Toronto Mendelssohn Choir

Canada’s world-renowned and oldest-surviving mixed-voice amateur choir, the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir (TMC) was founded in 1894 by Augustus Stephen Vogt. Succeeding conductors have been Herbert A. Fricker (1917–42), Sir Ernest MacMillan (1942–57), Frederick Silvester (1957–60), Walter Susskind (1960–63), Elmer Iseler (1964–98) and Noel Edison (1997–2018). Each conductor has introduced new repertoire, both sacred and secular, including Canadian compositions and the Canadian premieres of major European works. The 137-voice choir includes a core of 20 professional singers, many of whom also participate in the Mendelssohn Singers, a 70-voice chamber choir. The choir has performed over the years at Toronto’s Massey Hall, Roy Thomson Hall and Koerner Hall. It has also made frequent appearances in the United States and has performed at such European festivals as the Edinburgh Festival, the Lucerne International Festival, the Festival Estival in Paris, the Flanders Festival and the Henry Wood Promenade Concerts (the Proms) at London’s Royal Albert Hall.

Macmillan, Ernest
Sir Ernest MacMillan (courtesy Miller Comstock).

Named after German composer Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, the choir began in 1894 as the Mendelssohn Choir of Toronto, a group of 75 voices drawn from Augustus Stephen Vogt’s Jarvis Street Baptist Church choir. Vogt’s newly formed Mendelssohn Choir succeeded the Toronto Philharmonic Society, which had ceased operations in 1894. The new choir, already grown during the first months of rehearsal to 167 voices, gave its first concert on 15 January 1895 in the new Massey Music Hall (now called Massey Hall). The repertoire for the three years under the choir’s original name was largely unaccompanied and, apart from single short pieces by Lassus, Gounod and Chaminade, contained no music by any internationally known composer except the choir’s namesake, Mendelssohn, five of whose pieces were performed.

Despite the choir’s success with critics and the public, Vogt disbanded it in 1897, only to revive it on 19 September 1900 after three years of canny long-term planning under a new constitution requiring members to re-audition annually. The reconstituted Toronto Mendelssohn Choir made its debut on 16 February 1901, again at Massey Music Hall. The choir originally limited its numbers to 200, with an annual membership fee of $1 for each female voice and $2 for each male voice.

Vogt’s wish to venture beyond the repertoire for unaccompanied choir led to associations with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Victor Herbert (1902–07), and the Theodore Thomas (Chicago) Symphony Orchestra under Frederick Stock (1908–12). The choir performed in New York’s Carnegie Hall for the first time in 1907. The choir’s only performance with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (TSO) under its conductor Frank Welsman, on 6 February 1917, was directed jointly with Vogt.

Vogt’s repertoire was relatively modest, containing many small-scale pieces. However, he did introduce a few larger works such as Mendelssohn’s Die erste Walpurgisnacht (1906), Elgar’s Caractacus (1909), Pierné’s Children's Crusade (1910), Verdi’s Requiem (1911) and most of Brahms’s choral music, including A German Requiem (1908).

Having re-established the choir on principles that would continue to serve it for years to come, Vogt gave up the leadership in 1917 because of his increasing responsibilities as principal of the Toronto Conservatory of Music (now the Royal Conservatory of Music). The Welsman TSO subsequently disbanded. As a result, Vogt’s successor, Herbert Austin Fricker, again looked south for an orchestra.

Under Herbert Fricker (1917–42)

Having known the conductor Leopold Stokowski in England, Fricker made Stokowski’s Philadelphia Orchestra his first choice. That association, which lasted from 1918 to 1925, was followed by a collaboration with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra under Fritz Reiner (1926–31). In 1926, the choir made its first recording. The choir continued its frequent performances in the United States with the first of nine appearances in Buffalo beginning in 1905. Other US cities visited between 1905 and 1954 included New York (five times), Baltimore, Boston, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Detroit and Philadelphia (twice each), and Chicago.

Presentations in Toronto with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (1932), the Hart House String Quartet (1933) and the New World Chamber Orchestra (1934) preceded a long and continuing relationship with the TSO. The outbreak of the Second World War, which depleted the choir's male sections, forced suspension of the 1939–40 season. However, a reorganized choir was able to give about two concerts each year for the war’s duration. Another setback was Fricker’s retirement, marked by a performance on 23 February 1942 of his favourite work, Bach’s Mass in B Minor.

