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Ludwig Van
Toronto Montreal

Concert review: Toronto Mendelssohn Choir and guests make magic of Benjamin Britten cantatas

By John Terauds on November 19, 2013

Narrator Diego matamoros, soloists Lesley Bouza and Colin Ainsworth, the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir and orchestra perform at the Tuesday-night dress rehearsal at Yorkminster Park Baptist Church (John terauds iPhone photo).
Narrator Diego Matamoros, soloists Lesley Bouza and Colin Ainsworth, the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir and orchestra with conductor Noel Edison rehearse Benjamin Britten’s The Company of Heaven aat Yorkminster Park Baptist Church (John Terauds iPhone photo).

Here’s a suggestion: If you go to one choral concert other than Messiah this season, make it the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir’s brilliant tribute to Benjamin Britten on Wednesday evening.

John Terauds

John Terauds, Editor-Emeritus of Ludwig van Toronto, is currently a Divinity student at the University of Toronto and a church music director. He joined the Toronto Star in 1988, was the classical music critic from 2005 to 2012, and continues as a freelance critic for the paper. He is the co-author of Roy Thomson Hall: A Portrait, a book written with Toronto Star Colleague, William Littler.

Tuesday night’s dress rehearsal at Yorkminster Park Baptist Church revealed not only a compelling, deeply affecting programme, but wonderful performances from the Mendelssohn Choir, the Toronto Children’s Chorus, orchestra, pianists, organist and, last but far from least, soloists tenor Colin Ainsworth and soprano Leslie Bouza.

Mendelssohn Choir music director Noel Edison chose two cantatas to showcase the composer’s genius for writing potent music drama for all ages and abilities: The Company of Heaven, created for BBC Radio in 1937, and Saint Nicolas, commissioned for the centennial of Lancing College but premiered at Aldeburgh in 1948.

Because both cantatas are written in English, it’s much easier to connect with their Christian content than when listening to Latin — which can be a plus or a minus, depending on your own views on religion.

But taken in a broader, pan-spiritual context, both works squarely address the struggles between good and evil and of finding the strength to carry on in the face of adversity which are universal to the human condition.

While The Company of Heaven is ostensibly about St Michael the Archangel and our relationship with the spirits of the hereafter, and Saint Nicolas is about an early Christian martyr (bastardized through the twists of passing centuries and cultural migration into Santa Claus), the message, like in so much of the sacred music of J.S. Bach, is deeply personal.

And Britten, although writing in a modern idiom, was just as adept as Bach at evoking deep emotion in abstract music.

Ainsworth’s solos are a particular highlight in this programme. His years of stage experience have given him the tools to make the most out of every phrase and accent. His voice is in glorious form, filling the cavernous Yorkminster Park church with ease.

Lesley Bouza’s warm, rich voice has become more beautiful every time I hear her sing.

The choirs – both adult and children’s – are strong, confident and beautifully polished. The small orchestra, paired with the church’s big pipe organ with Michael Bloss at the console, is flexible and balanced.

Saint Nicolas is the more winsome of the two cantatas, while the choppier, more episodic Company of Heaven is the more varied showcase of Britten’s early writing.

Thanks to Soulpepper Theatre actor Diego Matamoros narrating expertly into the church’s not-quite-current audio system, we can even get a feel of what that first radio broadcast must have sounded like nearly three generations ago.

Despite the best efforts of all the artists putting forward their musical offerings in honour of the 100th anniversary of Britten’s birth on Friday, and despite the composer even spending time in Toronto, his music remains a reluctant draw for many of this city’s art music fans.

But there’s a reason why Britten has such devoted fans among musicians and listeners around the world, and this concert is a particularly fine way to experience why this is so.

The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir is offering two tickets for the price of one for Wednesday night’s concert. But these seats would still be a bargain at twice the price.

You’ll find all the concert details here.

John Terauds

John Terauds

John Terauds, Editor-Emeritus of Ludwig van Toronto, is currently a Divinity student at the University of Toronto and a church music director. He joined the Toronto Star in 1988, was the classical music critic from 2005 to 2012, and continues as a freelance critic for the paper. He is the co-author of Roy Thomson Hall: A Portrait, a book written with Toronto Star Colleague, William Littler.
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