated bass figure. The minor tonality with rich dissonances in the choir was interspersed with the chattering, adding to the tension. It was as if there was deep suspicion and uncertainty in the new religion. Balfour is a name to remember among Canadian composers. His commissions have included works for the Toronto and Winnipeg Symphony Orchestras and a newly commissioned Indigenous opera. He has been commissioned by Tafelmusik for this season. Hopefully Mama chimowin will be heard again soon.

Read the full review online.