Under Fricker, the choir gave its first performances of Vaughan Williams’s A Sea Symphony (1921), Boito’s Mefistofele in a concert version (1923), Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius (1925), Beethoven’s Missa solemnis (1927), Bach’s Mass in B Minor (1929), Handel’s Messiah (1932) and Mendelssohn’s Elijah (1933), as well as the Canadian premieres of Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast (1936) and Berlioz’s Requiem (1938). Comparing the choir’s first two conductors, Vogt and Fricker, one unidentified critic insisted that both were great, but added that under Vogt the choir had developed a “diamond-like purity of tone,” whereas under Fricker, the “tone was softer with a darker hue” (A Responsive Chord).

Under Sir Ernest MacMillan (1942–57)

The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir’s third conductor was Sir Ernest MacMillan. Like Fricker, MacMillan took over during wartime; like Vogt, he brought to the choir a choir of his own — the Toronto Conservatory of Music choir. It had been developed in the previous two decades and heard annually since 1923 in Bach’s St Matthew Passion. The merger, though a difficult one involving both choristers and administrations, was accomplished surprisingly smoothly. The choir’s first performance under MacMillan, on 29 December 1942, was of Handel’s Messiah, which thereafter became an annual Christmas presentation (see also Christmas Music). MacMillan also introduced the St Matthew Passion, which then became an annual Easter event. The two works were recorded in 1952 and 1953 respectively for Beaver Records, and were performed in 1954 at Carnegie Hall. Although the choir came to be identified with these two works, its repertoire was considerably larger; for instance, it performed Verdi’s Requiem during its 1942–43 season and again during a three-day Bach Festival in 1950 to commemorate the bicentenary of the composer’s death.

MacMillan resigned as conductor in 1957, but later served as honorary president (1962–73). The choir honoured him in 1968, on his 75th birthday, with a performance of some of his favourite pieces. The concert was broadcast on CBC TV.

Under Frederick Silvester (1957–60)

Frederick Silvester, who had been the choir’s assistant conductor since 1946, succeeded MacMillan, assuming the duties of chorusmaster and conductor but working with various orchestra conductors. In his three seasons, Silvester introduced the choir to the new choral idiom represented by Honegger’s Joan of Arc (performed under Walter Susskind in 1958) and often prepared the choir for performances conducted by Susskind with the TSO.

Under Walter Susskind (1960–63)

On his retirement in 1960, Silvester was succeeded as chorusmaster by John Sidgwick (who had been the leader of a small chamber choir drawn from the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir from 1952 to 1956) and as conductor by Susskind. This four-year partnership, which gave Toronto performances of Orff’s Carmina Burana, Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust, Bloch’s Sacred Service and Mahler’s Symphony No. 3, terminated in 1964 with Susskind’s departure from the TSO and Sidgwick’s resignation to form his own Orpheus Choir.

Under Elmer Iseler (1964–97)

In 1964, Elmer Iseler, a former TMC member (1947–49) and rehearsal assistant (1951–52), became the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir’s sixth conductor. He began his tenure by preparing the choir for the Canadian premiere (10 November 1964) of Britten’s War Requiem, conducted by Susskind, and for a performance of Messiah under Ernesto Barbini. Iseler first conducted the choir in public in the spring of 1965 in a program of Gabrieli, Monteverdi, Holst and Debussy (the choir was augmented by his own Festival Singers, and two other choirs trained by Lloyd Bradshaw).

Also in 1965, at the sesquicentennial of the Handel and Haydn Society of Boston, the choir presented a program that included: Godfrey Ridout’s The Dance; MacMillan’s arrangement of the French Canadian folk song “Blanche comme la neige;” and Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms. Performing in the company of the world’s great choirs, the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir nevertheless made a strong impression. On 31 October 1965, the Boston Globe reported, “There is something fresh, stimulating, vital, about the Iseler-Mendelssohn combination, and the result vocally and musically is remarkable. Diction is superb. Chords and polyphonic textures are always in perfect balance.”

The choir travelled to Montreal for Canada’s centennial celebrations on 1 July 1967 at the Place des Arts and a concert at Expo 67. Also in 1967, it commissioned and premiered John Beckwith’s Place of Meeting.

