Saturday night saw the inaugural concert of the Toronto Mendelssohn Singers; the professional core of the much larger Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, at Trinity St. Paul’s with Jean-Sébastien Vallée conducting. There were four pieces on the programme; one very substantial and three shorter works. Things kicked off with a pleasant but essentially conventional arrangement by Dierdre Robinson of Steal Away. This was followed by an Arabic piece by composer-in-residence Shireen Abu-Khader called I Forgive where the choir was joined by soloist Raneem Barakat. This dealt with the short life and death of Egyptian LGBTQ activist Sarah Hegazi and was rather beautiful with intriguing Arab influences especially in the solo part. Then came Elgar’s Lux Aeterna arranged for choir by John Cameron.
Much the most substantial piece on the programme was Joby Talbot’s Path of Miracles which deals from multiple angles with the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. It’s an extremely complex piece with text in multiple languages and very involved polyphony. Grossly over simplifying it alternates passages of recitative like material, usually for one voice, with really dense treatments of short passages of text; usually in Latin. It deals with James’ death and the translation of his relics to Compostela and with the [physical and spiritual nature of the traditional pilgrimage seen, perhaps, from the perspective of the 14th century.
The performance was very, very skilful but I had a mixed reaction to it. I think part of the problem is that I went with the conductor’s suggestion to follow the text in the on-line programme. This was frustrating because there were long passages where the words were completely lost in the complexity of Talbot’s polyphony and the notoriously word swallowing acoustic of the hall. My companions ignored the text and enjoyed the piece much more than I did so perhaps I’d have done better to treat it as a purely sonic experience!
My grumpiness aside (and I’d also plead sleep deprivation after a ludicrously late night at Koerner the night before) I was really impressed with the capabilities of this choir and look forward to seeing them again.
Photo credits: Taylor Long