Toronto Mendelssohn Choir inspired by new venue for Sacred Music in a Sacred Space

David Richards, Toronto Concert Reviews

The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir found a new venue for its annual concerts for Holy Week,Sacred Music for a Sacred Space. The new location, St. Anne’s Anglican Church, has a beautiful Byzantine style structure that dates to 1907 with interior decoration and paintings completed by J.E.H MacDonald and other members of the Group of Seven. Before the concert began many of the early birds in the audience were out of their seats getting closer looks and photos of the iconography on the walls and ceilings The symmetrical shape and the domed ceilings gave a warm acoustic without the excessive decay of Gothic styled churches. The setting was clearly one of Interim Conductor and Artistic Advisor David Fallis’s inspirations for the program.​

The first half of the program was clearly designed to set the tone for a meditative experience. Two reflective motets by French composers opened the concert. The first was Olivier Messiaen’s O sacrum convivium. Rich chromatic harmonies underlined the compelling text inviting the listener to the communion experience. The repetition of the word “sacrum” was at the heart of the music. The second motet, Francis Poulenc’s Salve Regina is a simple prayer to the Virgin Mary. Once again, the music in a minor mode clearly expressed the meditative sense of the text.

The first half concluded with Frank Martin’s Mass for Double Choir, the composer’s most important choral work. The contrapuntal opening with smooth melismatic singing carried on the spirit of the opening two motets. The climactic ‘Hosanna in excelsis’ was especially moving and the following ‘Agnus Dei’ captured the message of peace in a sinful world in the rich harmonic texture of the music. The Mendelssohn Singers, a reduced group of about sixty singers, performed each of these works with clarity, beautiful tone and excellent diction.

The full Toronto Mendelssohn Choir emerged in the second half of the concert. The sound filled the church with music from Eastern Europe. What glorious sounds! First came Zoltán Kodaly’s dramatic Jesus and the Traders, an stirring setting of the Gospel story with Kodaly’s idiomatic folk-derived melodies, parallel harmonies and massive climaxes. It was followed by Russian Orthodox church music in settings of The Cherubic Hymn by Sergei Rachmaninoff and Krzysztof Penderecki. The flowing harmonies of the Rachmaninoff, conducted capably by Associate Conductor Ezra Burke, was followed by the more discordant Penderecki version. Next was another Russian motet, Alfred Schnittke’s Complete This Work Which I Began. The rich, dark sounds with the deep bass voices created a fitting grandeur. All three Russian motets were sung in Church Slavonic language. All that was missing were the candles and incense.

This was an ambitious program of challenging a capella music with difficult harmonies, wide vocal leaps and extreme range of expression for both men and women. The choir handled it all. David Fallis is to be congratulated for putting together such a thoughtful collection of beautiful music that  completely suited both the special day and the special space of St. Anne’s.

Read the full review here.