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SCRUTINY | Toronto Mendelssohn Singers & Compagnie de la Citadelle Create Performance Magic

By Paula Citron on September 28, 2023

Laurence Lemieux dances as music director Jean-Sébastien Vallée conducts the Toronto Mendelssohn Singers (Photo courtesy of TMC)
Laurence Lemieux dances as music director Jean-Sébastien Vallée conducts the Toronto Mendelssohn Singers (Photo courtesy of TMC)

Toronto Mendelssohn Singers & Compagnie de la Citadelle /In Time: At the Intersection of Music & Dance, featuring music by Bach, Handel and Caroline Shaw, conducted by Jean-Sébastien Vallée, choreographed by Laurence Lemieux, Jeanne Lamon Hall, Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre, Sept. 22 & 23.

In Time: At the Intersection of Music & Dance was an inspired concert, and the standing ovation and thunderous applause that followed was deservedly heartfelt and emotional.

The 24-member Toronto Mendelssohn Singers are the professional arm of the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir. They were joined by dancers from Compagnie de la Citadelle in two of the works (Bach and Handel). The program ran without an intermission, giving the concert a wonderful sense of continuity.

There was also continuity within the works themselves. Both Bach’s Christ lag in Todesbanden (Christ lay in the snares of death) and Handel’s Dixit Dominus (The Lord Said) premiered in 1707 when the composers were 22-years-old. (Frankly, I never thought of Bach and Handel as the same age).

The Bach piece was based on an Easter hymn by Martin Luther, while Handel’s text was a setting of Psalm 110. The arc of both works was moving from darkness to light. Bach’s cantata was anchored in polyphony, but Handel, who came from that same Lutheran music tradition, wrote Dixit Dominus during his Italian sojourn. Inspired by the Italian baroque of Arcangelo Corelli, Handel’s offering was a rush of florid melodic music, as opposed to Bach’s contrapuntal complexity.

The work separating the Bach and Handel was Pulitzer Prize/Grammy winning American composer Caroline Shaw’s six-part To the Hands (2016). Her connection to the Baroque period was responding to the third cantata, Ad Manus, of Dieterich Buxtehude’s Membra Jesu Nostri (1680) which addresses Jesus in terms of his sacred body parts, specifically, his crucified hands.

In Shaw’s case, she asks the audience what is in our hands, in particular, the refugee crisis. Movement five (the Litany of the Displaced) has the choir speaking the names of various countries and their numbers of displaced people (circa 2016), from the smallest number (224), to the largest (7.6 million), and it is a sobering list indeed.

The beauty of this work, set to a string quintet, is the dichotomy between the harmonious choral part, and the more dissident orchestral part, at one point keening beneath the melodic richness of the singing. Shaw also uses techniques like wordless syllables, and quotes from Emma Lazarus’ poem on the Statue of Liberty. She also manages to avoid what I call the twelve-tone curse of contemporary composers to embrace actual melody. It is truly a magnificent work, that is eminently friendly to the ears, as well as being very moving.

Music director Jean-Sébastien Vallée conducts the Toronto Mendelssohn Singers (Photo courtesy of TMC)
Music director Jean-Sébastien Vallée conducts the Toronto Mendelssohn Singers (Photo courtesy of TMC)

Thus, the music alone would have made a worthy concert — two early and rarely performed cantatas by peerless composers, an outstanding contemporary work, the excellent choir that also produced the five soloists for the Handel, and the cracker-jack eight musicians of the instrumental ensemble, all extremely talented young players, not to forget the sensitive conducting of the TMC’s music director Jean-Sébastien Vallée, who has freshened the image of the choir since taking over in 2021.

But Vallée went one-step further for this concert, and that is linking up with former Québec native, choreographer Laurence Lemieux and her Compagnie de la Citadelle. The seven dancers included nine-year-old Santina Lawrence and Lemieux herself. You could say it was a Québec cabal responsible for the sheer pleasure of this concert.

Liturgical dance is not easy, because, once you show devotion, what else do you have? You still have to respond to the sacred core of the music, which often limits movement — unless you are a choreographer who is willing to take chances.

Lemieux solved this problem in two ways. First, she split focus. She, herself, performed the Bach as a solo, while the other six dancers infused the Handel with life. Second, she was not afraid to choreograph both dances with movement that was definitely un-liturgical, like marching, walking and running, bicycling legs in the air, lying down on the floor, including flamenco-like steps, wild thumping feet, not to mention all manner of jumps and turns.

For her solo, and costumed in a simple black dress and heavy shoes, Lemieux turned the Bach into a lament of despair, with the repeated motif of her arms held downward behind her, and body pressed forward as she ran. Did she find the light? That was not her intention, because she ended on her knees, body bowed down, and one could not help but be moved. It was a very powerful solo.

For the brighter sound of the Handel, Lemieux produced an energetic ensemble piece. The dancers, clad in various light-coloured leisure wear, performed highly spirited and robust movement, along with sensual, almost sexy gyrations, choreography that came in waves, and intriguing gestures that seemed to be revealing secrets. The inclusion of the child introduced a new generation of resilient women. (Young Santina’s ability to perform complex choreography was a marvel.)

Yes, both the Bach and Handel cantatas moved from darkness to light, but Lemieux made the Bach the darkness, and the Handel the light. Together they created the canopy that embraced the evening. Women sorrow, but women also endure, while the presence of a child was hope.


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Paula Citron
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