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Prepare to have all of your hair follicles stand on end.
The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir allowed this critic the rare privilege of sitting through dress rehearsal on Tuesday night at Koerner Hall, for what promises to be a riveting evening of choral music on Wednesday.
To mark the end of his 15th season artistic director and conductor of the 117-year-old choir, Noel Edison has programmed three monuments of the 20th century choral repertoire: Francis Poulenc’s Gloria, from 1961; Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms, written four years later; and Sir William Walton’s 1931 oratorio, Belshazzar’s Feast.
To hear a full orchestra and chorus of about 150 going full-tilt within the intimate, acoustically lively Koerner Hall is thrill enough, but Edison has also brought in three wonderful soloists.
The Gloria gets soprano Shannon Mercer, who was in magnificent voice on Tuesday night. The Bernstein Psalm settings get treble Daniel Bedrossian, a veteran of the Toronto Children’s Chorus, and endowed with a strong, steady, golden voice.
Belshazzar‘s soloist is dark-oaken-voiced bass-baritone John Relyea who alone can give any listener goosebumps.
This is a fascinating programme where each piece, in its own way, stretches what a choir and orchestra can do together — while never stepping fully outside the boundaries of tonal writing. All three works are full of challenges and contrasts that keep them endlessly fascinating for the performers as well as any listener.
Poulenc’s Gloria is all sensual, slippery harmonies. Bernstein’s is alternatingly ethereal and rhythmically driven, informed by the same lively musical language that graces his other music.
The Walton piece is a big beast of a thing, setting the Book of Daniel’s dramatic capture of the Jews, Belshazzar’s big party using their sacred vessels and the king’s death, marked by pain as well as general rejoicing.
The music during the Babylonian bash is all corrupted pomp, with fanfares and marches undermined by unpleasant harmonies. The final redemption of the Jews is pure musical catharsis.
Edison, in the Poulenc and Walton, and associate conductor Matthew Otto in the Bernstein, find the right sound and feel for each piece. The choir sounds particularly vibrant and well balanced at Koerner Hall.
The Festival Orchestra, brought together specially for this concert, sounded remarkably tight.
I can’t imagine anyone leaving the venue after the concert not profoundly moved by the collective experience.
I chatted briefly with a couple of choir members at intermission. One of them, a high school teacher, said that no matter how tired he is after work, he leaves a Mendelssohn Choir rehearsal happy and energised. It’s an experience shared by all people who sing in choirs.
In the case of this concert, the audience is likely to leave on a high, too.
For more details and ticket information, click here.
In case you want to get used to having your hair blown backwards by classical music, here is Belshazzar’s Feast, in a fine recording made by conductor Sir David Willcocks, the London Bach Choir and Philharmonia Orchestra, with baritone Gwynne Howell:
The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir has announced its 2012-13 season, which begins with Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, on Nov. 14, and ends with Ludwig van Beethoven’s magnificent Missa Solemnis, on May 15. Tucked in the calendar for Feb. 9, 2013, is Gioachino Rossini’s beautifully whimsically operatic Petite Messe Solennelle — a candybox piece the choir hasn’t performed in 30 years.