Toronto Mendelssohn Choir: Canada’s Oldest Choir Celebrates 125 Years

Denise Lai, La Scena Musicale

Founded in 1894, the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir (TMC) is Canada’s oldest choir. It performed its first concert at the inaugural season of Massey Hall in January 1895. John McCrae, who famously penned the war memorial poem “In Flanders Fields,” was in attendance. Throughout its long history, the TMC has been served by eight artistic directors. Since 2018, David Fallis has been its interim conductor, and the choir undertakes an international search for an artistic director to take the helm in 2020-21.

The choir consists of a professional core of about 20 and has its own concert series featuring a broad range of repertoire, including commissions from Canadian composers. It frequently performs with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. The annual TSO/TMC performances of Handel’s Messiah have been a longstanding holiday tradition.

The TMC performed in the opening concerts of Roy Thomson Hall (1982) and Koerner Hall (2009), two important Toronto venues. Other notable moments in the choir’s history include singing at the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal and the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. The choir has embarked on several tours of Canada, the United States and Europe. In 1995, it received the Lieutenant Governor’s Award for the Arts. Its recordings, many made with the TSO, have received Grammy and Juno nominations.

The choir has a huge following of dedicated members. Many stay for decades, with 50 years being the longest record of service. This season the choir has 114 members ranging in age from 18 to 75. Forty percent are under 35, and a similar percentage have sung in the choir for 10 years or more.

Now in his 45th year in the TMC, Daniel Parkinson is the longest-serving chorister. He recalls when the choir used to be 160 voices strong, and says he learned a great deal from Elmer Iseler and Noel Edison, the two artistic directors he has worked with. He does not tire of Messiah because “every conductor brings a different style” to the masterpiece. Parkinson now coordinates Singsation Saturdays, an outreach program that offers participants an opportunity to sing in a large choir under many different conductors and experience a wide range of music. Participants are as eclectic as the conductors and musical genres. Besides classical choral masterpieces, Singsation Saturdays have featured opera, Gilbert & Sullivan, gospel, jazz, barbershop, Latin, Indian and Jewish music, as well as Canadian works.

The TMC has an associate conductor program designed to provide talented conductors at an early stage in their career with coaching, training and mentoring while they provide the TMC with conducting support. Since its inception in 2011, there have been four associate conductors, each holding the position for two years.

Another initiative is the TMC apprentice program for experienced choristers aged 17 to 22. In addition to receiving full subsidy of the cost to join the choir, apprentices are mentored by an experienced TMC chorister and receive four coaching sessions per year by a qualified instructor. One such apprentice, IJ Sison, joined the program three years ago in his final year of high school, after attending a TSO/TMC Messiah. “Even though I have sung in school and church choirs almost all my life, being in the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir is my very first experience singing at this high calibre,” said Sison. His TMC experience led him to choose music as a career—he is now in his third year at York University, double-majoring in Music (voice) and Theatre.

Read the full article online, including reminiscences from some well-known Choir alumni.