Here’s some good news for a change: there’s a new professional chamber choir in Toronto, the city that barely has any, and none independent from larger arts organizations. Meet the Toronto Mendelssohn Singers, the new 24-member chamber choir within the larger Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, now forging its own path, mostly by way of contemporary music and commissions.
Why do we love Mendelssohn’s Elijah? For many conductors, performers and listeners, it is the perfect oratorio, combining all the dramatic musical elements required to bring this colourful story to life.
A more puzzling question is why do we love this character, Elijah? In the oratorio’s opening scene, the cantankerous prophet bursts into ominous incantation, pre-empting the overture with a curse. He condemns his people to drought and famine to force their allegiance to Jehovah, and then massacres the prophets of Baal at Kishon’s brook to ensure his rival cult will never rise again. But unlike other bad boy baritones (like Scarpia) or terrible tenors (like Pinkerton) or murderous mezzos (like Clytemnestra), we have sympathy for Elijah, thanks to librettist Julius Schubring’s careful management of Biblically inspired text. Elijah’s fiery, public character is balanced with his gentler, private self, with intimate scenes of tender compassion toward a widow and her child, his humble loyalty to his people, and his gratitude. Ultimately, in his own emotional wilderness scene, he confronts his self-doubt and contemplates suicide. He is saved by a group of angels who sing “Lift thine eyes to the mountains.”
I recently bumped into violinist Larry Beckwith, Artistic Producer of Confluence Concerts, who told me he had an idea for a choral story. We were at New Music Concerts’ tribute evening, at Longboat Hall, honouring NMC’s founding artistic director, flutist Robert Aitken who has just stepped aside after 50 extraordinary years. Beckwith’s story idea was, however, for someone else who put in 50 years service to our musical scene, transforming it as he went!
This May, Beckwith reminded me, is the 20th anniversary of Nicholas (Niki) Goldschmidt’s third, and most triumphant, Toronto International Choral Festival, titled “The Joy of Singing (in the Noise of the World).” As Dawn Lyons described it in our May 2002 cover story, the festival was designed, with typical Goldschmidtian understatement, “to fill May 31 to June 22 with choral music from across Canada and around the world.” (“Fill” is no exaggeration: audiences aside, there would end up being over 1,000 active participants in the event! By 2002, the 94-year-old Goldschmidt (born in Austro-Hungary in 1908) was without equal in the art of organizing a really festive festival!
He had arrived in Toronto in 1946, invited to head up the University of Toronto’s new opera school, the first in the country. He was astounded by the talent he found waiting for him on the first day he walked into the Conservatory. “Soon he needed a marketplace to display his fine crop of young Canadian singers,” Dawn Lyons wrote, “a place for them to see, hear, work with and take their measure against singers from around the world.” The Goldschmidt solution? Found the Canadian Opera Company! “It was the beginning of 50 years of creating what we would now call cultural infrastructure…” Lyons wrote: “If the word festival is in the title, and the program bulges with acknowledgment of partnerships, look for Niki in the credits.”
It might as well be spring
The WholeNote has been keeping track of the (mostly southern) Ontario choral scene for almost exactly 20 years, and during that time Ontario choirs have followed a predictable winter-to-spring ritual as predictable as swallows to Capistrano. December brings holiday fare, then it’s down to serious business. Choirs gear up over the course of the spring for one last big performance for the season, often involving their most ambitious or at least newest repertoire. After which, by early June at the latest, the choral tents get folded, the slightly more dog-eared scores get carefully stored, and it’s hugs all round and fond farewells until the fall.
As a small part of that predictable ritual, for over two decades, dozens and dozens of Ontario choirs have signed up for The WholeNote’s annual “Canary Pages Directory of Choirs.” First published in May 2003 as our ”Focus on the Choral Scene,” including just over one hundred choirs, it became an annual feature of our May print edition, eventually expanding to include year-round updates on our website. Almost immediately, choirs started using it to describe themselves to prospective choristers: the repertoire they like, where and and how often they rehearse; audition requirements if any, and how often they perform. It became like an annual snapshot of the choral community gathered together – a reminder of how the choral community is more than the sum of its parts.
A reliable spring ritual: that is, until COVID struck, and choral music was the first casualty, going from the euphoria of drawing collective breath and turning it into music into bewildered masked isolation when the air breathed to sing together became lethal.
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.