Understanding what a choir needs: Introducing Jean-Sébastien Vallée

David Perlman, The Wholenote
November 2021

I recently connected, twice, with the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir’s recently appointed artistic director, Jean-Sébastien Vallée (the eighth conductor in the choir’s 127-year history). The first time was on September 20, when I visited a TMC rehearsal; the second on October 4, for a chat in The WholeNote office. Both visits were on Mondays, because, at time of writing anyway, Mondays are Vallée’s only Toronto day. In a typical week, both his choral and his environmental footprint grow – flying between home-base Montreal (where he is music director of the renowned Choir of the Church of St. Andrew and St. Paul, and teaches at McGill’s Schulich School of Music), Ottawa (where he conducts the all-amateur Ottawa Choral Society), and now Toronto.

The two works being rehearsed, with all choristers masked, were Brahms’ Ein deutsches Requiem and Nathaniel Dett’s The Chariot Jubilee. At this particular rehearsal it was the Brahms that received the lion’s share of attention, which worked well for me, because the work is a member-in-good-standing of the “great classical masterworks of the world” fraternity, and therefore familiar to both choir and conductor. So the rehearsal was a more nuanced affair than grappling with a new piece for the first time would likely have been — and therefore more of an opportunity to get some early hints of the things Vallée cares about most as a conductor. Passion anchored in practicality would be one way to describe what I saw and heard: an insistence on clarity of articulation and phrasing so the music always serves the work’s narrative arc.

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