The Mighty Rhino Reviews the TMC’s Mozart and Haydn performance

It’s a great pleasure to have been chosen to review the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir’s 120th  Anniversary concert. Being a relative newcomer to the appreciation of what we call “classical music,” with next to no understanding of the history of the art form or its various nuances, your correspondent found the sheer scope and scale of the undertaking amazing to witness—hundreds of choristers and instrumentalists decked out in tails and ties, Koerner Hall’s exceptional acoustics letting the dozens of voices reverberate through the building and wash over the audience like ocean waves. But any sharp critic or perceptive observer will know the difference between “big” and “great,” and the TMC’s performance of Mozart’s Requiem and Haydn’s Lord Nelson Mass was absolutely and thoroughly both.

Let’s start with the material itself: your correspondent had no real idea how widely revered and beloved the Mozart piece in particular is known to be, nor of the peculiar circumstances of its maker’s passing, but the piece is a humdinger, a sprawling, exquisite paean to and prayer for the fallen, delving as artwork of the time was wont to do into the specifics of the story of Jesus Christ, his incarnation and redemptive death for the sins of the world. Consider, as a lone example among many, a passage like this:

The trumpet will send its wondrous sound, throughout earth’s sepulchers, and gather all before the throne. Death and nature will be astounded when all creation rises again, to answer the judgement. A book will be brought forth, in which all will be written, by which the world will be judged! When the Judge takes his place, what is hidden will be revealed, [and] nothing will remain unavenged. What shall a wretch like me say? Who shall intercede for me, when the just ones need mercy?

There will inevitably be those observers to whom even a moment’s focus upon such a nakedly and unabashedly authoritarian vision reads as stupid, garish, and anachronistic; the reasons for that are numerous and grounded in a perfectly sensible logic of their own. That said, whatever one’s outlook on the supernatural implications of the liturgical material being sung, it’s still rather an extraordinary thing to think back and realize what an amazing twist of fate it is to bear witness to the performance of a work of art so enduringly resonant that an audience of hundreds, far removed from its social and historical context, could find themselves delighted and enthralled by it a full 323 years after it was first conceived, long ago and far away. But there it is: roiling emotions, stark theological drama, a passion play in the rawest sense, presented unadorned but for the gorgeous tones of the voices singing it. Even in a society whose mores have shifted in favour of a secular public square, and in which so thoroughly attenuated a vision of the God-concept and humanity’s relationship to it has been normative for many decades now, so powerful and beautiful an expression of human longing and terror in the face of the cosmos is an extraordinary thing, and rather a privilege, to find oneself before on an autumn Tuesday evening.

The Lord Nelson Mass is engaging and mesmerizing on just the same level and to the same degree. Sitting in the audience, alternately dazzled, becalmed and finding his heart shooting up into his throat, your correspondent was reminded of a half-remembered theological concept that had been introduced to him in the Judaism of his youth—“holiness in time,” the famous descriptor employed for the Sabbath by the philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel to justify the institution of the Sabbath. In ever busier, more hectic times, with postmodern disaffection and atomization nigh-inescapable for all but the hardiest souls, sitting in a concert hall and listening to pieces like this feels like a very special and distinctive opportunity to commune with the ghosts and angels of history, people and events gone before us; not just the seeming anachronism of the hyper-theistic worldview the pieces express but the grand pageantry of the presentation, with soloists resplendent in gorgeously flamboyant dress, and of the simple wide-eyed passion of the emotions being dealt with and their soaringly emotive delivery alike.

It’s not difficult to understand why even longstanding and tremendously accomplished choirs like the TMC occasionally worry about how to appeal to new generations of patrons; classical music is pigeonholed in the culture as a niche pursuit with an aged, lily-white target audience. But the labels are largely unfair, and with performances this inspired and beautifully put together, it’s hard not to have hope for the future. Soprano Lesley Bouza in particular was something special—all wild hair and glittering jewelry, singing out in tones that the maestros of old would fall all over themselves to hear. The word “angelic,” however tired and overused, springs to mind and to life at the sound of her voice—she’s a bona fide rockstar, brimming with charisma, and her performance frequently hit heights of sublime beauty that felt unique and special to the evening, even given the inherent gravitas and emotional heft of the material. The other soloists—mezzo-soprano Anita Krause, resplendent in blue, along with tenor Charles Davidson and the delightfully sonorous bass-baritone, Sean Watson, the latter making his debut performance with the choir—joined with her to make a fine ensemble, but she couldn’t help but shine brightest. She brought home the power and grandeur of these pieces with aplomb. And they were worthy of her—challenging, engrossing, magisterial, altogether befitting of the extraordinary accomplishment, the human endeavour across time and space, of the Choir’s hundred and twenty years. It was a genuine honour to be a participant, however insignificant, in so meaningful and so sacred an act of witness. My one humble wish is that, in the years ahead, whatever challenges are brought forth for the Choir and its patrons to face amidst the ceaseless vexations of the world, that we all recognize the supreme and wondrous gift that evenings like this one afford us, and do what we can to treasure them. I know I will, and I thank the Choir for giving me one such opportunity that night.

Noah Goodbaum is a writer and musician in Toronto whose work as a hip-hop artist under the name The Mighty Rhino has earned him nominations at the International Songwriting Competition and the Toronto Independent Music Awards. His writings on politics can be read at revolvearoundscience.wordpress.com, and his music is available at themightyrhino.bandcamp.com.
Photo of Noah Goodbaum wearing a white jacket and hat.

Noah Goodbaum

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