The Meaning of Christmas

Review by Ken Stephen, Large Stage Live!
Dec 3, 2021

As the second live-performance program since the lifting of pandemic restrictions, the annual Festival of Carols from the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir shared music of rejoicing, music that has highlighted Christmas celebrations for centuries, and modern contributions to the Christmas festival.
At the same time, the Choir honoured its more recent tradition of challenging us, demanding that we rethink these annual festivities, and look deeper into the meaning and significance of the traditional story of Christ’s birth.
Within the restrictions of an 80-minute programme with no intermission, the Choir’s Music Director, Jean-Sébastien Vallée, presented a diverse repertoire more than capable of achieving all of these ends. The only “casualty” was the necessary elimination of the traditional Christmas-carol singalong portion of the evening (but see below).
Right there is a good place to consider the significance of the event. Carol singing has spread to multiple regions of the world, and multiple languages, and the music of carols has grown into a rich blend, embracing the gamut from sophisticated art music to simple folk-song. Always, though, the tradition of mass song, of music in which all can join and raise their voices, has been at the heart of carols.
It is just this tradition of mass song and celebration which was one of the most-missed absentees during the Christmas season last year. The mere fact that this year’s concert similarly has had to set it aside says much about the need, at Christmas, for us to renew our consideration for the needs and well-being of others, especially of those less fortunate than ourselves. This theme emerged out of several of the selections on the programme.
The greatest delight of the evening was a complete performance of the ravishingly beautiful Lauda per la Natività del Signore by Ottorino Respighi. Knowing Respighi’s reputation as a master colourist of the orchestra, one might expect a majestic and powerful musical experience. But the Lauda is a polar opposite to the composer’s massive tone poems, using only a piano and a sextet of wind instruments — two flutes, oboe, English horn, and two bassoons — to support the choir and three soloists. The result has a lyrical flow, delicacy, restraint, and lightness of touch that place it in a world all its own. And it definitely deserves much wider circulation!