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INTERVIEW | TMC Artistic Director Jean-Sébastien Vallée On Verdi’s Requiem & The Last Three Years

By Anya Wassenberg on April 11, 2024

Toronto Mendelssohn Choir Conductor & Artistic Director Jean-Sébastien Vallée (Photo: Dahlia Katz)
Toronto Mendelssohn Choir Conductor & Artistic Director Jean-Sébastien Vallée (Photo: Dahlia Katz)

“The past three years have been really busy with the choir,” says Toronto Mendelssohn Choir Artistic Director Jean-Sébastien Vallée.

It’s a bit of an understatement.

LvT last caught up with Jean-Sébastien when he first came to Toronto to conduct and lead TMC in a Q&A. It was 2021, with the city’s music scene just beginning to emerge from the lockdowns. He’d described his goals for the choir as pursuing “musical excellence […] rooted in accessible, inclusive and diverse artistic initiatives”.

Building TMC/TMS After The Pandemic

“We all came with big dreams and big goals, and most of them came to life.”

The COVID pandemic and its lockdowns posed challenges both for the organization and its audiences, who were slow to come back to live performances. Still, this year, there’s a renewed spirit of optimism after such a long period of doubt.

“But I really feel that this past season, this one — we’re reaching the goals that I started with.”

One of his major initiatives was the establishment of the Toronto Mendelssohn Singers, a smaller group of 24 professional singers who are part of the larger Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, but also perform separately, as in the recent performance of Schubert’s Winterreise. It allows him more creative room to program artistically challenging and innovative works.

“We had […] a good first year,” he says of the success of TMS. He believes that audiences and critics now see what the professional ensemble brings to the table. “To establish — it takes some time.”

The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir (Photo: Brian Summers)
The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir (Photo: Brian Summers)

Verdi’s Requiem

The last time TMC performed Verdi’s Requiem was during the 2014/15 season. On April 27, it will be performed with the full 160-voice Choir, along with members of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, and soloists tenor Andrew Haji, soprano Teiya Kasahara 笠原 貞野, mezzo-soprano Rose Naggar-Tremblay, and baritone Geoffrey Sirett.

There are several Requiems in the classical music canon, but there is a distinctive quality about Verdi’s.

“The quality of that piece comes from the fact that Verdi is reflecting on death […] but he’s doing that reflection through life,” says Vallée. The pieces is full of fear and anguish, emotions that are very human.

“It’s full of life, and what makes life,” he says. “It comes after life, but is part of life.”

It’s a work that has wormed its way into pop culture via use in movies and television scenes. “The main movement, the one that most people know even without knowing is the Dies irae.” The Dies irae is the Day of Wrath, when souls receive their judgment. “It’s great to rehearse,” he says. “It happens three times in the Requiem. For most composers, they have one movement of this,” he explains of the theme’s three iterations, “it’s quite dramatic.”

Next Season…

TMC will be announcing their lineup for the 2024/25 season just before the Verdi Requiem concert on April 27. He’s looking forward to building more momentum now that audiences have come back.

“This is my third season,” he notes. “We can establish it as the new normal.” The choir will continue to present a combination of masterworks mixed with new pieces, and audiences can expect more of the partnerships that create innovative performances, such as last fall’s show with Compagnie de la Citadelle dance.

He can’t reveal much about the season in advance, other than hinting at the season’s significance. “I am looking forward to some things,” he says, “it’s our 130th season. It’s a special milestone. We really look forward to that.”

One of the events that will mark next season will be the release of a double CD on the ATMA label that is anticipated for November. It will be called Remember — 130 years of Canadian Choral Music, and will include some commissions dating back to the very beginnings of the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir in 1895.

It’s the first TMC recording in several years, and the first that will spotlight only Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, without orchestral accompaniment.

“This is really our album and our project.”

  • Find more information, and tickets, for the April 27 performance of Verdi’s Requiem by TMC and members of the TSO [HERE].

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