With a Song in our Hearts

Ken Stephen, Large Stage Live
November 4, 2021

With the coming of November, the first performing arts season in nearly two years is getting under way. Arts organizations are finally planning live audience performances, and audiences are buying tickets and preparing to return to a whole world of beauty, excitement, and involvement that had seemed lost to us.
As luck would have it, my first live experience of the season happens to be with the dean of performing arts organizations in Toronto: the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir.  Founded in 1894, the Choir is still going strong and, if anything, is stronger now than ever. In recent years, the only events with this Choir which I’ve attended have been when the Choir appeared as guest artists with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.  It seems fitting, therefore, that this first return to the live stage after the pandemic should have featured a chamber ensemble drawn from the Orchestra as the guest artists of the Mendelssohn Choir.
It was a night of considerable excitement for another reason: the first public appearance of the Choir under its newly-appointed Artistic Director, Jean-Sébastien Vallée.
This performance of The Chariot Jubilee began with a radiant, deeply-felt, unaccompanied performance of the spiritual Swing Low, Sweet Chariot by soprano Jonelle Sills.  Upon her final note, the orchestra stole in quietly with an evocative instrumental prelude.  After several minutes the choir, and soloist joined in again.  Much of the music was written in a lyrical idiom which fitted the tone of the spiritual, and of the text written and compiled by Dett himself.  Contrast came from two faster episodes, one somewhat dramatic, and the other definitely dance-like in character. The spiritual was then developed in an extended passage with interesting modulations, and the work ended with a quick, exhilarating final coda crowned by Sills’ soaring voice rising above the choir.
Music Director Jean-Sébastien Vallée held the performance firmly together throughout Dett’s oratorio, no mean achievement in an episodic score which keeps changing its character and tempo, sometimes very frequently.  The choir gave the music a splendid reading, radiant in the quiet passages and energetic in the faster music — particularly in that dance episode.
The main offering of the concert, Ein Deutsches Requiem, Op. 45 by Johannes Brahms, is too well known to require detailed commentary from me.  The chamber orchestra arrangement used here was created in 2010 by Joachim Linckelmann, and was previously unknown to me.
Music Director Jean-Sébastien Vallée led what could largely be considered a “central” performance of this masterpiece, avoiding either fast or slow extremes of tempo.  The gear shifts within movements were all handled with care and precision, and (in the sixth movement) without drawing undue attention to the fact that the shifts are occurring. The more lyrical fourth and fifth movements were especially notable for a fluidity and ease of motion which is by no means the rule.
Read the full review here.