Review | Toronto Mendelssohn Choir Opens New Season in Grand Style with Mendelssohn’s Elijah

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Mendelssohn: Elijah / Russell Braun, baritone; TMC Soloists; Toronto Mendelssohn Choir; University of Toronto MacMillan Singers; Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Jean Sébastien Vallée, conductor. Roy Thomson Hall, November 2, 2022.

Following the intimate, a cappella opening show given by the Toronto Mendelssohn Singers in Trinity St. Paul’s Centre a month ago, the full Toronto Mendelssohn Choir launched its new season in grand style last evening, with an old favourite – Mendelssohn’s Elijah. Together with the University of Toronto’s MacMillan Singers and the chamber version of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, there were well over 160 musicians on the Roy Thomson Hall stage and the choir loft. It was indeed a grand night of music-making.

When it comes to oratorios, Elijah can take pride of place as being one of the favourites. It was well received in its Birmingham premiere in 1846 and in London the following year, both sung in English. A German translation was given two years later in Leipzig. Sadly, Mendelssohn had already passed away from a cerebral hemorrhage, by the time of the German premiere. Elijah remains popular in English speaking countries ever since, though it trails far behind Messiah, the Mozart and Verdi Requiems, as well as the St. Matthew Passion in frequency of performances.

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Stylistically, Elijah shows the strong influence of Bach and Handel, two composers Mendelssohn admired, even though the work was much later, in the mid 19th Century, the time of European Romanticism. Elijah calls for large choral forces, four soloists singing multiple roles, or as many as twelve, as in the performance last evening. Mendelssohn scored it for a full symphony orchestra, so it was curious – and a surprise – that it was a reduced, chamber version, with orchestration not by Mendelssohn but by Joachim Linckelmann.

Attendance last evening was good, given the lingering effects of the Pandemic. The side sections of the balcony were closed and there were some empty seats on the main floor. But it was a very enthusiastic audience, very attentive – you could hear a pin drop – well behaved with no extraneous applause, and very appreciative of what they witnessed. It was particularly gratifying to see so many young people there – after all, they are the future of the classical music public!

Guest soloist baritone Russell Braun was an outstanding Elijah, singing this crucial role with heartfelt sincerity, expressivity and great attention to musical and textual nuances. Now 57 and having already enjoyed a 30-year career, his voice is still in good shape, even if it takes him a touch longer to warm up. His performance last evening was one for the memory bank.

Of the other soloists, all drawn from within the TMC, I was impressed by the clarion tenor of Marcel d’Entremont (Obadiah). I recall his excellent Prophet Nathan in Bas Sheve, the Yiddish opera. Last evening, his aria “If with all your hearts” was a pleasure. Also very fine was soprano Lesley Emma Bouza in her solos and duets. Some years ago, I wrote in a review that the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir was a “national treasure,” no hyperbole intended. To my ears, TMC proved once again last evening that it’s Canada’s finest.

I would be less than truthful if I don’t point out a problem. The reduced TSO was no match for the sheer volume of choral sound. A combined TMC and MacMillan Singers numbers around 140. The sounds they made, while thrilling, tended to overwhelm the small orchestra, creating an imbalance, even with excellent playing under conductor Jean-Sébastien Vallée. In the final analysis, I will not be a curmudgeon and complain, as it was enjoyable just the same. The audience agreed with me, as they were very appreciative and gave the artists a standing ovation and vociferous applause.

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