As a choral singer, I tend to think of December as the busiest choral month of the year, with Christmas carol and oratorio concerts piling up on one another in a vocal cavalcade of seasonal enthusiasm. But surveying the wealth of music choices available to Southern Ontario concertgoers this November, I may be forced to reconsider this view.
On November 11, Remembrance Day, the Toronto Symphony will perform Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, with the participation of the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir and Toronto Children’s Chorus. Alternating texts from the Latin Mass for the Dead with the bleak texts of war poet Wilfred Owen, killed in WWI, Britten combined the composer’s ancient task of “setting the mass” with the modern artist’s responsibility of bearing witness to the horrors and injustices of his time. The result was a composition that remains unsettling, in the midst of a world that has clearly not yet learned the lessons of the 20th-century’s many conflicts.
The War Requiem is hardly the only larger-scale work in the classical repertoire taking place in Southern Ontario this month. The Oakville Chorus and Orchestra are performing Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 and Schubert’s Mass in G (November 14). Marking the 300th anniversary of Haydn’s Death, Chorus Niagara is singing The Creation in Grimsby and St. Catharines (November 7 and 8), the Aradia Ensemble is performing the Lord Nelson Mass (November 27) at the Glenn Gould Studio, and the Karen Schuessler Singers are singing the Lord Nelson Mass on November 21. Orchestra London Canada performs Fauré’s Requiem on November 11, and the Kingston Symphony Orchestra will assay Brahms’ German Requiem on November 22.
Ouch, ow, oy – the Brahms Requiem. I recently sat in on a rehearsal, for another group, of this amazing work, with its Bach-inspired fugues combined with late 19th-century chromatic harmonies. In the parlance of the choral world, the Brahms Requiem is what is known as a “voice-shredder,” and I salute any group of singers brave enough to take it on.
Speaking of Bach, aficionados can get their “J.S. fix” in all-Bach programmes: the Elora Festival Singers’ “Magnificent Motets – Music of Bach” (November 15, Elora), and the Tallis Choir’s “Bach: Mass of Christmas”(November 28).
Choral Gospel music is also well represented this month in concerts by two groups: the Toronto Mass Choir (November 21), and the York U Gospel Choir (November 27). Toronto’s Afrocentric specialists, the Nathaniel Dett Chorale, present a concert at Glenn Gould Studio on November 4, and then team up with the Hannaford Street Silver Band on November 8.
There are two notable choral concerts this month that coincide with CD releases of music by Canadian composers. The Lamentatio Jeremiae Prophetae (Lamentations of the Prophet Jeremiah), is originally a stern and austere Hebrew text that was adapted by the Catholic Church for use in the Tenebrae Holy Week service, and it has been set by composers from William Bird to Ernst Krenek. Ontario-born East Coast composer Peter-Anthony Togni weighs in with his own setting in a recording and performance by the Elmer Iseler Singers (November 14). In the same weekend, the St. Mary Magdalene’s Gallery Choir will launch their new CD of music by Healey Willan. “St. Mary Mag” was of course Willan’s church, and the choral tradition that he founded there continues to thrive. The CD will include three Willan compositions that have never been recorded, and the price of admission not only covers the concert and CD, but a sherry reception as well. This strikes me as a civilized custom – Willan would have approved.
Just as Christmas paraphernalia is appearing in stores many weeks before the month of December, so Christmas-themed concerts are edging into Advent season. The Burlington Civic Chorale is doing a programme that includes Britten’s wonderful Ceremony of Carols and Vivaldi’s Magnificat (November 28). In Toronto, on the same day, there will be a tough choice between the Toronto Sinfonietta’s Christmas programme, and that of the Toronto Welsh Male Voice Choir – but the second group repeats their concert on December 2. The Oakville Children’s Choir nicely titled “Snowflakes, Songs and Stars” takes place on December 4-5. And these are just a few of many.
We now come to performances of Handel’s Messiah. First out of the gate is are Georgetown Bach Chorale and the Durham Community Choir (22 November). Après Durham, le déluge: Messiah offerings include the Mississauga Choral Society, Oakville Chamber Ensemble, Vocal Horizons Chamber Choir, and the Elmer Iseler Singers, all on November 29; the Brantford Symphony Orchestra with the Grand River Chorus, and the Grand Philharmonic Choir in Kitchener, both on December 5.
Why is there such appetite for this work around this time of year, even though it is technically an Easter oratorio rather than a Christmas composition? Better and more well-informed minds than mine may ponder this. I’ll content myself by raising an issue of equal or perhaps greater import, especially in Messiah-mad Southern Ontario: is it not time that we have a designation that we can give to plural Messiah performances?
Just as we have pods of Dolphins, flamboyances of Flamingos and charms of Hummingbirds, should we not group multiple Messiah concerts in a trenchant and evocative manner? Indeed we should, so get ready for a “heavenly host” of Messiahs. No? How about a “glorious company” of Messiahs? A “furious rage”? A “sundered bond”? A “sounding trumpet” of Messiahs? An “exalted valley” of – oh, never mind. I admit the last few are a stretch. Anyhow, you get the idea. Enjoy the terrific range of music this November, and get ready for more choral madness in the weeks and months ahead.
Benjamin Stein is a tenor and theorbist. He can be contacted at: email@example.com