The New Ears Project: New Ears Listen to the Festival of Carols

In November 2014, the TMC launched the New Ears Project—reviews of TMC concerts written by members of the community who have never been to a TMC concert before.

In December, Naomi Craig, a Toronto-based author and researcher gave us her impressions of Festival of Carols 2014.

It was our luck, and our daughter’s loss, that she couldn’t make this season’s Festival of Carols, to which she had scored a pair of tickets, in exchange for this review. While sorry for her, we were delighted to inherit the opportunity, especially since taking in another seasonal event—we had attended The People’s Church “Four Tickets to Christmas” the week before—was high on our agenda but low on our budget means.

There were three firsts for us: this was our first visit to Yorkminster Park Baptist Church, the first time we heard the Salvation Army’s Canadian Staff Band, and the first time we were privileged to hear the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir. All three were well worth the drive or subway trip, half way across the city, on one of Toronto’s colder nights, even if hubby had to meet me there, straight from work, without time to rest or recharge. And if his drab work clothes were a disappointment to my eyes upon our meet-up (he had been painting all day) the church’s welcoming opulence—though not in an over-stated way—refreshed them, with all its sparkle and shine at this time of the year, combined with the church’s classic architecture, clear glass entranceways, and yawning ceiling in the main sanctuary that reached up an easy two and a half stories.

The night started with two classic Christmas pieces–Sussex Carol and Silent Night–and the choir, dressed in tuxedo-styled black and white, was bordered on each side with what must have been 20 foot tall white lighted Christmas trees. They were accompanied only the by the organ at this point, not that we minded that. When you get to listen to a master at his art–David Briggs–you drink in every note. It took us a few minutes, looking all around to see where the pipes were, before realizing they were camouflaged behind the large arched “windows” set in the stage area’s looming back-wall design. The church’s own site tells me that the organ, donated to the church in 1928, now consists of 90 stops and 5731 pipes. And “the organ chamber housing the pipes is the largest in the city” and is one of “the finest in the city of Toronto.” No wonder it was easy to enjoy its sound.

When the Salvation Army’s Canadian Staff Band, a brass band of international calibre, met our ears with their back-of-sanctuary entrance, walking down the centre aisle one at a time, increasing in numbers, volume, and resonance as each new brass instrument joined the line, we knew we were in for more than an ordinary musical treat this night.

It was during the first audience participation carol–Hark! The Herald-Angels Sing that it happened. Goose bumps spread up and down and all over me. The sopranos hitting the high notes, at just the right high points, were superb.

The 17-year tenured choirmaster, Noel Edison, interspersed the musical selections with humorous short Christmas stories spread throughout the program—thankfully none of them off-color, which we wouldn’t have enjoyed. It’s nice to know that not everyone thinks they have to keep up with the progressive downward spiral of the morals, values, and absolutes once believed to be part of the stabilizing glue of any society, in their more classic forms.

After the break, the choir reassembled themselves up both sides of the centre sections of the sanctuary. Their 100-plus numbers had no problem filling the two aisles from front to back, even standing close. Now the second unusual musical treat of the evening commenced. All those in these sections were surrounded with soprano, alto, tenor, and bass sounds—live surround sound! And those of us in the smaller, outer sections (I sat directly behind a few aisle singers, all of whom faced inward, towards Mr. Edison, perched part way up the centre aisle) didn’t know what we were or weren’t missing out on, as they sang so close to us. Still, I would have loved to have been in the centre of all that live surround sound!

The band, the choir, and the organist all had their own opportunities to function in singular, as well as blended or partially blended with the other performers. When David Briggs graced the audience with his solo “Christmas Improvisation” later in the program, my personal second striking moment occurred. Was that chords from The Phantom I just heard, sprinkled in there? Indeed they were, and I was brought back to 1991 when we had driven from Ottawa to Toronto to take in the show that starred Colm Wilkinson’s haunting tenor voice—a sound that has stayed with me ever since—like velvet and cream and resonating riches that won’t leave the memory. Thank you David! I noted later in David’s program biography that he “frequently performs improvisations to silent films such as Phantom of the Opera, Hunchback of Notre Dame, Nosferatu, Jeanne d’Arc, and Metropolis, as well as a variety of Charlie Chaplin films.”

As an aside, while hanging around the front during break time, mostly to get a photograph of the band’s “tubular bells” instrument, that at times could take on the role of a crashing pair of cymbals (or so it seemed to me), but then, staying on to snap all sorts of other pics, I struck up conversation with a lone guest, sitting singularly in the front bleacher section of about four rows, tucked into the side wing. His spit could reach the percussionists if he wanted it to. “Was the sound better there,” I asked, thinking it hard for it to be balanced. “Oh . . . the view, the closeness,” he said, as he swept his arm outward. I discovered that his mother had sung in the Mendelssohn choir for thirty years, and he had been taking in their performances since the 70s.

Devotion. History. Quality. Commitment. Longevity.

Only seven conductors in the choir’s 120 year history.

And an ending piece so well done that it brought heaven’s worship close.

Thank you.

N. Craig is an author, researcher, and priest who would love to found a modern monastic movement. She has a deep appreciation for good music, especially if it is sung or played for the glory of God. She is also Autistic (Aspergers) and has known great giftedness in her life along with profound developmental delays. She is thankful for both—or is learning to be thankful—and also for the glory of God. Ad maiorem Dei gloriam