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Toronto Mendelssohn Choir goes big and bold for Mozart

The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir in action


The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir

  • Noel Edison, conductor
  • At Koerner Hall in Toronto on Wednesday

Mozart is one of those composers musicians look to for box-office safety. And Salzburg's famous son didn't let down the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir (TMC) on Wednesday night: the choir's all-Mozart program filled the Royal Conservatory's Koerner Hall to the rafters.

TMC music director Noel Edison made it very clear from the start what his approach to Mozart was all about: From the opening of Ave Verum Corpus, he favoured a big, lush sound from his 150-plus singers and orchestra. (Of course, a choir of this size isn't very authentic for Mozart - and purists are directed to Tafelmusik, just a few stoplights west on Bloor Street.)

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When singing as a large massed force, the choir was impressive. All sections were strong and secure, and Edison achieved a well-blended sound. His ideas about musical structure were carefully thought-out and executed - and if his baton style was very broad at times, I'm sure he had his reasons.

However, in the four movements Edison selected from Mozart's Vesperae Solennes de Confessore (settings of Psalms 112, 113 and 117, plus the Magnificat), only a portion of the choir was used. Due to space limitations, about half the TMC was on stage, with the other half up in the seats behind the stage. It was the choristers on stage who sang in this work - and this led to an unfortunate loss of critical mass. If Edison's purpose was to achieve greater clarity in the score's busy and complex passages, he was not always successful.

A vocal quartet drawn from the choir served adequately as soloists. However, in Psalm 117, Laudate Dominum, another singer suddenly appeared on stage, and things started to get interesting. She was Gillian Keith, whose lyric soprano voice wafted prettily over the choir and orchestra. Her appearance was an enticing foretaste of things to come.

Happily, the full choir was once again deployed, to good effect, for Splendente Te, Deus. This bold, dramatic motet was a fine conclusion to the first half of the program.

The second half was entirely taken up by the Mass in C Minor. Like Mozart's Requiem, the "Great Mass" (as it's sometimes called) was left unfinished by the composer. While there have been attempts made by various musicians to finish the piece, Edison chose to perform only the portions that were left in a complete state. It doesn't make much liturgical sense - the crucifixion and resurrection are simply omitted - but musically speaking, it works.

The opening Kyrie movement was well shaped, with effective emphasis on Mozart's juicier chords. And the following Gloria brought Keith back to the stage for a more extended appearance.

Her performance became ever more remarkable as the work progressed. Her lengthy coloratura solo in the Credo was both delightful and astounding as she leapt with agility through every vocal hoop in her path. (It's likely that Mozart wrote the part for his wife, Constanze, to sing - and evidently she was no slouch.) Keith's voice is perfectly suited to this repertoire, and to this hall.

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Mezzo-soprano soloist Anita Krause did not have as large a part to sing in the mass. But she sang it nicely, with a plummy and endearing warmth, blending beautifully with Keith in their duet. Even smaller parts went to the male soloists: Tenor Christopher Mayell displayed a youthful tenor voice; and Thomas Goertz was a reliable bass-baritone.

Owing to its incomplete state, the Mass in C Minor ended with a Benedictus movement (which would ordinarily be the second-to-last movement of a mass). Despite this truncation, Edison and his musical forces brought the work to a satisfying conclusion.

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