Like Vogt and MacMillan before him, Iseler brought to the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir a choir of his own. The Festival Singers became the professional nucleus of the larger choir in 1968. The Bach-Elgar Choir of Hamilton and John Sidgwick’s Orpheus Choir were enlisted for a performance of Berlioz’s Requiem on the 100th anniversary (1969) of the composer’s death. The Mendelssohn Choir’s own 75th anniversary season (1969–70) was marked by its first presentation of Handel's Israel in Egypt; and was followed in 1971 by the Canadian premiere of Penderecki’s St Luke Passion (the latter was so successful that it was repeated in 1972).

A tour of Europe, first planned for 1915 and postponed because of the outbreak of the First World War, was finally undertaken in August 1972. With Canadian Brass, the soprano Roxolana Roslak and the organist Ruth Watson Henderson, the choir performed in England, Paris and Lucerne. It was lauded for “the well-trained voices united to form a firm organic unit in which the clever structuring never detracted from the life and fervour of the singing” (Der Bund, 20 August 1972), and for being “a firm, clean ensemble with remarkably strong male parts and light flexible articulation” (Financial Times, 24 August 1972). Also in 1972, the annual Messiah performances in Toronto included one sing-along performance. The audience participation proved popular; the sing-along was repeated annually until 1976, and occasionally thereafter.

In 1973, the Mendelssohn 100-voice choir within a choir, incorporating the Festival Singers, was formed to facilitate CBC broadcasts and performances in smaller venues, such as in Barrie and Orillia, and at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake. The full choir, numbering about 170, performed during the 1974–75 season with the National Arts Centre Orchestra and the Hamilton Philharmonic; and appeared with Canadian Brass at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, on 25 October 1975.

Olympic Summer Games in Montreal, the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir participated with the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal under Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos in the Solemn Opening Session at Place des Arts on 13 July, and in an arts and culture program on 15 July under Iseler (see also Music at the Olympics). The choir gave the Canadian premiere of Penderecki’s Magnificat in 1977. It performed at the Kennedy Center in 1978 and made its debut at the Edinburgh Festival in 1980 during a tour of Great Britain and Belgium.

The choir commissioned R. Murray Schafer’s Sun, which it premiered at the 1982 opening of Roy Thomson Hall. It participated with the TSO in the Canadian premiere of Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 in 1983; and in 1984 gave two programs with the TSO at Carnegie Hall, performing Elgar’s The Kingdom, Copland’s In the Beginning, Schafer’s Sun and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. In 1986, the choir recorded an acclaimed version of Messiah with the TSO under Sir Andrew Davis, which earned the choir its first Juno Award nomination in 1989. That same year, the choir performed Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Iseler’s leadership, and Michael Ridout became the manager (succeeding Patricia Tompkins, who had held that position since 1967).

In the tradition established by Vogt, the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir in the 1990s and afterwards continued to audition its members annually, to charge an annual membership fee of $55 (the same for both female and male voices), and to draw its programs from two main sources: major works with orchestra; and hymns of the Christian church or short unaccompanied works as disparate as Healey Willan’s An Apostrophe to the Heavenly Hosts and Schafer's Epitaph for Moonlight.

In 1992, the choir recorded a Christmas collection, which included its 1986 recording of Messiah. In 1993, under the direction of American composer John Williams, the choir performed the choral passages for the soundtrack of Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-winning film Schindler’s List (1993). That same year, the choir participated in the International Choral Festival in Toronto, premiering Robertson Davies and Derek Holman’s Jezebel. The choir celebrated its 100th season in 1994, performing such works as Harry Somers’s Gloria and Holman’s The Abbot of Augers from Tapestry, and reissuing highlights of MacMillan’s 1952 recording.

In 1995, the choir presented Holman’s Songs of Sion and received the $10,000 Lieutenant Governor’s Award for the Arts from the Ontario Arts Foundation. In 1997, the choir presented Canadian Tapestry, arranged by Howard Cable with Pierre Berton as narrator, and accompanied by the Hannaford Street Silver Band and the Mendelssohn Youth Choir. The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir was honoured with the Roy Thomson Hall Award in 1996 after a premier performance of Raymond Luedeke’s A Prayer for the Earth. In 1998, the choir received a second Juno Award nomination for its recording of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 4.

Under Noel Edison (1997–2018)

Iseler’s contract, somewhat controversially, was not renewed in 1997. Noel Edison took over as interim conductor of the choir and then as conductor in 1999. His Elora Festival Singers became the choir’s professional core. Under Edison’s leadership, the 70-voice Mendelssohn Singers were formed in 2002 in order to both expand the choir’s repertoire and allow it to perform in smaller venues.

