Toronto Mendelssohn Choir Does Justice To Namesake’s Final Oratorio

The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir (Photo: Taylor Long)

Toronto Mendelssohn Choir/Elijah, composed by Felix Mendelssohn, libretto by Julius Schubring, English translation by William Bartholomew, orchestration by Joachim Linckelmann, conducted by Jean-Sébastien Vallée, with the University of Toronto MacMillan Singers and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Roy Thomson Hall, Nov. 2.

Is there anything grander in a concert hall than a big chorus, a big orchestra, and big piece of music?

The huge romantic sweep of Mendelssohn’s final oratorio Elijah (1846) filled Roy Thomson Hall to the rafters, except you couldn’t make out one word that was being sung. It was a classic case of splendid music-making rendered as diction as mush. The concert might as well have been sung in German rather than William Bartholomew’s English translation of Julius Schubring’s libretto.

A number of people around me did not come back after intermission, and I wonder if it was because they didn’t know what was going on? The one-page mini program gave us the breakdown of the arias, recitatives and choruses, and who was singing, but perhaps a brief synopsis of the prophet’s story might have been in good order. At any rate, there was the music and the voices to listen to if you pretended the singing was in a foreign language.

The oratorio goes back to the Old Testament to feature events from the life of the prophet Elijah, taken mostly from Kings 1 and 2. Musicologists have noted that the oratorio is filled with operatic overtones, particularly the role of Elijah, and in fact, several have stated that the work is, in fact, the opera that Mendelssohn never wrote. Tragically, the composer died in 1847 at the age of 38, just a year after Elijah premiered at the Birmingham Festival, so we will never know the works he still had in him.

For this concert, the role of Elijah was performed by guest baritone Russell Braun, and as he continues to add years to his career, his voice increases in majesty. From a light, youthful baritone, he has progressed to gravitas. Braun has also found more expression, and his Elijah was dramatic and passionate. In fact, his lament asking God to take his life, that he had had enough, was heart-rending.

The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir (Photo: Taylor Long)
The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir (Photo: Taylor Long)

The original oratorio was scored for eight soloists, two each of soprano, alto, tenor and bass, but performance custom usually has four soloists including the role of Elijah. Toronto Mendelssohn Choir director, Jean-Sébastien Vallée, who conducted the concert, went back to the original score, and drew these roles from the Toronto Mendelssohn Singers, the professional core of the TMC, and what glorious voices they were. The TMS is clearly a collection of talented soloists.

I should cite tenor Marcel d’Entremont as a first among equals for his commanding voice and near perfect diction. His were the only sung passages in which you could clearly hear the words. His colleagues from the TMS included sopranos Lesley Emma Bouza and Lindsay McIntyre, mezzo-sopranos Julia Barber and Rebecca Claborn, tenor Jacob Abrahamse, and bass Neil Aronoff. All sang with feeling and commitment.

Along the way, Vallée was able to add in choir members soprano Emily Parker and mezzo-sopranos Kirsten Fielding, and Jessica Wright to perform the lovely a cappella trio “Lift thine eyes to the mountains”. Bass Kieran Kane and tenor Nicholas Nicolaidis joined in on the Double Quartet from Part 1, and Christina Baksay from the Toronto Children’s Chorus sang the role of the Youth. In all, excluding Braun, the concert featured 13 soloists, which added to the richness of the evening.

Vallée, it turns out, is an impressive conductor who does great service for the composer. The oratorio is overflowing in drama, and Vallée whipped the Toronto Symphony and his singers to a frenzy when necessary, but also presented the lyrical passages with consummate grace. In fact, one of the high points of this concert was the contrast Vallée found within the music, and always within the idiom of Mendelssohn’s lush romanticism.

The devil is in the details, and that is what Vallée gave us — a beautifully detailed reading of the score. From an orchestral point of view, the concert was most satisfying.

The two choirs singing together, the TMC and the U of T MacMillan Singers, were also right on form. There were no fuzzy entrances, and the singers were able to stop on a dime. They were completely disciplined. Clearly Vallée had worked with them carefully, because passages were nuanced. The joint choir put out much more than a wall of sound.

As always, the TSO was its professional self, yet the players seemed to be very involved in the music-making. Their performance was more than mail in the sound. Several players rendered beautiful solos (cello, oboe) to add to the melancholy of the moment. In fact, the entire orchestra was a dynamic partner in the performance.

Maestro Vallée had interesting choreography. The TMS were behind the orchestra on stage, with the rest of the two choirs above in the loft. Sometimes the soloists came to sing in front of the orchestra, and sometimes the voices came from behind, depending on the effect Vallée wanted. He also had the soloists react to each other, particularly Braun, who faced those singing with him, but also acknowledged the choir. This staging element added a degree of poignancy to the concert, and made the music a more immediate experience.

In short, well sung and well played, but needs major work on diction.

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Paula Citron
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