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SCRUTINY | Toronto Mendelssohn Singers’ Little Match Girl Passion An Intensely Moving Experience

By Joseph So on March 22, 2023

Conductor Jean-Sébastien Vallée and the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir (Photo courtesy of TMC)
Conductor Jean-Sébastien Vallée and the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir (Photo courtesy of TMC)

Toronto classical music lovers found their cup truly runneth over this past week, given the veritable feast of terrific concert offerings in our city. The musical omnivore that I am, I attended one every day — except on Saturday, when I managed to squeeze in two.

My Saturday treats began with the Metropolitan Opera’s Live in HD Lohengrin, which took up the whole afternoon. Then for a complete change of pace, I dashed my way to the Church of the Holy Trinity for something very special, the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir’s Little Match Girl Passion.

The premiere choral group in Canada, any concert given by the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir is a pleasure. It was particularly true for this event: a concert with a message, a musical vigil designed to draw attention to the plight of the hungry and the homeless in our city. Partnering with the Holy Trinity Church and Unity Kitchen, this TMC through this concert wants to raise our awareness, inspire and spur us into action, to take care of our fellow, less privileged members of our society.

The 90-minute concert, given without an intermission, featured works that spans several centuries, from selections of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion all the way to creations of the 21st Century, including a new commission, Dairies of the Forgotten: A Tribute to the Homeless, by TMC’s Composer in Residence, Dr. Shireen Abu-Khader. The centrepiece of the evening was David Lang’s Little Match Girl Passion.

Premiered in 2007, American composer David Lang based his Passion on the very well-known and incredibly touching Hans Christian Andersen story of a poor little girl sent by her abusive father to sell matches on the street corner. Passersby ignore her. The girl lights the matches to keep warm. Weak from hunger and from the freezing cold, she sees a vision of her dead grandmother, the only person in the family who loved her. As the little girl succumbs to the elements, her soul joins her grandmother in heaven.

Lang’s work, scored for a chamber choir, bears a clear lineage in its musical structure — and its spirit — to Bach’s St Matthew Passion (1727). In this performance, it was sandwiched between choral selections of the St. Matthew. In the beautiful acoustics of the Holy Trinity Church, the sound of the Toronto Mendelssohn Singers was breathtaking.
The text, written by Lang, is quite plain and perfectly in harmony with the simplicity of the haunting score. Completely tonal and economical in its musical language, it makes the simplicity and the suffering of the central character all the more poignant. At 35 minutes, it’s not long, but it packs an emotional wallop; once heard, it will stay with the listener for a long time. I look forward to experiencing it again.

The other major work was the new commission, Diaries of the Forgotten. The composer Dr. Shireen Abu Khader spoke with homeless people about their sufferings, drawing from their comments to form the sung text. Dr. Abu Khader questions whether we’re living in a broken society that is Canada, where the disadvantaged fall through the cracks. The work does not supply an answer — rather, the answer rests in each of our hearts.

In addition to these two major works and snippets of the St. Matthew on the program, we also got the glorious Agnus Dei by Samuel Barber, surely one of the most exquisite short choral works ever penned, here peerlessly performed by the superb Mendelssohn Singers. TMC Conductor Jean-Sébastien Vallée skilfully drew such resplendent sounds from the singers that I had goose pimples just sitting in the audience. Instrumental works and large-scale operas are great, but nothing replaces the plaintive choral sound that truly touches the heart.

I knew beforehand that audience members were invited to bring gently used clothing to the concert, where staff and volunteers of Holy Trinity were there to collect the donations. Sadly, I admit in my haste I completely forgot. Afterwards, as I was braving the bitter cold and fierce wind to walk home, I couldn’t help but be struck by the power and the beauty of music, with its ability to amuse and entertain to be sure, but also to persuade, to inspire, to bring forth pressing issues to our consciousness, and ultimately to spur us into action.

Living in a wealthy, first-world country like Canada, we often forget that there are people in our society that are disadvantaged, people who suffer from mental illness, hunger and privations. As I walked past the Toronto Homeless Memorial near the Church, I recall in the program notes that TMC’s Maestro Vallée is quoted as saying that this concert serves to “use music to draw attention to this struggle in our city…it is a call to action.” Bravo!


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Joseph So
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