On Saturday evening the Toronto Mendelssohn Singers gave a very beautiful, carefully constructed and thought provoking concert. To start with it was at the Church of the Holy Trinity which, as most Torontonians will know, is a sort of social hub servicing the spiritual and material needs of Toronto’s homeless as best they can. All the more ironic as it sits in the shadow of that iconic temple of consumer capitalism the Eaton Centre.
The programme, though played without an interval, was really in three parts. The first bookended David Lang’s Little Match Girl Passion with two excerpts from Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. The Bach is quite austere but not as much as the searingly spare quality of Lang’s depiction of a little girl freezing to death (easy enough to imagine on a filthy Toronto night) with it’s almost terminal consumption like interludes of lucidity. Dramatically there’s definitely something in common with the last scene of La traviata here. Musically, of course, it’s quite different. It’s text forward with just a few solo passages and some percussion to offset the relentlessness of the choral writing. Jean-Sébastian Vallée and his wonderful singers gave it the best possible treatment. And so the first question of the evening. Does Christ’s suffering on the cross excuse us from responsibility for those suffering among us?
The much shorter second section featured Shireen Abu-Kadher’s Diaries of the Forgotten: A Tribute to the Homeless. Composed especially for this concert it’s a spare, almost brutal setting, of texts gathered by the composer from interviews with people on the streets. It starts with a sort of cavalcade of tumbling quotes; “Stay away”, “You don’t deserve to live”, “You are nothing” and two short movements later ends with “Are we living in a broken system?”. This was followed by Samuel Barber’s rather beautiful setting of the Agnes Dei. It’s a brilliant contrast posing, of course, question two for the evening; “Do we wait for the Lamb of God to take away the sins of the world or do we do something about it as Christ preached?”. If anybody was being given Peace at this point it wasn’t me.
Matters concluded rather incongruously with an arrangement of I Love You/What a Wonderful World. Is it?
On a purely musical note I think it’s a brilliant idea to have the professional core of the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir perform as a smaller ensemble. They are so good and they proved it in, I guess I have to say, No Trumps on Saturday night.