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SCRUTINY | Toronto Mendelssohn Choir At its Estimable Best In Verdi Requiem

By Joseph So on April 30, 2024

L-R (clockwise): Conductor Jean-Sébastien Vallée; Rose Naggar-Tremblay, Andrew Haji, Teiya Kasahara, Geoffrey Sirett (Photos courtesy of The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir)

Verdi: Messa da Requiem / Teiya Kasahara, sop., Rose Naggar-Tremblay, mezz., Andrew Haji, ten., Geoffrey Sirett, bar. / Toronto Mendelssohn Choir; Members of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra; Jean-Sébastien Vallée, conductor / George Weston Recital Hall, April 27, 2024. Repeats April 30 at Koerner Hall; tickets here.

The regular 2023-24 season of the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir drew to a glorious close with the first of two performances of the Verdi Requiem last Sunday. Special Note: For those who can’t wait until next season, there’s a free community concert (registration required) that’s part of TMC’s 15th annual Choral Conducting Symposium, where six young conductors will take turns on the podium, after completing a series of masterclasses under the leadership of TMC’s Conductor Jean-Sébastien Vallée (more information here).

Now back to the subject at hand. It’s sometimes said that the Verdi Requiem is an opera in disguise. For sure it’s the most operatic of all oratorios I can think of, especially when one compares it to the quiet and introspective German Requiem by Brahms. Both are magnificent and inspired, both spiritually uplifting each in its own way.

I attended the performance at the George Weston Recital Hall in North York. It’s a small auditorium that seats 1,036 and endowed with great acoustics, a perfect space for recitals. With a mid-size orchestra and 200 strong choir plus four big-voiced soloists, the sound coming from the stage and choir loft was thrilling, even overwhelming, and I mean it as a compliment.

From the extraordinarily hushed opening to the galvanizing fortissimos of Dies Irae to the sublime Libera Me, it was a sonic journey destined for the memory bank. TMC conductor Jean-Sébastien Vallée coaxed the most exquisite sounds from the choir, the trademark TMC sound that makes this choir so special.

The pick-up orchestra, made up mostly of seasoned TSO musicians, was very good if not perfect. Maestro Vallée’s tempo was on the slow side. A typical Verdi Requiem performance should be approximately 80 minutes. The OCD in me made me time it with my watch. From the first down beat to the conclusion, this performance was about one hour and 29 minutes.

Joining the great Mendelssohn Choir was a very fine quartet of Canadian soloists — soprano Teiya Kasahara, mezzo Rose Naggar-Tremblay, tenor Andrew Haji, and baritone Geoffrey Sirett. While I have heard all of them previously, the voice of the tenor Haji is the most familiar to me. His bright, plangent tenor, with its ease of production, and his innate musicality made his “Ingemisco” a real pleasure.

Also fine was Geoffrey Sirett, whom I last heard in the winner’s concert of the Norcop Prize a few years ago. While his voice isn’t the booming sound of a basso profundo, it’s a quality sound, heard to good effect in “Mors stupebit.” This was followed immediately by the “Liber scriptus” of mezzo Naggar-Tremblay, whose low mezzo has the perfect tonal weight and timbre for this work. The mezzo has a lot to sing, and she sang it all beautifully, a very occasional under-pitched high note notwithstanding.

The surprise for me was soprano Teiya Kasahara, who has transitioned from a high coloratura — they were a notable Queen of the Night — to Verdi soprano. “Libera Me” is not for the faint of heart, but they are a fearless artist. They sang unconventionally, with very little vibrato, almost straight tone, an unusual timbre that grew on me. Kudos to them for singing with the requisite long breath line, and for observing all the dynamics markings, including the pianissimo high B flat at the end. I look forward to hearing Teiya again in the future.

There you have it, a superlative end to the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir’s 2023-24 season. I am speaking a little too soon! There’s still time to catch a second performance of the Verdi Requiem at Koerner Hall on Tuesday, April 30.

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Joseph So
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