In 2001, the choir performed Orff’s Carmina Burana, in a joint performance of 300 voices, which included the Kitchener-Waterloo Philharmonic Choir accompanied by the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony Orchestra. In 2002, it appeared live on CBC TV’s national broadcast of the Queen’s Gala Performance at Roy Thomson Hall. In 2003, the choir toured Vienna, Salzburg and Prague before returning to Toronto for its 110th anniversary celebrations at Massey Hall. In 2010, the choir performed at the Cultural Olympiad in connection with the Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver, and in 2012 it performed with Barbra Streisand at Toronto’s Air Canada Centre. In 2017, the choir’s recording of Handel’s Messiah, made with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra at Roy Thomson Hall in December 2015, received a Juno Award nomination for Classical Album of the Year and a 2018 Grammy Award nomination for Best Choral Performance.

In March 2018, amid the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment, Edison was placed on a “personal leave of absence” from his roles with both the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir and the Elora Festival Singers after several allegations of sexual misconduct were brought to the attention of the boards of both organizations. A third-party group was hired to investigate the allegations against Edison, which CBC News reported “were brought forth by a number of male complainants and are said to have occurred over a number of years.” The Mendelssohn Choir cancelled several concerts in the wake of the allegations while it sought a replacement conductor.

Following the investigation into the allegations, Edison was fired from his roles with the Elora Festival and the Elora Festival Singers on 21 April 2018. He resigned from his position with the Mendelssohn Choir on 25 April. The Mendelssohn Choir then announced that it was introducing an initiative called “Creating a Safe Creative Space,” which the Globe and Mail reported would involve “a review of [the choir’s] anti-harassment policies and chorister guidelines.”

Education and Outreach Programs

The Toronto Mendelssohn Youth Choir (a 60- to 70-voice mixed group aged 14 to 19) was founded by the senior organization in 1977. Under the leadership of Gerald Fagan, it quickly established a pattern of presenting annual Christmas and spring concerts. In 1979, Robert Cooper replaced Fagan and the choir’s Christmas concert that year was given jointly with the Toronto Symphony Youth Orchestra; John Rutter was the guest conductor for the 1988 and 1990 Christmas concerts. The Toronto Mendelssohn Youth Choir made three recordings: Christmas with Rutter; Berlioz’s Requiem with the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir; and a CBC recording of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol.

In 2008, the Youth Choir was replaced with the TMC Apprentice Program. Experienced choristers aged 17 to 22 years of age are mentored by an adult TMC chorister, receive four voice coaching sessions and join the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir for concerts, including performances with the TSO. The TMC also covers the apprentice’s cost of joining the choir. In 2010, the choir founded an annual Choral Conductors’ Symposium for emerging conductors, led by Noel Edison. The following year saw the creation of an Associate Conductor position. The choir also features Singsation Saturdays, a choral workshop program for amateur singers.

A version of this entry originally appeared in the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada.

Awards

Lieutenant Governor’s Award for the Arts, Ontario Arts Foundation (1995)


Further Reading

  • Ocean G. Smith, comp., The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir: A History 1894–1948 (Toronto, 1948).

    Maud McLean and Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, A Responsive Chord: The Story of The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir 1894–1969 (Toronto, 1969).

    Maud McLean, “Contemporary Works Contribute to Mendelssohn Choir's Fame,” MSc vol. 273 (SeptemberOctober 1973).

    Donald Jones, “Choirmaster's Dream Led to Musical Fame for Toronto,” Toronto Star, 31 December 1976 and “The Choir That Wouldn't Die,” Toronto Star, 22 December 1990.

    John Kraglund, “Mendelssohn Choir Forms Youth Branch,” Toronto Globe and Mail, 20 December 1977 and “Mendelssohn Choir Bids Adieu to Its Musical Home of 87 Years,” Toronto Globe and Mail, 17 April 1982.

    John B. Withrow, "The Mendelssohn Choir: A History of Excellence," Bravo (MayJune 1993).

    Jack Brickenden, "A Century of Celebrated Singing," Classical Music Magazine vol. 17, no. 2 (AprilMay 1994).

    Christopher Laudon, "Volunteers Honour Mendelssohn Choir with RTH Award," Performance vol. 6 (JulyAugust 1996).

    Metropolitan Toronto Music Library, vertical files. Bound programs (18951952).

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