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A blazing choral treat

Koerner Hall
05/23/2012 -  
Francis Poulenc: Gloria
Leonard Bernstein: Chichester Psalms (*)
William Walton: Belshazzar's Feast

Shannon Mercer (Soprano), Daniel Bedrossian (Treble), John Relyea (Bass-baritone)
Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, Festival Orchestra, Noel Edison (Conductor), Matthew Otto (*) (Associate Conductor)

S. Mercer (Courtesy of the TMC)

The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir ended its 117th season with a concert featuring vibrant mid-20th-century masterworks.

Poulenc’s Gloria, dating from 1961, just two years before the composer’s death, has a piquant sonic mix that combines opulence with the acidic. At first I thought the work might be too large (with over 120 choristers) for the 1135-seat hall, but Noel Edison managed the required sharp articulation throughout. Shannon Mercer’s voice has just the right crystalline quality for the solo part.

Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms were composed in 1965 while he took a sabbatical from his duties as music director of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. The text is in Hebrew and quotes all or parts of six of the Psalms of David. The overall mood is upbeat and thoughtful.

Matthew Otto is near the end of the first year of his two-year stint as associate conductor and seems to have been given increasing responsibilities. The work is no breezy little trifle and he evinced secure authority throughout. One hears echoes of Bernstein’s “big hit” West Side Story, plus his Symphony No. #3 “Kaddish” (1964). The work's opening reminds me of the end of Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man - not that Bernstein was quoting or copying, but simply using the same pragmatic, tonal approach to musical expression.

One example of the composer’s masterful handling of large forces (not surprising as the works of Mahler were by that time hard-wired into his psyche) occurs when the orchestral and choral parts form a sonic nimbus around the treble solo who sings the 23rd psalm. Daniel Bedrossian sings this plum part - the heart of the work - with an endearingly modest and business-like manner. Otto injected the right amount of tension into the subsequent orchestral interlude.

John Relyea(© Dario Acosta)

William Walton was just 29 when he completed Belshazzar’s Feast. He and his librettist, Osbert Sitwell, were obviously trying to blast cobwebs of sanctimonious convention from the well-entrenched English oratorio tradition. The result is a noisy, vigorous work that first hearers described as “pagan”. Many first hearers also predicted it wouldn’t have much of a future - they were wrong. A great many oratorios have fallen by the wayside but not this one.

As with the Poulenc, Noel Edison displayed a strong grasp of a big work that could get unruly if unchecked, what with the augmented percussion and brass. John Relyea has a voice with true Biblical authority - almost over the top (which is wonderful).

Instead of printed texts given to the audience, they were projected on to the rear of the stage - a common device for opera that worked fine for this event.

(One note: this review was based on my attendance at the final rehearsal on May 22. There were a few moments that still needed attention but one could tell this was going to be a fine performance.)

While this was the final concert of the TMC’s own season it still has appearances with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra in June: Mahler’s mighty 8th Symphony on the 13th and 14th, then Last Night of the Proms on June 19th and 20th. And of course members of the choir will be performing during the summer at the Elora Festival.

Michael Johnson



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